Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia vote: first reactions

Artur Mas was suitably elated at the turnout, while Mariano Rajoy continues to denounce the "referendum" and its leaders.

Fernando Betancor
10 November 2014

Early Sunday morning in Barcelona is not a busy time. A few cafés are open, but streets have little traffic and few pedestrians are out. As I left the hotel and walked along Carrer d’Aragó this impression was confirmed: folks were still waking up.

But when I turned the corner to visit my first polling station, the illusion was dispersed: there was a line of people stretching around the block to enter the primary school where voting was taking place. In front of the entrance, volunteers had set up a table and were checking people’s IDs to ensure that they were in the right place. In order to prevent fraudulent votes, citizens were required to show their DNI, the national identity card, and their home address on the DNI determined where they could vote.


The atmosphere was friendly; there was a great deal of lively banter at the volunteers’ table, and along the line people were conversing with those next to them. The line was a cross-section of a typical Catalan neighborhood: families bringing their kids, lots of seniors and some younger men and women. People would move aside and let the more elderly go ahead of them; and there were plenty of older persons in wheelchairs or walkers moving very slowly, but very determinedly. Everything was as peaceful and ordered as the Catalans had said it would be. There were no demonstrations, picketing or confrontations; just people lining up to vote.

The scene was repeated at the other polling stations I visited: Pau Claris, Carrer Mallorca, Casp, and Sant Felip Neri. At this last station, a location with a poignant historical significance for Catalans, I saw the only 4 Mossos d’Esquadra that I saw all day. They were off in a corner of the square, minding their own business. No one except the tourists paid them any attention.


Not even the rain was enough to keep people away. A steady drizzle began to fall around noon and lasted until around 2 p.m., but the weather failed to deter voters. The lines were just as long as before or longer, but with more umbrellas.

I talked with people as they waited in line; everyone was happy to answer questions. I asked why they had come out to vote that day:

I’m voting because I’ve been told I can’t vote.”
“I’m going to have my voice heard.”
“Because we have the right to decide our own future.”

Are you worried about the attitude of the Spanish government and the Constitutional Court?

“Of course I’m worried! But they’re not going to stop me from exercising my right to decide.”
“They’ve been threatening us for months, years. They’re not going to do anything.”
“Yes, I’m concerned, but I think they’ll have to sit down and talk when they see how many of us have come out to vote.”

What do you think will happen tomorrow, on 10N?

“I have no idea! It’s hard to imagine what might come next, but I hope they will listen to us now.”
“Uff! Tomorrow? Tomorrow I have to go to work.”


Spanish Government’s Reaction

Prime Minister Rajoy had already expressed the government’s official line yesterday at a Partido Popular meeting, stating that the 9 November event was anti-democratic and illegitimate. This was echoed today in an official statement by Justice Minister Catalá, who blamed President Mas for hoodwinking the Catalan people into participating in what he categorized as a “sterile and useless” piece of political propaganda. Mr. Catalá promised that nothing would come of this vote and that the Attorney General’s office would continue to investigate possible criminal charges against Catalan officials who might have violated the Constitutional Court suspension in the organization of the 9N vote.

Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez sent out a tweet in the afternoon in which he recognized the democratic impulse behind the Catalan vote and called for a “new beginning” on 10 November in relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.  Mr. Sánchez expressed his desire that Catalonia become the vanguard of a federalist reform to the Spanish Constitution. Meanwhile Podemos, the insurgent party that has exploded since May to become the second political force in Spain, also congratulated the Catalans on their determination to participate in politics, to exercise their freedom of expression and their right to decide the form and future of their state.  It should be noted that the Socialists do not officially accept the possibility of an independent Catalonia, while Podemos has not decided on an official position yet.


Generalitat’s reaction

President Mas was visibly elated with the results of the day at this evening’s press conference. This had been a huge gamble for him: he had risked fracturing his pro-consultation coalition, dividing his own party, legal action by the Spanish government (and still does) all in the belief that the Catalan people would come through on 9N and vote in numbers. He read the temper of his people well, but he must have had some sleepless nights as well. If no one had shown up on Sunday, Mr. Mas would have been politically a dead man walking.

Mr. Mas has promised to send a letter to Mr. Rajoy on Monday, urging him to heed Sunday’s results and to authorize a legal referendum. The Catalan leader was asked if he would call snap elections; he acknowledged that this was a possibility, but that it required a degree of consensus between the Catalan political parties which did not yet exist.  Mr. Mas also called for an “internationalization” of the Catalan question: if the Spanish government continued to put up a “Berlin Wall” of legal obstructionism, the Catalan President hoped that other democratic nations would bring pressure to bear on Madrid. His ideal would be a negotiated referendum like in the United Kingdom and Canada.

Duran i Lleida, leader of the federalist Unió faction, called for Mr. Rajoy to take notice of this manifestation of Catalan popular will and to negotiate seriously and in good faith. “A better deal for Catalans” pleaded Mr. Duran i Lleida, before the division between Catalans and Spanish became “irreparable”.  Meanwhile, Oriol Junqueras of Esquerra Republicana continued his call for precisely that: immediate elections as a de facto referendum on independence.

First Impressions:

The official count of today’s participation is not yet complete. As I’m writing, about 12% of returns remain to be counted; however the estimated total will be close to 2.2 million. Consider the following turnouts in Catalonia for past official and legal referendums:

1986 NATO membership                                             1.46 million
2005 European Constitution                                      1.36 million
2006 Reform to the Statute of Autonomy           1.88 million
2012 Catalan Parliamentary Election                      3.66 million

The fact that 41% of the Catalan electorate turned out today for a vote with no legal validity, and under threat from the central government, cannot be ignored. Messrs. Rajoy and Catalá are correct that the vote has no legal significance, but it has a very considerable political significance. It ought to  dispel any lingering illusions that Catalan separatism is the work of a small clique of ANC malcontents or the Machiavellian Mr. Mas. If anything, Mr. Rajoy is the greatest argument in favor of Catalan separatism; every time Education Minister Wert opens his mouth, independence gains a percentage point. Since Rajoy assumed leadership of the Partido Popular, pro-independence sentiment rose from its post-transition baseline of 15% to 20% and is now very nearly 50%.

The Prime Minister will now be under intense pressure from within his party. The hardline Aznar faction cannot be pleased with Mr. Rajoy’s handling of the situation. After pushing for two Court injunctions against a separation vote, he then fails to enforce either one of them. Hardline conservatives will argue that Rajoy’s vacillation (their expression) places in doubt the authority of the central government over Catalonia and its ability to enforce its laws and decrees. If the Generalitat can make a mockery of that, they are halfway to independence already. Or so that argument will go.

However, if the government “overreacts” and tries to bring charges against members of the Catalan Parliament and the Generalitat, they may end up provoking the very declaration of independence that they are trying to avoid. Any attempt to indict a sitting member of the Parlament comes up against their legal immunity (aforamiento) which would require the case to be brought before the Supreme Court of Catalonia. How that plays out is difficult to predict; but I don’t imagine that Artur Mas’ political plans include going quietly into that good night.

President Mas would prefer to proceed legally, which is why he renewed his call for a negotiated referendum in the near future. That seems highly improbable, even without taking into account the official government position.  Mr. Rajoy faces municipal elections in May next year and a general election that must occur before December 2015: he cannot perform so stunning a reverse just before these elections without provoking a backbencher’s revolt in his party and perhaps handing the government of Spain to Podemos.

Neither side therefore has room to negotiate and there appears to be no middle ground left. This vote has served to make that crystal clear, if it wasn’t before. The 1.6 million “Sí-Sí” voters would abandon President Mas if he accepted any deal less than an officially sanctioned referendum; while Mr. Rajoy is not in a position to even begin negotiating unless the Catalans unconditionally drop that demand.

The next few months will most likely be calm, unless the Spanish government attempts to indict major Catalan politicians. That calm will hide some very intense back-room negotiations between the pro-independence Catalan parties who will be trying to agree to a formula for a united front in the upcoming elections. Mr. Mas will insist he has earned the right to be at the head of that list, a claim Mr. Junqueras might choose to dispute.

On Monday morning, markets open and it will be interesting to see if bond investors start selling Spanish debt. That would be a very bad sign for Mariano Rajoy; it would seriously undermine any hope for economic recovery through 2015. A triple dip recession and a few more corruption scandals could be devastating for the Partido Popular’s electoral chances. Next year promises to be far bumpier for Spain.

All photos used with permission of the author of this article.

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