Can Europe Make It?

"The streets will always be ours" - Catalonia, a referendum from below

Although some still conceive of the referendum as launched by a pro-independence vanguard, the elite story falls short of explaining the resilient participation of a large part of Catalan civil society.

Francis O'Connor Donatella della Porta Anna Subirats Ribas Martin Portos
5 October 2017

Pro-Separatists of the Catalonian independence referendum protest during a general strike in Barcelona, Spain, October 3, 2017. Almagro/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.The fallout from the massive voting performance in Catalonia last Sunday and its violent repression by the Spanish authorities continues to reverberate across Europe.

Although it caught many outsiders by surprise, this clash was in the making for some time. The vote confirmed the resurgence of grassroots engagement in the recent cycle of mobilization for self-determination in Catalonia. It represents another clear example of a mass politics that transcends parties and institutions.

Since the last regional elections in 2015, the governing pro-independence coalition in Catalonia has been rooted in its promise to organise a binding referendum on independence and its commitment to a unilateral declaration of independence if it obtained more than 50% in favour.

However, according to recent polls, support for independence had been decreasing and internal divisions were emerging among the pro-independence leaders over which strategies to adopt. Furthermore, the mobilisation capacity of the pro-independence milieu had declined, as maintaining the intensity of the grassroots movement of recent years was emotionally exhausting and logistically unsustainable.

Events in the weeks preceding the referendum, however, triggered renewed grassroots mobilisation. On September 20, Spanish Guardia Civil officers raided several offices of the Catalan regional government, arrested 14 senior officials, and confiscated 9.6 million referendum ballot papers as part of an operation to prevent the referendum from taking place. Spanish authorities also threatened judicial measures against the organisers of the referendum, blocked websites, froze regional financial assets, limited credit and imposed central supervision over payments for non-essential services by the Generalitat and other public institutions.

In response to this de facto intervention in Catalan autonomous powers, thousands flocked onto the streets of Barcelona blocking major roads in the city chanting the slogans “no tinc por” (I am not afraid) and “fora les forces de la ocupació” (occupation forces out). In the wake of the hard-line actions taken by the Spanish authorities which prevented the Catalan government from logistically preparing for the vote, the organisational burden was taken up ordinary citizens. People were organised through local ‘Comitès de Defensa del Referendum’ (Referendum Defence Committees) that coordinated through Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram. 

Although some still conceive the voting performance organised last 1 October as simply an enterprise launched by a pro-independence vanguard (be it the political elites of PDeCAT, ERC or the Generalitat), the elite-driven side of story falls short of explaining the level of resilience and participation of a large part of Catalan civil society.

It overlooks the extent of the contestation that has taken place, minimises the fact that 2.3 million people symbolically cast their votes in a – non-binding – voting performance led by civil society organisations in November 2014, the hundreds of symbolic municipal plebiscites on independence since 2009 or the millions that have taken to the streets since 2010. 

On 1 October, 2.2 million people ran the gauntlet of state violence to cast their votes (including the use of rubber bullets). The actions of ordinary people meant that the Spanish national police were only able to shut down 400 out of a total of 2,315 polling stations. People not only voted but hid ballot boxes and papers from the Spanish authorities over the weeks preceding the referendum.

They occupied polling stations – preventing them from being sealed by the police the Friday before the referendum. Farmers’ tractors were used in hundreds of polling stations as protective barriers. A judicial order led to the removal of the official webpage (, which had provided people with information about the referendum: thereafter individual citizens started launching replica webpages under new domains, emerging as fast as the authorities could remove them.

On the day of the vote, thousands of volunteers gathered to enable voting; youths and adults barricaded themselves outside to peacfully block police access while older people and children gathered inside. Throughout the morning of the vote, Internet access in many polling stations was cut off. This created significant problems because it disabled the online-based system of voter identification.

Throughout the day, the two principles that were communicated throughout the grassroots networks were peacefulness and neutrality, the latter to ensure that pro-independence canvassing was prohibited in order to ensure people were unpressured while voting. 

Even if in the Catalan cycle of mobilisation, the borders between institutional and grassroots actors have, to a degree, become blurred (for example the former leader of ANC is now president of the Catalan parliament), we nonetheless cannot understand the Catalan procès without acknowledging the role played by pressure "from below".

Together with more established actors such as political parties and institutional networks (e.g. the Associació de Municipis per la Independència), it was first the Plataform pel Dret de Decidir, and then organisations such as Òmnium Cultural, Assamblea Nacional Catalana (ANC), cultural and civic platforms (e.g. Súmate, Ciemen), hundreds of neighbourhood grassroots assemblies and other autonomous collectives and individuals who kept the referendum campaign running. 

This is in keeping with the international trend of what we term “referendums from below”: referendums that are no longer devices used by institutional actors to retrospectively legitimise technocratic decisions but are rather, participatory processes generated by grassroots mobilisations which pre-date the actual vote by years of civil society agitation.

Importantly, not all contemporary referendums can be considered as “referendums from below”, the recent vote in Kurdistan in Iraq was not a result of extra-institutional mobilisation, but others such as the 2011 Water referendums in Italy, the 2010 Icesave one in Iceland and the Scottish referendum to a qualified extent, were the result of movement mobilisation.

To understand the immediate context which triggered the upsurge in demand for Catalan independence, one must look beyond Spain’s borders. There has also been an increasing use of the instruments of direct democracy by social movement actors beyond issues around national self-determination, particularly as a means to resist the imposition of EU-endorsed austerity politics. 

Cuts in public spending and welfare provisions were implemented to keep national deficits under control, while measures of inequality increased and living conditions in southern Europe deteriorated. Movements such as Occupy and the indignados channelled growing discontent toward the lack of responsibility and legitimacy of national political institutions.

Some of these mobilisations have led to a profound transformation of the political environment, through the formation of new movement parties such as Podemos, Barcelona en Comú and Ahora Madrid, and the establishment of governments with leftist parties — albeit with varying degrees of success in opposing austerity — in Portugal and Greece. This diffuse political tumult has presented opportunities for movements to resort to direct democracy instruments, characterised by political initiatives from below.

Certainly, referendums, beyond their capacity to encourage citizen political engagement, operate by a majoritarian logic as the will of the (potentially sizeable) minority is excluded. Additionally, referendums and their outcomes are very sensitive to broader political contexts, as the recent instances of the Brexit vote on EU membership and the Colombian peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas have shown. They need therefore to be used with care.

However, extensive research and countless recent examples have confirmed that indiscriminate state repression against peacefully mobilised movements can easily radicalize positions at the moment when negotiation is most needed. Unfortunately, the Spanish king’s inflammatory comments combined with Rajoy’s ongoing belligerent pronouncements seem to suggest that the Spanish state is ignorant of the perils of its behaviour.

Sunday’s referendum was not merely a technical means of expressing the political and institutional preferences of Catalan voters, but the culmination of years of mass engagement. Efforts to downplay its significance by dismissing it as illegal will neither convince nor intimidate the millions of Catalans who organised it, suffered mass injuries protecting it and are resolved to have their right to self-determination – if not necessarily independence – recognised. 


Donatella della Porta, Francis O’Connor, Martin Portos and Anna Subirats Ribas are the authors of a recent book Social movements and referendums from below: direct democracy in the neoliberal crisis (Policy Press/Bristol University Press, 2017).


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