Can Europe Make It?

Why both the Spanish and the Catalan governments think they come out reinforced from the referendum clash

The PP may be seen as sole guarantor of Spanish unity, while support for pro-independence parties morphs into a reaction against repression by the Spanish government and its conservative values.

Felipe G. Santos
2 October 2017

People protest as police try to control the area in their attempt to cast their ballot at a polling station in the referendum vote on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.There may be disagreement about whether what happened yesterday in Catalonia was a referendum of self-determination. The Catalonian president, Carles Puigdemont, has declared that yesterday’s events has given Catalonia “the right to have an independent State”, while the Spanish government has congratulated itself for avoiding any resemblance to a lawful plebiscite. Choosing the middle ground between these two sides, the Spanish left has defined it as a legitimate form of political expression with no legal implications, and has heavily criticized the violence from Spanish policemen against peaceful protesters.

Regardless of the term used to categorize yesterday’s events, the scenes of police brutality against peaceful crowds shocked Catalonian and Spanish societies, as they did the rest of the world. Both Spanish and Catalonian governments have contributed significantly to the escalation of the confrontation. The Spanish government and, notably, the Christian-Democratic party, have not budged from the defence of the status quo and have only proposed a de-politicized solution to the ‘Catalonian issue’, via an arguably partisan use of the legal system.

On the other hand, the Catalonian government, and especially the main governing party, have used nationalism politically to cover up a number of internal scandals. According to the Catalonian public polling agency, only 15% of Catalonians wanted independence in 2008. But during the last regional elections, 47.8% of them voted for parties that promised a disconnect from the Spanish State.

How has this situation come about? We can trace the roots of this conflict back to 2003, when a tripartite leftist coalition came into power in Catalonia. One of the most important points of their governing pact was updating the ‘Estatut’, the law that regulates the relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. This initiative was welcomed by the Spanish Socialist party, which promised to accept the proposal to come from Catalonia when the Spanish Socialist party won the elections. In 2006, the new Estatut was approved both by the Spanish and Catalonian parliaments. It was also supported by Catalonian society in a regional referendum.

This new law provided more financial and political independence to the region and referred to Catalonia in its preamble as a “nation”. The PP challenged the Estatut in the constitutional court, which was made up of a majority of conservative judges. Four years later, on June 28, 2010, the Constitutional Court resolved that most of the Estatut was unconstitutional and that the reference to Catalonia as a nation in the preamble was legal but held no juridical significance.

This created widespread outrage and a massive demonstration took place in Barcelona. This situation was used by CiU (Catalonia’s main governing party), which had returned to power in Catalonia after the 2010 regional elections, to divert attention from several corruption scandals in their party as well as the budget cuts they were implementing.

They considered ‘austerity’ to be an unfair tax system that took money from Catalonia in favour of poorer regions in other parts of Spain. The aim of the CiU seemed to be to make a controlled use of nationalism until they could go back to ‘business as usual’. The majority of the party has never been in favour of separating from Spain and this radicalization of the nationalist discourse effectively led to an internal split within the party. However, the nationalist discourse got out of hand when civil society organizations took over.

They managed to radicalize it and mobilize massive numbers of people on key dates, especially the ‘Diada’, the day of Catalonia, on September 11. Regional elections took place in 2012 and the governing coalition of CiU and ERC (a leftist party which has always supported separation) agreed to organize a referendum on self-determination, negotiated with the central administration. Seen as the opposition to the Christian-Democratic Spanish government, they finally decided unilaterally to hold a referendum in 2014. Given the political tension that this generated at the time, the original idea of a referendum was then downgraded to a non-binding consultation.

Unlike today, at that time, there were no reactions aimed at preventing this mobilization but most people against independence did not participate. Finally, 2.4 million people (out of 7.5 million Catalonians) voted during the mobilization, the result being 75% in favour of independence. In 2015 the Catalonian government called for regional elections and presented them as a plebiscite for independence. If a majority of voters supported separatist parties, the Catalonian parliament would unilaterally declare independence.

Pro-independence parties won the majority of the seats but ‘only’ obtained 47.8% of the votes. Given these results, the newly formed government promised to hold a referendum on independence before the end of the legislature. In the beginning they attempted to negotiate with the central government, who turned a deaf ear. Finally, the Catalonian government decided to hold a referendum unilaterally. This referendum has been declared illegal both by the Spanish Constitutional Court and the Catalonian High Court of Justice. It has also been severely obstructed by the actions of the police, who have confiscated over 9 million ballots, a number of ballot boxes and censuses.

Some of the reactions during these last few days (police detentions and sanctions to high-level employees of the Catalonian government, numerous website shut downs, raids on the headquarters of pro-independence parties and NGOs, prohibition of talks about the right to self-determination organized all around Spain…) have been seen by many progressive groups that did not support independence as episodes of exaggerated and illegitimate repression.

The Spanish government has been accused of acting in an authoritarian manner, limiting the rights of freedom of speech, assembly and demonstration. Consequently, many groups beyond Catalonian separatists framed Sunday’s events as a defence of democratic rights, rather than a vote on a referendum of self-determination. Yesterday evening protests despising police brutality and showing solidarity with Catalonians filled the squares of all main Spanish towns, bringing back memories of the 15M/Indignados’ times.

So, what now? The central government has successfully prevented the implementation of a referendum with minimum democratic warranties, both from a legal and political perspective. Legally, under threat of the Spanish police closing many polling stations, the Catalonian government has allowed citizens to vote in any polling station, instead of just in the one where they are registered.

To avoid people from voting multiple times, the census was supposed to be controlled electronically but the system failed during the vote count. Moreover, this permission contradicts the law passed by the Catalonian parliament regulating this referendum.

Politically, only those in favour of independence have carried out a campaign and it seems that a significant number of people against separation stayed at home. Hence, the results are unlikely to reflect anything close to the real opinion of the Catalonian people. Nevertheless, the episodes of police violence that appeared in all international media outlets gave the Catalonian government the international legitimacy it was lacking during the period before October 1.

These images may foster international support for a new referendum, this time based on a consensus between both administrations. It seems that the events of October 1 are going to deepen the conflict even further.

Spanish PM, Mariano Rajoy, has spoken at a press conference defending the “firmness and serenity” of the Spanish police. Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, has also made a public statement showing his determination to implement the results of the referendum. This situation will just continue the partisan use of the conflict from both parties, consolidating their supporters on each side. The PP will be seen as the sole guarantor of Spanish unity, receiving substantial social backing in the central regions of Spain.

On the other hand, the support for pro-independence parties will go beyond separatism and be considered a reaction against repression by the Spanish government and the conservative values that it represents. To add to this division a protest against Catalonian independence took place in Madrid the day before the referendum, in which relevant figures of the PP, such as Esperanza Aguirre, former minister of education and former president of the region of Madrid, participated. Protesters displayed fascist salutes and sang ‘Cara al Sol’, the anthem of ‘FE de las JONS’, a fascist party that contributed to the military uprising that led to the Spanish civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. These actions saw no reaction from police forces.

Hence, this increased polarization is expected to reaffirm both administrations’ positions and lead to a deepening of the conflict.

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