Catalan independence referendum response challenges unified Spain

By Dr Lara Anderson. Convenor of Spanish & Latin American Studies School of Languages and Linguistics, University of Melbourne

In spite of multiple attempts by Spain’s Madrid-based conservative central government to block it, on October 1st Catalonia’s independence referendum went ahead.

The referendum for the semi-autonomous region of roughly 7.5 million people in far north-eastern Spain had been hastily called by Catalonia’s parliament in early September.

It was quickly declared illegal by the central government and Spain’s highest court. Catalan opposition parties did not support the referendum and called on its voters to boycott the vote.

Turnout was estimated at just over 40%, somewhat higher than expected given the crackdown from the central government and numerous calls to boycott the election. Of those that voted, support for secession was overwhelming with a provisional estimate of over 90% voting ‘yes’ to declare Catalonia an independent republic.

Catalan leaders have vowed to declare independence from Spain just hours after the King of Spain declared the referendum illegal and condemned Catalan leaders for compromising national unity. Catalan society is itself deeply divided with many Catalans wanting to remain part of Spain and feeling that Catalan public discourse has failed to represent their anti-secession views.

The notion of national unity was referred to a great deal in the lead up to the referendum. Indeed, it is the Constitution’s reference to the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’ that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gave as a rationale for stopping the referendum, which was declared illegal by the country’s Constitutional Court. According to the 1978 Spanish Constitution—written in the wake of Franco’s repressive 36-year dictatorship—Spain is ‘indivisible’, although autonomous regions such as Catalonia enjoy extensive powers of self-government.

In the run-up to the referendum—which would have had little legitimacy given the unlawful way in which Catalan President Carles Puigdemont’s government pushed it through the Catalan parliament—Rajoy should have sat tight, or at least maintained some impression of adhering to the principles of democracy and dialogue supposedly at the heart of modern governance. He could, as many commentators observed, have campaigned peacefully for his political position, like the UK government did prior to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014.

Instead, in a response described as ‘muscular’ by some commentators and ‘brutal’ by others, Rajoy remained steadfast in his refusal to negotiate with Catalan politicians. He then mobilised state force to repress the expression of democratic will in Catalonia and impose his government’s antiquated and arguably Francoist notion of national unity.

Some of these measures included: limiting the right of assembly and demonstration in Catalonia; arresting public officials and senior elected officials for their part in organising the logistics of the referendum; limiting the right to a free press; confiscating voting materials; searching private companies without judicial order; and censoring public access to websites related to the referendum.

If the pre-referendum repression wasn’t already enough of a concern, on the day of the vote Rajoy’s government ordered the Civil Guard and National Riot squads to forcefully remove ballot boxes and physically bar Catalans from casting their vote. By the end of the day, hundreds of Catalans had been unnecessarily injured. In the wake of such events, it is difficult to imagine how the rift between Catalonia and the central government can be healed.

As well as galvanising Catalan support for independence, the central government’s heavy-handed response only served to increase international support for Catalonia’s separatist movement. International academics, writers, politicians, and civil society activists have raised their voices to condemn the actions of Rajoy’s government.

These include Julian Assange, whose tweets over the last month promoting Catalan secession have accused Spain’s central government of conducting the world’s first Internet war to shut down the referendum. Prominent North American academics, including Noam Chomsky, signed a letter supporting the October 1st independence vote and condemning the Spanish government’s political repression in the region. They described this as of a ‘severity and arbitrary character not experienced since the Franco government’.

Nationalist movements from across Europe and Canada have expressed support for Catalonia’s bid for independence, condemning the Spanish government for its ‘brutal’ tactics in trying to suppress the referendum.

Prior to the referendum EU officials supported Spain’s position. They have since criticised the central government's use of violence and called for the kind of negotiation that has been all but absent from Rajoy’s handling of the issue. It is in the EU’s interest that Catalonia remain either part of Spain, or part of the EU (in the event that it separates from Spain). As the economic powerhouse of Spain, which subsidises other parts of the country, Catalan’s economy is not just important to Spain but also to the economic prosperity of the EU.

Looking ahead, I think it will be a challenge for many Catalans to see themselves as belonging to Spain in light of the centralist government's repression of their democratic right to self-determination. However, the manner in which the referendum was called was in violation of Spanish law and does not have the support of the central government, Spain’s Constitutional Court nor the Spanish King.

Unless both sides start negotiating more and the Prime Minister stops imposing his antiquated notion of national unity, Spain & Catalonia will continue to head towards a possibly irreconcilable constitutional crisis.

Banner image: Pro-independence rally in Barcelona on 11 September 2017. Credit: Roser Vilallonga/Flickr

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