What Does The Catalan Independence Referendum Mean For Citizens, Activists, Living And Working In The Region?

“The referendum is going to be a real test of how far the Catalans are actually prepared to put themselves at risk in order to stand up to Madrid” — Kathryn Crameri

In 2014, Nearly two million (81% of 2.34 million) Catalans voted in favour of secession from Spain in what turned out to be a largely symbolic vote from a population of 7 million. This may sound small, but the 9N Catalan Consultation was an informal, democratic process run by volunteers which in turn caused many No voters to stay at home as opposed to getting out to cast their democratic prerogative.

A new vote is due to take place on October 1 in which people will be asked to decide whether secession from Spain is desirable via a Catalan referendum. Spain will — and is — doing all it can to prevent it, but this result will be a lot harder to ignore. Businesses are putting in bids to supply the 5,000 ballot boxes required (all the while being threatened for the provision of boxes or any other material pertaining to the referendum) in which will be an official, binding referendum, with all the proper guarantees including an official electoral role, electoral board, observers; complete transparency and the Catalan government has promised to implement the results. The idea is that it will be internationally recognised under these conditions to bear legitimacy.

So what’s changed? Not much, really, and everything at the same time. The citizens of Spain’s most vibrant region, Catalonia, are still ruled, overall, by an increasingly autocratic Madrid albeit under the new direction from Carles Puigdemont —the new President of Catalonia. Nationally, Podemos have ended the traditional two party system making real inroads into the Spanish parliament as their leader, Pablo Iglesias, won re-election as their secretary general earlier in 2017 whilst Ciudadanos, a party born in Catalonia on an anti-Catalan ticket, has enabled Mariano Rajoy — Catalonia’s nemesis and prime minister of Spain — to remain in power.

Spain was ruled by the military dictator, Francisco Franco, up until his death in 1975. The older generations remember the transition to democracy and the real sense of instability that that brings. By not supporting the referendum Madrid runs a high risk strategy by vowing to block the referendum.

Civil unrest and violence however is anathema for young people in Catalonia; the pro-indy community just want to vote. Jordi Cuixart from Omnium Cultural said on Sunday: “There are just not enough jails to hold all the people who insist on holding a referendum, it’s practically impossible.” Cuixart, implying that Spain will take any pro-indy Catalan to court on any pretext.

Miquel Strubell, a retired University lecturer living in Barcelona, said ↓

“Pro-Madrid fascist thugs demonstrated the other day outside the Esquerra Republicana head offices. There was no violence, but I wouldn’t put it past them: they look as if they’ve come straight out of a history book. The pro-indy camp is perfectly aware that violence will backfire seriously. That doesn’t mean that hot-headed youngsters couldn’t be provoked into action, of course.”

Above — Pep Guardiola, Who Was Invited To Read The Declaration (But Didn’t Write It): “We Are Here To Make It Clear That On October 1 We Will Vote In A Referendum To Decide Our Future.”

Why do many Catalans so desperately want out of Spain, is it just about self-determination and autonomy? Miquel adds ↓

“In my view, the current legal set-up, inside a hostile Spain, does not ensure the survival of the Catalans as a people in an increasingly globalised world. Catalonia needs the political tools, the instruments, that Spain’s centralist mentality and tradition refuses it.

“The other main reason is the humiliation inflicted upon the Catalans by the whole regional constitutional reform, from 2003, through to the Spanish parliament hacking up the bill in 2006, and the Spanish Constitutional court further maiming it (after a ratification by referendum!) in 2010.”

Corruption is also a problem, but not a main motivator for the indy movement. Where the UK and Spain differentiate in this context is the on the scale of corruption; the latter’s existing at all levels of government — whether it’s local, regional or state — it is massive; the expenses scandal in the UK is minuscule in comparison. Alex Salmond distanced himself from paralleling the 2014 Scottish referendum with 9N and Catalan nationalism as it was broadly thought to be attached to identity, but the truth is that it’s a lot more complex than that. I spoke with the estimable Liz Castro — a writer, who is active with the civil movement, Assemblea Nacional Catalana — a grassroots NGO founded in 2011 as an umbrella organisation, with a single goal — independence through democratic means — and whose massive demonstrations, from September 11 2012 on, have triggered the whole indy process ↓

“The 9N vote in 2014 started out as a non-binding “consultation” and was designed to be in accordance with Spanish law. It was convened in accordance with the law of non-referendum consultations that was approved on September 18 but didn’t go into effect until it was published on September 27, 2014, but was then itself immediately suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court. The Catalan President decided that it was too difficult to go forward with this suspension and so decided to change it into a “participatory process” run by volunteers, basically a completely non-official, non-binding vote. The Constitutional Court ruled this illegal as well (and this past year sentenced the President and two ministers to various fines and bans from office for going through with it), but it went forward anyway, with a participation of 2.35 million people (including 300,000 no votes), with about a 40% turnout.”

Scotland’s situation marks little comparison. In the 2014 Scottish referendum young people turned out in force to support Independence, but more than 75% of pensioners voted No. Not even infinite supply of free prescriptions could mobilise our ever ageing population for voting Yes and yet this is still marketed by the SNP as one of their top election pledges (during the recent snap general election); it’s essentially a tinsel on the tree policy — an ethical, moral policy of course — but suggestive of a party that has run out of ideas. I asked Kathryn Crameri, an expert in Hispanic studies from the University of Glasgow, where Scotland is going wrong ↓

“I think first of all, a lot of the civil movement (in Catalonia) is based around people who are professionals to do with culture in the media, and that’s why it’s so successful, because they know what they’re doing when it comes to social media, communicating their ideas, subverting the established media by wrapping their message around that. In Scotland we haven’t seen the involvement of the professional and cultural media elite. As far as I can see that’s why the civil movement in Catalonia has been so successful because of the communication element. In Scotland you had people involved with the Yes campaign — starting to go out in the street doing leafleting etc. So there was the beginning of that but it’s how you capitalise on that. What the Catalans have got with the Assemblea is the combination of grassroots campaigning with the very powerful and professional direction of the media elites, and IT professionals as well. This combination just doesn’t exist in Scotland and you can’t simply invent these individuals to take it to the next level.”

Above, Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, Announces The Catalan independence referendum will be held on October 1, 2017