Mike Phipps

An independent Catalunya?

Mike Phipps
An independent Catalunya?
Barcelona Al Jazeera.jpg

Clashes broke out at polling stations across the northeastern region as police attempted to seize ballot boxes and prevent the 'illegal' vote on independence. Voting is going ahead across Catalonia today. Riot police charged crowds of people at polling stations in Barcelona attempting to disperse crowds with what appeared to be rounds of rubber bullets. Carles Puigdemont managed to cast his vote just before police moved in on the polling station and closed it down.Dozens of people waiting outside the Ramon Llull school in were forced to take cover after hearing shots fired by officers from the National Police.

In a video taken by Daisy Bata for The Local Spain rounds of shots can be clearly be heard.
Riot police appear to be firing rounds of rubber bullets to disperse crowds. This from Daisy Bata, our reported on the ground in Barcelona pic.twitter.com/ysBDyUG9gN — The Local Spain (@TheLocalSpain) October 1, 2017. The incident was not isolated, with reports that police were forcing their way into schools across the region. At the Escuela Cervantes on Sant Pere Més Baix in Barcelona, crowds had begun forming outside the building since 5am.

"A lot of people were waiting around the school and they've been trying to vote since 8 am," Marc Carrasco, 46, a voting office told The Local. "The police tried to block the roads and slowly try to move people away from the small safe part of the street they were in, they must have realised it was take the whole morning to do so, so they ended up jumping through the fence with shotguns and stuff. I feel shaken. We managed to open the gates so people could come in and help us, we rushed to the inside and locked ourselves in but they broke open the door and came in and took the ballot box."

Between 20 and 30 members of the national police forced their way into a polling station at Jaume Balmes High School, north west of the city center. Spain's central government representative in Catalonia on Sunday strongly criticised the region's police force for not closing polling stations to block an independence referendum deemed illegal by
Madrid. "Catalan police officers were ordered to block the illegal referendum and to prevent polling stations from opening, but unfortunately this was not the case in the majority of cases. Politics has prevailed over professionalism," Enric Millo said.

It was up to officers from Spain's national police and Guardia Civil force "to act" to seize ballot boxes and voting papers and close polling stations, he added. "The sole objective of today's operation has been to ensure that this illegal referendum does not take place and the Spanish and Catalan people can continue to live in peace and liberty as they have these past 40 years," Millo said. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont managed to vote on Sunday, despite a police crackdown on polling stations.

The rise of Catalan nationalism in recent years results from a combination of historical and immediate factors. Jordi Pujol, the moderate independence leader who governed Catalunya from 1980 to 2003, despite being mired in corruption scandals, was highly adept at exploiting Catalan nationalist sentiment to extract more autonomy from Madrid. His successor, Artur Mas, pushed more forcefully for separatism, a policy which chimed with voters who felt abandoned by the central government during the recent recession and which helped shore up his fluctuating poll ratings. It’s estimated that about half of those who supported separatist parties in 2015 did not back secession a decade earlier. With the election of a pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament in 2015, and a new Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, the prospect of an independence referendum got a lot closer. 

There are tensions between many traditional Catalan separatists and those more driven by economic marginalisation. On the Catalan national day (the Diada) in 2013, when protestors joined hands to form a human chain across Catalunya, “the parking lots were filled with BMWs and it really looked as if the Catalan bourgeoisie was having a fun day out,” observed one commentator quoted in Raphael Minder’s recent book The Struggle for Catalonia (Hurst, 2017).

Yet the presence of conservative forces within Catalan nationalism should not overshadow the sheer popularity of the cause among ordinary people - and not just Catalans. 2016’s Diada in the northern town of Salt, with its 40% migrant population made up of 70 nationalities, saw contingents participating from the town’s African, Latin American and Asian communities, with banners calling for independence in Arabic.

The cross-class fiesta atmosphere of such events should not obscure the historic oppression the region has suffered, particular under the Franco dictatorship. His regime unleashed brutal repression in the region and banned the Catalan language, but even today Catalan culture and language are marginalised within the Spanish state. There are only eleven Spanish universities outside Catalunya that offer course in Catalan - compared to 27 in Germany. In 2010, Catalunya passed a law requiring foreign film companies to provide their movies in both Castilian and Catalan when released in Catalunya. The Hollywood studios got this ruling overturned in the European Court, leading many Catalans to believe that only statehood would make such a policy possible.

Tensions have risen, particularly since 2016 with the formation of a pro-independence government which set the October 1st 2017 date for an independence referendum. The Spanish PP government reacted aggressively, with a smear campaign and pressure to get the six main banks to issue a joint denunciation. In 2017, Catalan politicians received sentences for civil disobedience for the first time in the modern era. They were banned from office for organising an independence vote, the culmination to a long history of Spain’s constitutional court ruling Catalan statutes illegal, including an earlier one to ban bullfighting. 

As the October 1st referendum approached, tensions between Catalan nationalists and the Spanish state mounted. The regional government said it would immediately take control of Catalan borders if  the 1st October indyref was successful. The Spanish state government responded by saying the referendum was banned - “an absolutely illegal act” - in the prime minister’s words - and any referendum materials would be seized, including election fliers. Schools were informed too that any involvement by staff in facilitating voting in the referendum in school buildings would result in them being permanently stripped of their teaching qualifications. 

After over a million people took to the streets of Barcelona to celebrate the Diada on September 11th, the sixth such annual mobilisation for Catalan statehood, Spanish state prosecutors ordered a criminal investigation into any Catalan mayors - over 700 so far - who plan to stage  the referendum. A few days later, more than 700 pro-referendum mayors protested in Barcelona, brandishing their maces.

With the approach of the referendum, tension is mounting. The central government seized control of Catalunya’s finances, imperilling the payment of thousands of public employees’ wages. The  move was condemned by the region’s vice president as “leading us to administrative collapse.” Then on 20th September, the Civil Guard, under the direction of Spain’s interior ministry, carried out dawn raids on regional government offices, arresting a dozen officials. Pro-independence parties cancelled their activities for the day to organise protests. “It is unacceptable for there to be political prisoners in a European democracy. The Partido Popular leads us to an authoritarian regression that cannot be tolerated,” said a spokesperson for the leftwing party Podemos.

The central government crackdown may help the independence cause. “The attitude of the state is so aggressive that no democrat can remain indifferent,” said Ramon Pique, coordinator of the Catalan National Assembly, a pro-independence citizens group. Barcelona’s radical mayor Ada Colau, previously ambivalent about the indyref, has now come out in favour and has denounced the central government’s crackdown. And the campaign is spreading - on 16th September, 35,000 Basques marched through Bilbao carrying banners saying “We want to decide” - a reference to the strong support for independence in their region too.

The left is split, with Podemos, for example, supporting the right of Catalunya to exercise self-determination but calling for a no vote. Commentators believe that support for independence is stronger in rural areas and small towns, which are over-represented in the regional (and national) parliament under Spain’s electoral system compared to the cities. Yet, as Andrew Dowling observes, “A solid 40% or so of Catalans have broken with Spain in political and psychological terms and modest concessions from Madrid will no longer change this.” https://www.thelocal.es/20170922/catalonias-independence-referendum-how-the-disputed-vote-led-to-crackdown

Most Catalans want a referendum to decide the issue, one way or the other, but with the Spanish state ruling the initiative void, it’s likely that many opponents may just stay away rather than vote no, leading to a big, disputed, yes vote by default. Then what?