On the morning of last Wednesday, September 20, the Spanish police corps raided several Catalan institutions, as well as private companies linked to the regional government. They carried out at least 41 searches and arrested fourteen public officials, among them Catalonia’s general secretary of economy.
The target of these actions were the organizers of the much-anticipated referendum on independence, scheduled for October 1st, which has been declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court.
The detained face charges of disobedience, prevarication and misuse of public funds. Their arrests came along with an announcement from Madrid: the central government will start controlling part of Catalonia’s public finances, to prevent them from being used to fund the outlawed ballot.
Throughout the day, tens of thousands attended rallies in several towns across Catalonia to protest what was being labeled as a coup to Catalan sovereignty. Chants like “We will vote,” “Down with the occupying forces,” and “Els carrers seran sempre nostres” (The streets will always be ours) were heard until late at night.
For some of those who have long opposed Catalonia’s secessionist drift, instead, the police action was a righteous application of the law. From their perspective, the Catalan government’s decision to boost a binding vote without agreement by the non-secessionist PMs is indeed an attack to democratic rules.
Whatever the case is, Wednesday’s events are likely to attract massive international coverage of the vote. If everything goes as expected, voters answer to one question: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a Republic?”
In July, the Catalan government said that, in the event of a “yes” vote, they would declare independence within 48 hours. But at this point not only what will happen after Sunday is unpredictable. Three weeks of dramatic escalations have put the entire referendum in doubt. At this point, it’s unclear whether it’s going to take place at all
The central government has deployed to thousands of agents from the National Police and the Guardia Civil, Spain’s semi-military police corps, to Catalonia. At least 6,000 agents are staying in cruise ships in the port of Barcelona with orders to prevent the vote from taking place.
How did we reach this point?
Catalonia’s claims for independence have gained momentum during the last years. The “Process”—in Catalan, El Procés, the Kafkaesque term that refers to the Catalan path to statehood—has been long and polarizing, but hasn’t always been driven by the same goals.
Catalonia gained its status as an autonomous community under the auspice of the 1978 Constitution, which defined Spain’s legal regime after Franco’s death. In 1981, the central government gave three of the regions that were considered “historical”—Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia—a special status within the state.
But Catalan self-rule status has become increasingly problematic over the years, with nationalists claiming that the Constitutional arrangement limited Catalonia’s sovereignty and led to fiscal plundering by the central state. In the last years, successive Catalan governments have tried to negotiate with Madrid a fiscal pact, a new statute, and later on, several non-binding ballots on independence. The central government, however, consistently turned down these requests on the basis of its incompatibility with Spain’s constitutional order.
For most of the time, separatist leaders did not openly confront Spanish authorities. A major turning point happened on September 6. After 15 hours of heated debate, the Catalan parliament passed a law that gave the referendum the legal framework it lacked. By doing so, it was breaking up with Spanish legality, which had explicitly banned ballots on self-determination from taking place in its autonomous regions without the state’s consent.
Independentist PMs, a narrow majority in the parliament, clapped and sang the Catalan anthem after passing the law. Those who opposed secession left the chamber in protest.
Echoing the tension in the parliament, the weeks leading to October 1st have become a clash of rhetorics. While the referendum’s advocates point to it as democracy in action, using the theoretical framework of a national “right to decide” that justifies its existence outside Spanish legality, others consider it a threat to the rule of law and point out at its dubious democratic guarantees.
One of the separatists’ major complaints is the central government’s unwillingness to answer politically to Catalan demands of sovereignty. From their perspective, the government’s late reaction, in the form of a bold application of the law, reinforces their claims of democratic legitimacy.
In the last days, Spanish law enforcement searched printing shops and newsrooms and banned all forms of institutional propaganda calling to vote. At the same time, the governmental threats to requisit ballot boxes on October 1st bring fresh memories Spain’s not-so-distant authoritarian past.
The upcoming referendum had a precedent on November 9, 2014, when a non-binding ballot took place despite of having been suspended by the Constitutional Court. But the political landscape has changed a good deal since then. In September 2015, regional elections that were framed as a plebiscite gave the majority of the Catalan parliament to a secessionist coalition.
By convoking a referendum almost two years later, the coalition was answering to political pressure from its bases and giving momentum to a campaign that seemed to have reached a dead end. Moreover, the “Process” has been frequently undermined by disagreements within its leading coalition, which has conservative liberals, and anti-capitalists working hand in hand.
El Mundo Today, the Spanish counterpart of The Onion, summarized this Groundhog-day feeling shortly after the Referendum law was approved on September 6: “The Catalan people, exhausted after living their 176th historic journey this year.”
And yet hundreds of thousands took the streets of Barcelona on September 11, a day that commemorates Catalan surrender to Castilian troops in 1714. Like in the five previous years, the Catalan National Day was used as a framework for an independentist tour de force that made it into the major international media outlets.
Whether Sunday’s vote will mark the beginning of a new era for Catalonia, we will know shortly.
Photo (top) by Bru Aguiló / Fotomovimento via Flickr (September 16, 2017).