Catalonia independence vote tests Spanish state

Pro-independence Catalans hold up giant letters reading 'We are ready, Independence' in Barcelona earlier this week. Picture: Reuters
Pro-independence Catalans hold up giant letters reading 'We are ready, Independence' in Barcelona earlier this week. Picture: Reuters
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“I’M going to vote because I’m sick of politicians and others speculating about Catalonia,” says Vicki Vicente. “I want to know what the Catalans themselves think and to express my own opinion.”

Vicente, a teacher from Sant Cugat, is one of millions of Catalans who are expected to vote today in what is a largely symbolic referendum on their constitutional future.

The non-binding vote was called after the Madrid government asked the constitutional court to rule on the original referendum which was to be held under the aegis of the Catalan parliament’s hastily concocted consultation law. The court took only a few hours to ban the referendum on constitutional grounds.

Artur Mas, the Catalan president, who had called the referendum under pressure from grassroots secessionists, then announced that an unofficial poll would be held on the same day and with the same questions on the ballot paper. This poll has also been deemed illegal but is being organised by volunteers, so there is little Madrid can do to stop it.

While only a few months ago the issue was presented as a referendum on the “right to decide”, today voters are being asked to answer a two-part question: “Do you want ­Catalonia to become a State?” and “In case of an affirmative res­ponse, do you want this State to be independent?”

The franchise is extended to any legal resident over the age of 16 but, unlike Scotland, ­Catalans living abroad (though not in the rest of Spain) are also entitled to vote.

Mas is presenting the un­official referendum as a ­curtain-raiser to what he calls a “plebiscite election,” that is, one in which the pro-independence parties would stand on a united slate on the single issue of independence.

However, Esquerra Republicana, (the Republican Left) Mas’s CiU party’s main rivals, has no intention of standing on a joint slate as polls show it well ahead in voting intentions. Meanwhile, CiU is in talks with the Catalan Socialists in order to prop up the government until election are due in 2016.

Mas has told people not to be afraid and to go ahead and vote. But many people are not so much afraid of voting as afraid that the res­ult will be ign­ored in Spain and will have little international credibility.

“The participation is more important than the statistics,” says photographer David Sunyol. “Today we’ll see if the Catalan people come out or not. I want today to be a massive party.”

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“Some people say this poll is like something out of a banana republic, but if we’re too fussy, we’ll end up doing nothing,” says Vicente. “Perhaps it’s a bit shoddy but it’s all there is. It’s like a rehearsal for a real vote.”

Others complain that the process has been rigged in ­fav­our of the Yes vote and the ent­ire campaign obscures the fact that barely half the population favours independence.

“It’s clearly been orchestrated so that the Yes vote will prevail,” says Tomás Crespo. “The government has sought a confrontation with the Spanish state, which it even des­cribes as an adversary. It’s ent­irely perverse and Machiavellian.”

“I imagine the majority of those in favour of independence will vote and I suppose that those who are against it won’t, but we shall see,” says Anna Jané, who says she will vote Yes to both questions. “Whatever the result, all the political parties will interpret it to suit their own ends.”

It is difficult to know exactly how things stand because the No voters have remained silent for a variety of reasons. Unlike Scotland, there is nothing like the Better Together campaign here. The nearest thing is Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), a platform launched by a broad spectrum of people in favour of Catalonia remaining part of the Spanish state. Its slogan is “better and together”.

“All the Catalan public ­med­ia are at the service of the ind­ependence movement and private media are heavily subsidised by the Catalan government,” says Mercè Vilarrubias, a founding member of SCC. “All of the autonomous region’s institutions are at the service of nationalism. It’s a regime, not a democracy.”

“SCC is like Better Together with the difference that we’re not recognised as a legitimate voice. The pro-independence people insult us and call us fasc­ists. They don’t seem to understand that there is a ­plurality of opinions in a ­democracy.”

If anyone has made it difficult for No voters to raise their profile it has been the Spanish government itself. Its high-handedness and intransigence and prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s refusal even to discuss the issue has driven hundreds of thousands of doubters into the Yes camp and weakened the No voters’ case.

However, Madrid’s reaction was entirely predictable and the Catalan government cannot ever have been in any doubt that it was a foregone conclusion that the referendum would be ruled illegal.

Referendums are not allowed under the constitution, to which Catalonia is a signatory. “If the Generalitat [Catalan parliament] thinks it can ignore the constitutional court or choose which bits of the constitution it has to obey and which not, they’ve got a pretty poor idea of democracy,” says Crespo. “The funniest bit is the Generalitat now says it’s going to bring a case against the central government… for complying with the law! Kafka couldn’t have done better.”

The fact remains that Mad­rid has played into the hands of the many Catalans who believe they are short-changed by central government.

“I have to admit that part of the pleasure of voting will be that it will annoy Rajoy’s government,” says Vicente.

Sunyol adds that he’s “del­ighted that the constitutional court has banned this referendum too. It’s one more ­message to the world of how pathetic this government is”.

Whatever the result, it’s not binding, so what next?

“My guess is that the vote will be Yes/No and that will sil­ence some of the more radical secessionists and might be a step towards negotiating a new relationship between Catalonia and Spain and tow­ards holding a proper referendum,” says Vicente.

Others are more cynical. “In a way we’ve become infantilised and have returned to 19th century debates,” says GC, who works for Barcelona city council and withheld his name for fear of reprisals.

“In reality, they’re just looking for a gesture, a reaction, so that mother Spain gives way and we can return to the status quo before the recession: easy money for the well-to-do.”

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