On the 9th of November 2014 the 7.2 million inhabitants of Catalonia, currently one of the 17 Autonomous Regions of Spain, will vote on independence from Spain in a move labeled unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court and denounced as illegal by the Spanish government. The referendum, referred to colloquially as 9N, has gone through many changes and negotiations over the past few months – some of which are even on-going in the last week before the polls open.
The principal players in these negotiations are the:
- Catalan Regional President Artur Mas from the center-right and moderately nationalist party CiU
- Oriol Junqueras, leader of the left-wing and strongly nationalist ERC which forms the parliamentary support for Mas’ independence coalition
- Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy from the right-wing PP, the Spanish Constitutional Court, and a host of Catalan grass-roots movements, organizations and NGOs campaigning in favor of independence.
In the periphery of the debate stand the many stateless nations, minority nationalist and separatist movements in the EU, principally represented by the European Free Alliance in the European Parliament. Other states facing minority movements such as the UK (Scotland and Wales), France (Brittany, Corsica, Savoy, and others), Italy (Veneto, Sardinia, and others) and several other countries are also following the Catalan referendum debate closely.
A yes vote could have enormous consequences not only for Catalonia, but for Spain and the EU as well. Catalonia represents around 20% of the Spanish economic output and their secession would have disastrous results for an already crisis-ridden Spain, perhaps even leading to a statewide bankruptcy.
The immediate lead-up to the referendum ostensibly started as early as 2010, when the Spanish Constitutional Court declared the newly formulated Catalan Statute unconstitutional. The Statute, approved by both a popular Catalan vote and by a large majority in the Catalan parliament, was essentially a bill of rights that would have increased Catalan autonomy and given it the definition of a nation, one of the Constitutional Court’s foremost points of critique. In 2012, large-scale pro-independence rallies gathered upwards of 2 million Catalans in the regional capital of Barcelona, an act repeated by 1.5 million demonstrators on the Catalan National Day of September 11th 2014. This led to elections, where Artur Mas (CiU) emerged as the victor with an electoral campaign emphasizing independence for Catalonia. In December 2013, a broad coalition of pro-independence parties (El Pacte Nacional pel Dret a Decidir) in the Catalan parliament agreed upon both the date of November 9th 2014 and the questions to be posed to the Catalan voters:
1) “Do you want Catalonia to become a state?” (“Vol que Catalunya esdevingui un estat?)
2) “In case of an affirmative response [to the above], do you want this state to be independent?” (En cas afirmatiu, vol que aquest estat sigui independent?”)
This September, as supporters of Catalan independence flooded the streets of Barcelona, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy asserted the illegality of the referendum, and brought it to the Constitutional Court. After a preliminary veto from the Court and the strong statements against it by the Spanish government, it seemed at first that President Mas would cancel the referendum. Following massive internal protest in Mas’ independence coalition from ERC , the Catalan Greens and the pro-independence, Marxist party CUP, Mas clarified that the referendum will indeed take place, but labeled it an ‘alternative consultation’. This put into question the political weight and legitimacy of the referendum, but still allows for the possibility that a ‘yes’ might lead to the Catalan parliament declaring independence.
So where does the Catalans stand now, one week before the scheduled referendum?
Over 35.000 volunteers have signed up to aid in the referendum, and more than 900 municipal governments in Catalonia have offered their public support, with only six refusing to cooperate. The regional government will supply materials, urns, and all of the 6.430 ballot boxes will be located in governmental buildings or public schools. Several poll-sites have been opened for Catalans living abroad in London, Berlin, Copenhagen and other places, and the eligibility to vote has not been changed. The most recent polls show that more than 80% of Catalans support the vote, with around 56% supporting outright independence
Technically then, the new ‘alternative’ referendum is almost identical to what was initially proposed. The political value of a yes has been heavily diluted, however, to the chagrin of ERC chairman Oriol Junqueras. His party has openly criticized Mas’ leadership and attempts at political compromise with the Madrid government, culminating in Junqueras’ recent statement that “independence is not negotiated; it is proclaimed (…) The pact is over. ” In recent polls, ERC seems to have greatly increased their support, and would likely topple Mas’ government, should elections follow the referendum.
Parallel to these internal Catalan tensions are the continuing claims from Madrid that the referendum is illegal and unconstitutional. The Spanish government has not yet specified the consequences for Catalonia if the referendum is held, but Prime Rajoy has menacingly assured that “the government has all necessary measures ready in case anyone tries to hold an illegal referendum. ” The options of charging President Mas with high treason and the suspension of the regional autonomy of Catalonia have been suggested, both of which would be unprecedented and extremely serious measures. Furthermore, thousands of Spanish Civil Guard police officers have been readied in case the government decides to send them into Catalonia to prevent the referendum. It is unknown how Catalonia’s own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, would react to such an intervention but ERC’s Junqueras has called for nation-wide civil disobedience if the referendum is prevented from taking place.
With only hours left until the ballot-boxes open it is still uncertain how the Catalan independence referendum will proceed, as are the political consequences of a yes vote. More certain are the deep rifts that have formed between the Spanish and Catalan governments, and the high stakes facing the citizens of Catalonia seeking a democratic vote this Sunday.