Catalan referendum: resisting the Spanish government siege

September 15, 2017
For the sixth year in a row, more than one million people came out for the National Day of Catalonia on September 11.

In 1713-14, it took the troops of Spain’s Borbon monarchy 14 months to take Barcelona and end Catalan self-rule. Three centuries later, Catalonia is again under siege, this time from the central Spanish People’s Party (PP) government.

Under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish state is concentrating all its firepower on stopping the Catalan government’s October 1 independence referendum, where Catalan citizens will be asked to vote on whether “Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic”.

Since September 6, the day its parliament adopted the law governing the referendum, Catalonia has experienced a “shock and awe” offensive aimed at forcing the pro-independence government of Premier Carles Puigdemont to submit to the will of the central Spanish administration.

The stakes could not be higher. If the referendum takes place, the PP minority government in Madrid will suffer a lethal blow to its credibility, opening the way to a change of government.

It would also bring into view the prospect of finally overturning the sub-democratic regime that has been in place since the late 1970s, when the heirs of the Francisco Franco dictatorship negotiated a flawed “transition to democracy” with the anti-dictatorship resistance.

By the same token, if the Rajoy government manages to stop October 1, it will be a setback not only for Catalan aspirations to sovereignty but also for all forces in Spain fighting for democratic rights and against austerity.

The partial weakening of the “1978 regime” represented by the rise of anti-austerity party Podemos and its allies would be contained: the “constitutionalist” parties — the PP, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the new right force Citizens — would be strengthened.

The fear campaign

This stark choice explains the ferocity of the Spanish government’s offensive since September 6. The measures it has taken amount to an undeclared state of emergency.

The Spanish Constitutional Court’s immediate decisions to suspend the referendum law and the Law of Jurisdictional Transition (to apply in the case on a Yes win) have allowed Spanish prosecutor-general Jose Manuel Maza to unleash a judicial firestorm via regional Catalan prosecutor’s offices and the Supreme Court of Justice of Catalonia.

The main thrusts of Maza’s offensive so far have been:

  • Charging members of the Catalan parliament’s speakership board who voted in favour of allowing debate on the laws with disobeying a lawful instruction and perverting the course of justice;
  • Instructing the electoral commission appointed by the Catalan parliament to cease all work on the referendum and later charging them with usurping public functions, disobedience and misuse of public funds;
  • Formally warning all MPs supporting the Catalan government and 700 senior public servants that any collaboration with the referendum will open them to charges of disobedience, perverting the course of justice and misuse of public funds;
  • Instructing the Catalan police, Spanish National Police, the paramilitary Civil Guard and municipal police forces to confiscate all material related to the referendum;
  • Warning all private media that if they carry advertising material for October 1 they will be liable to prosecution and instructing the heads of Catalan public radio and TV not to carry advertising material for the referendum;
  • Advising owners of halls and public spaces that hosting events connected with the referendum will open them to prosecution;
  • Having the Spanish postal service instruct its employees not to deliver any material connected to the referendum;
  • Ordering the closure of the websites of the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) and the Catalan Association of Municipalities and Shires (ACM) for facilitating collaboration with the referendum and of any website in any way connected with October 1; and
  • Opening proceedings against the 712 Catalan mayors (out of 948) who have indicated that their councils will make premises available for the referendum. The mayors are to be summoned to regional prosecutor’s offices, where they will face charges of disobeying a lawful instruction, perversion of the course of justice and misuse of public funds (which carries a jail sentence). The Catalan police have been ordered to arrest any mayor who fails their appointment with the prosecutor.

Police actions in support of this legal offensive have so far included a raid on the newspaper El Vallenc by the Civil Guard (with the editor charged with disobedience, perverting the course of justice and misuse of public funds) and the National Police preventing the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP) from reading a pro-independence manifesto in Valencia.

The most potentially serious action to date was the Civil Guard’s closing of the referendum website on September 13. However, the Catalan government had two replacement sites online immediately.

Symptomatic of the rising concern the Catalan rebellion is causing was the September 12 decision of a Madrid judge to ban a meeting on the Catalan right to decide from taking place on Madrid Council premises.

The organisers of the meeting, the Madrid for the Right to Decide platform, have since rescheduled the meeting to another location.

At the time of writing the rumours are of even more drastic action to come. The PP is supposedly moving towards establishing the legal and political grounds for suspending the Catalan government; 4000 extra National Police are ready to be deployed; and the Civil Guard is bringing extra agents into Catalonia — such is the daily dose of psychological warfare.

The war unfolds

The blatant goal of the central government campaign is to create a climate of fear and panic: the October 1 referendum is a political Chernobyl — if you even touch it you will not only go to jail, you will lose all your assets (like former Catalan premier Artur Mas, who stands to lose five million euros for allowing the November 9, 2014, “participatory process” (9N) to go ahead in the face of a court ban).

Central government ministers have personally weighed into this campaign. On September 12, finance minister Cristobal Montoro said that “nobody’s going to use a euro of public money against the law: it didn’t happen on November 9, and it won’t happen on October 1, unless someone wants to put their assets at risk.”

On September 13, Rajoy announced: “I say to everyone who understands that the government has to carry out its obligation, that we’re going to do that ... If anyone is asked to staff a voting centre, do not go because there cannot be a referendum and it would be an absolutely illegal act.”

With this statement Rajoy unwittingly betrayed his government’s double approach: to stop the referendum by any and every means that does not entail an intolerable political cost (like sending in the army) and, if that is not possible, to at least drive participation on October 1 down as low as possible.

At the core of the PP approach is the big lie that the Spanish government has no choice but to have the law obeyed because a Scottish-style referendum was always impossible under the Spanish constitution.

However, as innumerable jurists have pointed out, the constitution provides mechanisms for consultations of a part of the population of the Spanish state — the PP chose not to have one in the Catalan case because it has always seen greater political gain in cultivating anti-Catalanism in the rest of Spain.

Having made that choice, the PP has had no option but to paint the Catalan movement as authoritarian and anti-democratic and themselves as the upholders of constitutionality. Matters have reached the bizarre point where some PPers have accused the Catalan government of having Nazi and Francoist tendencies.

This need drove the tactics of the PP and the other unionist parties in the September 6 and 7 sessions of the Catalan parliament that adopted the new laws. Spanish television was provided with two days of filibustering, procedural haggling and theatrical outrage from the PP, Citizens, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) and even a fraction of the left force Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP).

The PP and Citizens speakers made a point of speaking in Spanish, so that their “indignation” over such matters as not being allowed by the speaker to move an amendment to the entire legislation could be understood by viewers in the rest of Spain. The supposedly undemocratic behaviour of the speaker then became a “truth” in public discussion.

Thus Rajoy, in justifying his government’s legal carpet bombing, said on September 13: “This was an anti-democratic act, a blow against democracy. And in Spain the law gets carried out because if not it would mean that the will of the majority of citizens counts for nothing.”

The battle for participation

How has the Catalan government and the forces supporting it reacted to this extreme aggression?

On the one hand by insisting that all logistics are in place for October 1 and that it will be going ahead regardless of the legal and constitutional barrage, and that people will be able to vote at their usual polling station.

At the September 14 launch of the Yes campaign, Puigdemont said: “Does anyone really believe we will not be voting on October 1? What sort of people do they think we are?”

Such confidence became more plausible earlier the same day, when the Catalan government and Barcelona Council announced they had reached an agreement on providing the usual schools in the Barcelona area as voting centres. This was an important gain in the decisive battle for participation, because it puts Catalonia’s biggest municipality on the side of October 1.

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau was criticised for delaying a decision on the issue, came to the agreement with the government despite advice from Barcelona Council’s legal service that it would potentially open the council to prosecution.

In the two provincial capitals run by the PSC, Lleida and Tarragona, the councils have refused to make premises available. In such cases the Catalan government will make its own premises available as polling stations.

The PSC is also driving a campaign to get its voters to stay at home, launching a manifesto called “On the illegal ‘referendum’ of October 1”. The problem for the Catalan sister party of the PSOE is the pressure on its councillors and mayors from the PSC membership and voting base — all polls show more than 50% of its members are prepared to vote in the referendum.

For their part, the mayors who have been called in by the Spanish prosecutor’s office have called a demonstration in central Barcelona for September 16. Coming after the million-strong September 11 Catalan National Day demonstration, that gathering looks sure to be big, as the morale of supporters of Catalan sovereignty and independence remains high and is rising.

If morale and commitment were enough to win on October 1, the victory would already be secure. In the 24 hours since the 712 mayors were summoned to appear before the prosecutors, 38 more have signed up to make their council’s premises available for the referendum. To ensure the proper staffing of voting stations, 5000 volunteers were needed: 47,000 have put their names down to help (13,000 more than for 9N).

Nonetheless, the Rajoy government simply cannot afford to lose this fight. Backed by the monarchy, big business, the establishment media and three of the four major parties, it remains confident in its capacity to cripple the Puigdemont government.

The deciding factors will be: whether the mass of Catalan supporters of independence — and of basic democratic rights — are strong enough to ward off Madrid’s sustained attack on the organisational logistics of October 1; whether the Puigdemont government can withstand the massive attempts to disorganise it; and whether, in the case that the referendum goes ahead, the enormous media campaign to denigrate it as “not a real consultation” fails to reduce participation.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed and updated version of this article will soon appear on the website of Links—International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.