On November 9, 2.305 million residents of Catalonia defied a November 4 Spanish Constitutional Court ruling and voted on what future political status they wanted for their country, now one of the 17 “autonomous communities” (regions) within the Spanish state.
Because of their rebellion — festive but determined — it was not just another voting day. Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) co-coordinator Joan Herrera called it “the biggest demonstration in the history of this country”.
Participation exceeded the most optimistic expectations of organisers, who had informally set 1.5 million as a respectable target.
Those who took part in the poll — dubbed a “participatory process” after the original consultation had also been suspended by the Constitutional Court — were asked: (1) Do you want Catalonia to become a state? (2) If yes, do you want that state to be independent?
The near-final results were: 1.86 million (80.76% of voters) for independence, 232,000 (10.07%) for Catalan statehood but not independence, 105,000 (4.54%) for no change in Catalonia’s status, and 107,000 (4.62%) either offering other suggestions or spoiling the voting paper.
The unprecedented turnout defied not only the Constitutional Court’s ban but Spanish state intimidation.
This intimidation included: the refusal of the national Post Office to deliver material related to the vote; requests from the national prosecutor’s office for the names and addresses of school principals and others charged with opening their workplaces as voting centres; heavy hints that the national prosecutor might require Catalan regional police to close voting centres down; and threatening letters to national civil servants warning them not to act as volunteers in any “illegal activity”.
The aggression of an enraged and humiliated Spanish government is only growing. By November 13, national People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had once again refused point blank to allow Catalonia a Scottish-style referendum.
The Spanish state prosecutor’s office was also formulating charges against Catalan Premier Artur Mas and Catalan government ministers for violating court orders and perverting the course of justice.
When forced to choose between the Spanish court prohibition and Catalans’ enormous desire to vote, Mas's Convergence and Union (CiU) government had no choice but to come down on the side of popular sentiment. Its decision to call Rajoy's bluff was key to the success of the “participatory process”.
Voting opened at 9am, but from 8am, huge queues were forming outside polling stations. The mood was calm but euphoric, as it sank in that Catalans were getting a say on their future after four years of intense legal and political warfare with the Spanish state.
Madrid's intimidation campaign only helped build November 9. One reason crowds gathered outside polling stations from such an early hour was to stop any last-minute bid to stop the vote.
The fear campaign also helped convince many Catalan residents — especially working-class migrants from other parts of the Spanish state who are not supporters of independence — that they should take the chance to vote against PP bullying.
This mood ended up being reflected in a contradictory “division of labour” within the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), the Catalan sister of the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Its leaders condemned the consultation as illegal and suggested PSC supporters not take part, but its mayors and councillors helped organise the vote in their towns and villages.
A day of joy
It was a day of tears and smiles, and of huge collective satisfaction. There were the excited young people — the voting age was 16 — taking “selfies” of themselves voting. Multiple generations of families made a point of voting together.
There were Catalonia’s migrants — from north and sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, Pakistan, India and China — who lined up patiently, often with estalades (the Catalan independence flag) in hand.
Most moving of all was the older generation, often the very old, who could remember the Catalan republic of the 1930s. They had lived through the murderous repression of the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship and the post-Franco “transition” that produced the existing compromised Spanish constitution.
They often voted tearfully, remembering loved ones who had fallen victim to Francoism or who had gone into exile, never to return to Catalonia.
One 100-year-old woman said with a smile after voting: “Now I can die in peace.” A very old man told Catalan public television the vote was “better than 1931” — the municipal election that produced the abdication of King Alphonse XIII — as if that event had happened in recent weeks.
Striking, too, was the turnout by the Catalan diaspora, both those who voted in the 17 Catalan government offices abroad, and those who made the often long trip home to vote.
In Sydney, for example, where there was no Catalan community before the present economic crisis forced many younger Catalans abroad, more than 200 turned up to vote. In New York, queues were so long that people had to wait up to six hours.
PP humiliation and rage
It is difficult to exaggerate the size of the problem the Rajoy government now has in Catalonia, as shown in reactions from different parts of the PP universe.
One is the classic Spanish centralist gut reaction — rebellion in the provinces must be crushed. This is strongest in the ultra-centralist Union for Progress and Democracy, which inundated magistrates with injunctions demanding they order voting closed down. It also appeared inside the PP as mutterings about Rajoy’s softness towards “the secessionists”.
Other PP voices, aware of the impact such a move would have across the Spanish state — including in the Basque Country and Galicia — were quick to urge caution. Galician PP Premier Alberto Nunez Feijoo, for instance, said that 2.3 million Catalans voting peacefully should not be criminalised.
Catalan politics now enters a new phase of debate and struggle among the parties supporting the right to self-determination. These fall into two basic groups.
On the one hand, the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the left-nationalist Popular Unity candidacies favour rapid elections followed by a unilateral declaration of independence.
On the other, ICV and its ally the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), along with the Democratic Union of Catalonia, insist on maintaining pressure for a genuine referendum to show wavering voters that everything possible has been done to extract a “Scottish” deal from Madrid.
Both sides are appealing to the results of November 9 to justify their approach. To understand why, it helps to compare these with the results of the 2012 Catalan elections.
Firstly, the vote for independence was so high on November 9 because hundreds of thousands of opponents of independence boycotted the “participatory process”. Overall, 36.6% of potential voters took part in November 9, compared to the 3.658 million who voted in 2012 (63.02%).
At this poll, there was a high degree of correlation between participation by region and the size of the pro-independence vote.
At one extreme, in the pro-independence stronghold of the Pla d’Estany, the turnout was 91.8% of that in 2012, and the pro-independence vote 92.66%. At the other, in industrial, working-class Baix Llobregat, the turnout was 49.66% compared to 2012 and support for independence 72.12%.
Clearly, if more had turned out in Barcelona’s working-class “belts” and other industrial cities like Tarragona, the percentage support for independence would have been lower. It would have been more in line with an October poll that indicated support for independence in a referendum at 49.4%.
In this knife-edge situation, the strategy of the governing CiU for consolidating a pro-independence majority is to create a united “ticket for the country” — a list above parties that would also incorporate Catalan personalities and nationalist movement leaders.
The tactic is also aimed at entrenching Mas as the presidential-style leader of the process in the face of competition from opinion poll leader ERC.
ICV-EUiA continues to insist on the need for a real referendum, which would spare it the divisive choice of supporting or opposing independence at an election. However, given PP intransigence, this stance will be increasingly seen as subordinating the struggle in Catalonia to hopes for more favourable developments in the Spanish state.
After November 9, the political dynamic between Catalonia and the Spanish state is more than ever the other way around. The further development of the Catalan national struggle will have an increasingly powerfully disintegrating impact on all-Spanish politics.
In this context, a vital role will be played by left supporters of independence. Their message to working-class voters will be that choosing independence does not have to mean choosing between Catalan or all-Spanish austerity.
As against Mas’s “ticket for the country”, the left is challenged to create a “ticket for a socially just country”. This would be allied to CiU and Mas on independence, but pointing to a different future for Catalonia than that of the “Austria of the South” dreamed of by sections of Catalan business.
As in Scotland’s referendum campaign, the better the left does its job, the greater the chance of creating a pro-independence majority. Also, the greater the chance of an independent Catalonia starting with a strongly progressive balance of social forces.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article has appeared at Links International Journal of Socialist renewal.]