Is it possible to have a successful referendum when your country is effectively occupied by 10,000 police and paramilitaries with orders to stop it?
The holding of Catalonia’s October 1 referendum on independence shows it is: all you need is a mobilised people with a clear view of where they are going, Europe’s most powerful and persistent social movement to help guide them, and a government committed to carrying out its promises.
Add to those already rare ingredients imperviousness to provocation and violence, ability to improvise when logistics are sabotaged and determination to prevail in spite of a sea of difficulties, often including severe tensions within your own camp.
Then you’ve uncovered the recipe for victory.
Referendum and resistance
The people of Catalonia proved this on October 1. Despite more than 90 attacks on polling stations by Spanish National Police and paramilitary Civil Guard, and many logistical failures, more than 3 million (57% of the electoral roll) came out that day to vote. About 2.26 million succeeded in defying obstacles to do so.
The other 770,000 (the Catalan government’s figure) either found their polling station sealed off or their vote carried off in a ballot box confiscated by the “forces of law and order”. The Spanish police and Civil Guard had bashed their way through peaceful defence pickets to get their hands on election material apparently more dangerous than any terrorist suspect.
The 900 injured victims of this brutal operation gave millions of shocked people around the world their first glimpse of the authoritarian heart of the Spanish state with strong continuity from the 1939-75 Francisco Franco dictatorship. Despite this extreme stress, the referendum organisation held up.
This allowed 2.02 million Catalans to vote for independence (89.2% of the counted vote), 176,500 to oppose it (7.8%) and 65,700 to vote informal (2.9%).
In absolute terms, the 2.02 million-strong “Yes” to the question “Should Catalonia become an independent state in the form of a republic?” was an increase of 158,000 since the September 9, 2014 non-binding participatory process. Support for independence would have been much higher if the referendum had been held in normal circumstances.
The success of October 1 against all the violence, dirty tricks and black propaganda of the Spanish state has given an enormous boost of self-confidence to those Catalans (80% of the population) who support their country’s right to determine its relation to the Spanish state.
Dramatic and astonishing proof was the overwhelming adherence to an October 3 “civil stoppage” — a general strike — against police violence and the size of the demonstrations that accompanied it.
The stoppage was called by the Roundtable for Democracy, representing Catalonia’s pro-independence mass organisations, its main union confederations, small and medium business, and social, cultural and sporting organisations.
In many centres, the demonstrations — officially due to start at 6pm but already under way from 11am — were the biggest since the end of the Franco dictatorship.
Probably the most astonishing turnout was in the northern provincial capital of Girona. On October 1, police attacks in Girona had been widespread and vicious — to the point of police using tear gas to clear a polling station in the town of Aiguaviva.
According to municipal police figures, 60,000 of Girona’s 100,000 population overflowed the city centre on October 3. They gathered not just to protest the police violence that brought back memories of the Franco dictatorship, but also to celebrate the triumph of the successful holding of the referendum despite it.
In Barcelona, the whole city centre was paralysed by a crowd of 700,000 (municipal police figure). Its epicentre was the student occupation of the University of Barcelona, an important organising point in the run-up to October 1.
There were 60 road and freeway closures on the day, which often closed off entire shires. About 5000 tractors were mobilised to carry this out. Rural sector adherence to the stoppage was between 70-90%, depending on the region.
A common feature of the rallies was acts of appreciation for Catalonia’s firefighters. They had played a critical role on October 1, helping organise defence of polling stations and voters — and making sure that shocked and enraged Catalans did not fall for police and Civil Guard provocations.
As a result, one of the most popular chants of the last fortnight of mass protest (“The Streets Will Always Be Ours”) gave rise to an equally popular variant (“The Firefighters Will Always Be Ours”).
The October 3 mobilisation went well beyond Catalonia’s pro-independence camp. It drew in tens of thousands of supporters of continuing the union with Spain who were outraged at the violence unleashed on peaceful voters.
This reaction was visible on October 1: on seeing the police attacks on television, many who were undecided expressed their disgust by coming out to vote.
The people save their referendum
October 1 was supposed to be the referendum that never was – its demise was announced time and again on Spanish state establishment media.
Today, headlines like “The Law Dismantles The Referendum” (La Voz de Galicia, September 21) and “[Spanish Prime Minister Mariano] Rajoy Dismantles Catalan Government’s Plan B” (El Espanol, September 30) are looking very stupid indeed.
Not that this embarrassing reality flatfooted Rajoy — despite his endless promise that “this referendum will not take place” and his personal assurance to opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) leaders that there would be no ballot boxes and hence no need for police assaults to get them.
On the night of October 1, the slippery Spanish PM from the right-wing People’s Party simply declared that what had taken place in Catalonia that day was not a referendum. Rather, it was “a mere stage show, one more episode in a strategy against democratic social harmony and legality”.
Despite the obstacles, the referendum happened because every attack from the forces of the Spanish state was met by a counter-attack led by the Catalan government. Especially crucial was the increasingly important role being played by the pro-independence mass organisations — the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the Catalan culture and language defence organisation Omnium Cultural and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI).
The Catalan people responded in hundreds and thousands to their call for help with logistics and for mobilisation. They created informal organisational networks and a street presence that overwhelmed expectations and is today sending shudders through the Spanish establishment.
The barest facts of this pattern of blow and counter-blow were:
- On September 15, the Civil Guard confiscated 1.5 million official referendum posters and millions of ballot papers. The website “Let’s Paste Up” was then created, from which posters are downloaded and pasted up in millions by community paste-up teams.
- On September 15, the Civil Guard closed referendum-related websites. The Catalan government immediately reopened them within proxy servers. A cat-and-mouse game started in which referendum-related sites closed by the Civil Guard mushroom into life elsewhere under the care of enthusiastic internet activists.
- On September 20, the Civil Guard raided 11 Catalan government and government-related buildings, and arrested 13 high-level Catalan government officials. The ANC and Omnium Cultural called on people to mobilise outside the economics ministry in central Barcelona – 40,000 did.
- On September 21, the 13 arrested appeared in court, supported by a demonstration of 20,000. Catalan Premier Carlos Puigdemont announced the referendum was going ahead.
- On September 24, the ANC and Omnium Cultural announced their “marathon of mobilisation” at 500 meetings across Catalonia;
- On September 25, the Spanish state prosecutor ordered the Catalan police placed under the control of the Spanish interior ministry. The Catalan government refused to accept the ruling.
- On September 26, the Spanish state prosecutor’s office demanded all school principals and community health centres hand over keys and security codes to the police. In response, the Catalan health and education ministers took collective responsibility for making these premises available. School pricipals handed over keys to Puigdemont in a symbolic ceremony.
- On September 26, the Spanish state prosecutor in Catalonia ordered all polling stations closed from September 29 and surrounded by a 100-metre no-go area. The judge in charge of the case against the referendum overruled him, saying polling stations can only be closed on October 1.
- On September 27, teaching unions and education associations launched the website Open Schools through which people could volunteer to sleep over in schools from September 29 to October 1, attracting 70,000 volunteers in less than two days.
The people versus the Spanish state
Throughout these rising tensions, even the most optimistic had moments of doubt about whether the referendum could go ahead. That it did was due to three key factors the Spanish state failed to control.
The first was the disciplined and organised occupation and defence of polling stations. Up to 2000 of the 2315 polling stations were occupied from September 29. Parents and teachers put on imaginative programs of activities for children and for themselves (including a 24-hour table tennis tournament in one location.)
This physical control of polling stations meant that the police (Catalan and Spanish) and the Civil Guard had to decide what level of violence to use to lay their hands on the “illegal” voting material inside them.
The Catalan police decided not to use physical pressure, while the Spanish agencies — as seen in footage across the world — unleashed indiscriminate violence on young and old alike.
Their effort was enough to close down 92 polling centres and destroy the right to vote of about 14.5% of the electorate. However, this was insufficient to invalidate the referendum, as international observers noted. It also came at enormous political cost to the Spanish state’s image as a “modern European democracy”.
The second factor that escaped the control of Spain’s police apparatuses was organisational: the Catalan government managed to have ballot boxes manufactured and delivered to all polling stations. This was a World War II Resistance-style operation, involving storing the boxes on the other side of the French border, then distributing them via private households in Catalonia.
Those involved will be talking about this operation for years. The work of a Chinese firm, 10,000 ballot boxes were made and stored near Elna, site of a famous maternity hospital for Spanish women refugees from the 1936-39 civil war. They were then smuggled into Catalonia in private cars, often using the same back roads that refugees had taken out of Spain after Franco’s victory in 1939.
Members of the informal network organising the referendum then hid the boxes in the safest places they could imagine — including up trees in remote forests, on top of lifts and down wells. The upshot was that not one box was found by the Civil Guard or the Spanish National Intelligence Centre (CNI) before October 1.
The moment participants knew the referendum really was going ahead was early on the morning of October 1 when cars drove up to polling stations and unknown people rushed the ballot boxes inside through cheering defence pickets.
On top of this brilliant operation, the last-minute new software program developed to enable any voter to vote at any polling station held together — despites delays and wobbles.
The third and most important factor behind the success of October 1 was the refusal of the mass pickets confronting rampaging Spanish National Police and Civil Guards to be provoked into abandoning the agreed approach of peaceful passive resistance.
This tactic meant the attacking police squads had to spend an inordinate amount of time dismantling often tightly entangled human pickets, in many cases headed by firefighters. In some cases — as when the inhabitants of Mont-Roig del Camp pushed the Civil Guard out of town — the “forces of order” did not even make it into the polling stations they were supposed to close.
The dignified patience and cheerfulness of those queuing to vote — sometimes for five hours — was remarkable. The behaviour of the people as they queued — passing the oldest and frailest to the front, sharing food and umbrellas under the drizzle, turning their mobiles to airplane mode to ease the load on the network, cheering those who had voted as they came out into the street — was solidarity at its best.
Probably the most moving moments involved veterans of the Civil War — men and women at least 95-years-old who had survived horrors like the Battle of the Ebro and Nazi concentration camps. As they emerged after voting, everyone stood to applaud.
The reaction of the Rajoy government to this humiliation has been swift and vicious. In the four days since the referendum:
- The heads of the Catalan police, the ANC and Omnium Cultural have been charged with sedition (carrying up to 15 years jail);
- Six judges are already investigating whether the Catalan police were “passive” or “complicit” on October 1;
- The Spanish interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido ordered the 10,000 Spanish National Police and Civil Guards still in Catalonia stay there as long as needed, and
- Zoido also ordered that Catalan police who have been decorated will have to swear loyalty to the Spanish constitution to keep their medals.
On October 3, King Philip VI appeared on television to denounce the Catalan government as an outlaw operation against whom the full force of the law must be used. The king sought to further propagate the myth that social harmony between Catalan and Spanish speakers is breaking down under the Puigdemont government.
This disgusting lie — a conscious operation to justify new repression against Catalonia to the rest of Spain — was a clear indication the Rajoy government is preparing to either declare a state of emergency (under article 116 of the Spanish constitution) or suspend the Catalan self-government (under article 155).
Rajoy and his government will have been encouraged to move against the rebel Catalans by the October 4 debate in the European parliament. The majority conservative, liberal and social-democratic groups agreed that the European Union had no mediating role to play in the conflict.
On the other hand, Madrid must weigh the political cost of trying to impose direct rule on a Catalan population that has experienced victory, is prepared to stand up for its rights and includes a majority that has likely already disconnected from Spain.
A bungled, high-cost operation in this context would not only severely damage the PP, it would also help anti-austerity party Podemos and its allies overtake PSOE which is seen — yet again — as the PP’s accomplice in repression.
In this volatile context, the Catalan government must decide if and when it should put a declaration of independence before Catalonia’s parliament. October 9 is the day presently set for this debate — it could be historic for Catalonia, Spain and Europe.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An updated and more detailed version of this article will soon appear on the website of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]