Explainer | What is happening with the referendum in the Spanish region of Catalonia?

Get up to speed with what has happened so far in the Spanish region of Catalonia as riot police break up the assemblies of voters in the controversial referendum

Matthew Vella
2 October 2017, 9:32am
Spanish riot police have smashed their way into polling stations to try to halt a disputed independence referendum and fired rubber bullets at protesters outside a Barcelona polling station.

The officers opened fire on Sunday morning while clearing protesters who were trying to prevent cars from the national police force from leaving after officers confiscated ballot boxes from the voting centre.

Why do some in Catalonia want a referendum?

Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions and enjoys a relatively large level of autonomy, except over the areas of infrastructure and taxes. It is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions with its own language and a population of 7.5 million.

Making up 18.8 percent of Spanish GDP, compared to 17.6 percent from Madrid, the Catalan region is one of the richest in Spain. Madrid, does, however, have a higher per capita GDP.

Following the global economic downturn of 2008, separatist Catalans felt disproportionately affected by cuts and economic hardship, fuelling renewed calls for independence.

Spain’s regions have their distinctive languages and cultural identities, which centralized governments have sought to suppress: after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1977, Catalan culture experienced a resurgence, along with calls for independence.

Does everyone agree with the referendum?

No. As some went to cast ballots, other citizens boycotted the vote – and even protested against it – calling for a united Spain.

Lacking international recognition and a legal basis under the constitution, the vote turned into an act of mass civil disobedience against the conservative central government of Mariano Rajoy.

But it was not endorsed by the leading forces of the Spanish left, Podemos and Izquierda Unida, despite their defence of the Catalan people’s right to self-determination and opposition to the repression of the Spanish state.

Instead, the joint Unidos-Podemos have tried to carve out a middle road in the confrontation, recognizing the vote as a legitimate form of political mobilization, but one which is designed more as a show of strength by pro-independence forces than a genuine referendum.

Additionally, there is a lack of identification by the working class with the Catalan national question, who remain divided on independence. Indeed, the dominant political force for independence has been the Catalan nationalist right, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), which came to power in 1980 under the leadership of Jordi Pujol. The CDC has moved from a long period of conservative nationalism, to a more progressive current.

Why is the referendum not legally binding?

On September 6, the Catalan regional parliament approved a referendum on independence, agreeing the question on the ballot paper would read: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended the vote, but regional separatist leaders pledged to hold it anyway, promising to declare independence if the “yes” side wins. They called on 5.3 million eligible voters to cast ballots.

What was the reaction of the Spanish state?

Since the Spanish government considers the vote illegal, it has ordered police to stop the voting process. That has resulted in violent confrontations between riot police and unarmed voters.

In the days before the vote, more than 10 million ballot papers were confiscated and key officials arrested. In the hours before the polls opened, police moved to seal off many voting centres. But some centres were filled with activists determined to hold their ground.

Guardia Civil officers also dismantled the technology to connect voting stations, count the votes and vote online, leading the Spanish government to announce that holding the referendum would now be “impossible”.

Catalonia’s government has said 465 people have been injured in the clashes, some seriously.

What reactions have their been?

Nicola Sturgeon, head of the Scottish National Party, called on the Spanish authorities to let the vote press ahead peacefully.

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, condemned the ‘shocking’ police crackdown.

Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel, was among the few national leaders to denounce the violence, which the Catalan government said had left 465 people injured as police forcibly removed voters from polling stations and on one occasion fired rubber bullets.

“Violence can never be the answer!” Michel said on Twitter. His Slovenian counterpart, Miro Cerar, also expressed his concern, saying he was “concerned” and calling for “political dialogue, rule of law and peaceful solutions”.

Former Belgian prime minister and senior MEP Guy Verhofstadt also said that while he did “not want to interfere” in Spain’s domestic affairs, “I absolutely condemn what happened today in Catalonia”. It was “high time for de-escalation,” he said.


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Matthew Vella is executive editor at MaltaToday.