The build-up to Catalonia’s October 1st independence referendum was pronounced and elicited acute anxiety in both prospective voters and government officials, fearful of a put-down at the hands of the Guardia Civil. Preventative measures in forms of restricted access to pro-vote websites and threats of mass imprisonment had been mitted out by the central Spanish government, with the intent of keeping the public from the ballot boxes in what Spain regards as an unconstitutional vote.
As Sunday progressed it became increasingly apparent that the apprehension of many native Catalans was well-placed. News cycles, timelines and news feeds were inundated with images of scenes once thought unthinkable in Western democracies. Pictures of elderly voters, beaten, bloody, but still proud to have cast their ballot proliferated, and videos later circulated of battle lines drawn between the national guard and local Catalan security agents, protecting their citizens from the senseless swing of the Guardia’s black baton.
Spain has grappled with separatist sentiment since the establishment of the Second Spanish Republic in 1931, during which the region was granted broad autonomy. Since then, Catalonia’s position has proven tenuous. Its autonomy was revoked during Civil War in 1938 before being re-established following the death of General Franco in 1975. More recently, calls for greater autonomy have blossomed into independence movements, after a watershed High Court ruling in 2006 that struck down several articles of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, including that which would place the Catalan language in a position superior to Spanish.
The perception of the central government’s infringement of Catalan identity and autonomy has been reflected in the growth of the independence movement, manifest in a largely disaffected public, which in turn has populated its regional parliament with pro-independence party officials and a similarly inclined President, Carles Puigdemont. The President, an advocate of self-determination since the 1980s when support for independence was still in minority, stands in contrast to the right-wing nationalism of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, with whom the Catalan President has frequently come to blows.
Rajoy emerged from Sunday’s chaos defiant, reiterating the point that the referendum had been unconstitutional and, in a televised speech, proclaimed coldly that “we did what we had to do”.
But, the central government’s long-running contention that Catalan independence, and the referendum as a corollary, are illegal – and infringement of the Spanish constitution, has largely been overshadowed by the brutal methods of the Guardia Civil under the direction of the Rajoy government.
The response of the Spanish authorities underlines the fact that Spain has much to lose in the event of Catalonia’s independence. It’s one of the country’s most prosperous regions – accounting for one fifth of the state’s economic output, and is home to the City of Barcelona and a mass of Spanish tourism.
This anxiety seems to be the root of the Spanish government’s ignorance of the situation on the ground. Ironically, popular support for independence has stagnated recently, likely a consequence of a muddled succession of hollow, ‘symbolic’ referenda and perpetual conflict with Madrid. Pollsters estimate support for secession to be under 50%, with some 8% undecided. However, support for a vote to definitively settle the matter, à la Scotland, is a far higher.
The violent put-down of Sunday’s referendum, then, counterpose Rajoy’s intentions. Images of black-clad national guardsmen hammering and firing at defenceless, voting Catalans were beamed around the world, and severely undermined the Spanish leadership’s claims to the moral and legal high grounds.
There is, ultimately, a strong case to be made that Sunday’s vote should not stand, given non-agreement of both central and regional authorities to hold a vote, and in light of subsequent, distortive interference. That is not to say that a vote shouldn’t take place. In embroiling itself so physically on the ground Rajoy has painted the central government as oppressive, overshadowing the question of constitutional legitimacy with another: is Madrid muzzling democracy?
The Spanish put-down stands as an affront to democracy in an arena in which disaffected populations are increasingly taking hold of democratic processes to rouse great change. We are likely to see a proliferation of this trend in coming years, and Western leaders must sensitise themselves to the commitment of the people to democracy, if they are to avoid the blunder of Rajoy, who’s heavy-handedness will only deepen divisions, and renew calls for independence from a state increasingly seen as oppressive.