External Affairs

A Peaceful, Mature Fight for and Against Independence in Catalonia

Most Catalans made it clear, peacefully, that the status quo is not an option any more.

People gather during a protest against police actions during the banned independence referendum in front of city hall in Pineda de Mar, Spain, October 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Albert Gea

People gather during a protest against police actions during the banned independence referendum in front of city hall in Pineda de Mar, Spain, October 3, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Albert Gea

On the threshold of 2018, The Wire revisits some uplifting moments from 2017. Here’s 2017: The Year in Hope.

2017 was the year Catalonian nationalists pinned their hopes on obtaining a brand new country.

The regional government organised a referendum amidst unprecedented riot police presence and international attention. A declaration of independence led to Madrid exploiting constitutional powers. Results of snap elections in Catalonia also displayed sharp divisions on this issue.

However, for all the emotional streets protests and unique legal powers invoked this year in Spain’s northeastern region, it has remained non-violent. There has been no stone-pelting, despite the use of police force on referendum day. No credible separatist leaders have called for violent action, nor has the Spanish government in Madrid called for a massive security crackdown. Rather, all the charges and arrests have been at the behest of Spain’s fiercely-independent judiciary.

During Franco’s dictatorship, Catalan language and culture was suppressed.  After his death, the new nascent democracy had a constitution which gave substantial self-governance powers to its 17 autonomous regions.

The latest independence movement was catalysed by Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal partially striking down amendments in the autonomy statute that would have given the regional governments much wider powers. After the June 28, 2010 order, more than one million people came out to the streets in a peaceful protest in July.

Catalonia accounts for 6% of Spain’s land and 16% of the population, but contributes 20% to the economy. Grievances were exacerbated by the 2008 economic crisis, with many Catalans unhappy that their contribution to the Spanish economy had not yielded proportional returns for their region.

However, Catalans themselves are not united, with less than 50% wanting full independence, as per Genralitat pollsters. The skepticism is largely over the future of Catalonia in the EU, with the EU making it clear that it will have to apply for membership. The uncertainty has already led to over 1,000 companies moving out of the region.

Catalonia’s efforts to becoming a free country have largely been subjected to legal football. The regional parliament usually passes a legislation on the right to sovereignty and self-determination, but it inevitably gets suspended or struck down by the Spanish constitutional court. Till now, Madrid has made noises, but has largely not used physical force to keep the rebellious Generalitat in line.

The peaceful nature of the protest and the political and legal response from Madrid was the reason why the widespread presence of Madrid’s Civil Guards led to a sense of shock among Catalans. As per Generalitat, over 800 were injured in clashes on referendum day.

Ninety percent voted ‘yes’ for independence – but voter turnout for the referendum was only about 43%.

In the aftermath, Spanish judges stepped in and jailed nine pro-independence leaders. Carles Puigdemont fled to Brussels after charges of sedition and misappropriation of funds were slapped on him. Pro-independent Catalans blamed Madrid for the arrests, but the judiciary in Spain has largely taken its own path.

The politico-legal theatre came to a head on October 27 – when the Catalan parliament declared independence. Within minutes, the Spanish Senate permitted Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to invoke the constitution’s Article 155 for the first time.

Rajoy dissolved the Catalan parliament, but took away the sting by announcing snap elections in Catalonia within two months.

The December 21 polls showed that the separatists have maintained their support. They obtained less than 50% of the votes, but they have got an absolute majority in parliament – 70 out 135 seats.

With Puigdemont’s self-exile and other leaders incarcerated, Madrid sees an opportunity to block this majority. This could allow the second-largest party, unionist and centre-right Ciudadanos, to form a minority government. But, if Madrid is seen as interfering or overstepping, this could breed wider resentment.

What has made the Catalonian movement a fascinating study? There are no bombs going off on the street, no pellet guns and no disappearances. The police force on October 1 was technically within constitution. The December21 poll was free and fair.

While manoeuvres are still being made – using politics and legal loopholes – and a resolution is still some way away, it is heartening to see that neither side has resorted to violence to drive home their point.

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