Battle for Barcelona: a deeply divisive independence vote

Catalonia on verge of biggest upheaval of modern history if poll goes ahead

On an overcast evening in Can Dragó, a recreational park, locals are gathering for a small rally in favour of Catalan independence, ahead of the referendum on the issue scheduled for Sunday. The event is organised by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), a pro-independence party that is a member of the Catalan region's governing coalition and a small tent has been set up bearing the red and yellow colours of the region's flag, where volunteers hand out fliers.

On the stage a singer is strumming lively rumbas on a guitar and making jokes about Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, whose opposition to the referendum has made him a figure of both disdain and ridicule to many Catalans.

The mood is festive and there is little here to suggest a region on the verge of the biggest upheaval of its modern history, or that the Catalan situation has thrown Spain into its deepest political crisis for decades.

But as they listen to three ERC politicians take their turns to speak, the response of the 50 or so mainly elderly people who are watching is passionate. "Votarem! Votarem!" ("We will vote"), they chant in Catalan at one point.


Later, they shout "No tinc por" ("I'm not afraid"), a slogan that went viral in the aftermath of the August terror attacks in Catalonia which killed 16. This time, they use the phrase to express their defiance not of jihadist terrorists, but of the Spanish government and state, which have been intent on preventing Sunday's vote from taking place.

“This is something that has been brewing for the last seven or eight years,” says Jaume Almirall, a 70-year-old pensioner who is watching the rally, of the referendum. “They’ve screwed us so much that we have to become independent. They’ve forced us to do this.”

“I hope I can vote,” he says. “I will try to vote. They’ve made it hard for us.”

Such uncertainty about whether the referendum will even take place is widespread, due to the government’s opposition. And despite the pro-independence fervour at rallies such as this one, Catalans have become deeply split over the issue and over secession in general.

As the ERC politician Anna Simó addresses the crowd, a passerby heckles her. “You’re dividing Catalonia!” he shouts in Castilian Spanish.

Answering in Catalan, she insists not.

England is strong because it's united. Germany is strong because it's united. Look at Yugoslavia . . . they're utterly screwed

Another more strident heckler is jeered by the public as he voices his grievances with the independence movement.

"They are sheep – they are being manipulated!" the man, who is 82 and identifies himself only as Josep, tells The Irish Times. He strides angrily away from the rally.

“People are playing on Catalan sentimentalism. When a country is strong it’s united. We need to be united – do you think we should be separated with all the enemies out there in the world?” he asks.

“England is strong because it’s united. Germany is strong because it’s united. Look at Yugoslavia . . . It’s all separated and they’re utterly screwed.”

Arrests of officials

On September 20th, members of the civil guard police force raided several premises belonging to the Catalan regional government in Barcelona. They stayed most of the day, searching for evidence linked to the October 1st referendum.

They also arrested 14 Catalan government officials on charges of masterminding the preparations for the vote. Later in the day, the civil guard seized about 10 million voting slips from a warehouse elsewhere in the city.

In a rare television address, Rajoy endorsed the police’s actions, which had been ordered by a judge. Insisting that the referendum would not be able to take place, he described it as “a chimera, or even worse, the excuse some seem to have been looking for to deepen even further the schism they have provoked in Catalan society.”

Rajoy and his conservative Popular Party (PP) government say the referendum is illegal. They had already taken steps to thwart it earlier this month, including announcing the partial seizure of Catalan government finances and the investigation of about 800 Catalan mayors who had offered their towns’ public spaces in which to stage the vote.

Such measures heightened the simmering tensions between Catalonia and Madrid. But the arrests of the Catalan government officials were particularly provocative, being seen as the boldest intervention by the Spanish state in one of its 17 autonomous regional administrations since the country’s return to democracy in the late 1970s, after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

‘This reminds us of Franco’

Almost as soon as the civil guard had entered the regional government buildings, outraged Catalans were out on the street demonstrating.

The deployment of thousands of police and civil guards to Catalonia from other parts of Spain has only added to the sense of crisis. This week, video footage of civil guards departing the southern city of Huelva for Catalonia went viral. It showed crowds out in the street waving Spanish flags and chanting "A por ellos!" (or "Go get them!"), as if the police were soldiers heading off to battle.

“There’s a very strong feeling in Catalonia that they are being mistreated and bullied,” says Josep Lobera, a political scientist at Madrid’s Autonomous University. “This all reminds people of the Franco dictatorship – since the dictatorship we haven’t seen anything like it.”

While the events of recent days may have made the referendum look less likely to take place, they do appear to have stiffened the resolve of Catalans who were already in favour of independence.

“They’re trying to persuade us in an illegal way not to go and vote,” says office worker Andrea Oxovi. Police officers have been to her daughter’s school this week, she says, to ask the principal whether or not he plans to allow the premises to be used as a voting station on Sunday.

“Why are policemen going to schools? What is that?” she asks. “That’s not the way a democracy should treat its citizens.”

She says the Spanish government’s heavy-handedness has persuaded several people she knows, who were against the referendum and secession, to vote this weekend in favour of independence.

“Rajoy has handled this very badly. He has allowed the problem to get much worse,” says Lobera. “People who previously didn’t intend to vote now want to go and vote.”

A Catalan republic

Although Catalan separatism can be traced back decades, or even centuries, the current drive towards independence is widely seen as having begun almost exactly five years ago.

In September of 2012, the then Catalan president Artur Mas went to Madrid to ask Rajoy to negotiate a new arrangement with Catalonia, to give it more control over its finances. Catalans complained that their relatively wealthy region paid out much more in taxes to the central government coffers than it received back in investment.

Rajoy flatly refused, citing the economic crisis that was afflicting the country.

Spanish courts repeatedly reversed the Catalonia's attempts to pass legislation in areas such as social and environmental policy.

“We always thought that Spain would understand the aspirations of a people like the Catalans,” Mas said afterwards. “I understand now that this is not the case.”

But Catalan grievances were not purely financial. They also revolved around perceived attempts to rein in existing autonomy, such as in the area of Catalan language. In addition, the Spanish courts repeatedly reversed the region’s attempts to pass legislation in areas such as social and environmental policy.

The recession of 2008-2013 left many Catalans poorer and seeking a new political alternative. The arrival in power of Rajoy’s rigidly unionist PP in 2011 would drive many into the arms of separatism, which promised, realistically or not, a Catalan republic that would be more productive, more democratic and less corrupt than the state they were leaving behind.

Since 2012, the nationalist Catalan government has put secessionism firmly in the political mainstream, channelling an already substantial civic movement.

In 2015, pro-independence parties won a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament (but not a majority of the popular vote), giving them, they said, a mandate to push ahead with a road map to independence.

Since then, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has done exactly that, pushing through the regional parliament laws paving the way for the referendum and an independent state.

Polls suggest Catalan society is fairly evenly divided on the issue of independence, although more than three-quarters would like a formal, Scotland-style referendum, a proposal Rajoy roundly rejects.

Many Catalans find it hard to understand the Spanish prime minister’s rigidity on this issue. But it is closely linked to the reverence still held for the 1978 constitution, which, three years after Franco’s death, laid down the foundations for Spain’s mainly successful transition to parliamentary democracy.

A regional referendum on secession violates that document, Rajoy argues with the backing of many (but not all) legal experts.

Penalty shoot-out

For Mariano Gomà, president of the unionist organisation Catalan Civil Society (SCC), Puigdemont is an outlaw who “has decided to commit suicide”.

"He's on the edge of the precipice," Gomà told El País newspaper. "But he wants to take on that role until the end. We have no doubts that the referendum will not take place because it violates all the laws."

The organisation lacks both the unity and the ability to mobilise of its adversaries. But the kind of strident convictions expressed by its leader are commonplace within the anti-independence camp. Such entrenchment on both sides has made a solution to the Catalan stalemate increasingly difficult.

“The problem is we have a PP government which has denied the existence of a problem and a Catalan government which has taken advantage of that denial to pursue the objective of independence,” says Carles Ruiz, the mayor of the town of Viladecans, near Barcelona.

His Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) proposes creating a new, federal, state structure to defuse the standoff. But it has at times been caught in the middle of the crossfire, uneasy at Rajoy’s legalistic approach, but unwilling to welcome a yes-no referendum on breaking away from Spain.

“It’s quite obvious that you can’t decide such an important issue as the creation of a new state and separation from another state via a penalty shoot-out,” he says, using a football analogy.

Punk aesthetic

Sergi Fuentes has been sleeping rough at Barcelona university, where he studies political sciences, since September 22nd as part of a protest at Madrid’s attempts to stop the referendum.

With earrings, a Mohican and a camouflaged T-shirt, he fits the punk aesthetic of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), the small, anti-capitalist party whose support for the nationalist government in the Catalan parliament has allowed the independence drive to get this far.

The CUP is the most radical secessionist party in mainstream politics and for its supporters Sunday’s referendum represents a long dreamed-of moment. While he says he believes the vote will take place despite the obstacles in its way, like most Catalans, he is not entirely sure what will happen.

He insists that the CUP and other pro-independence forces will remain peaceful, although he suggests that violence on the part of the Spanish authorities could benefit his cause.

“That would send an image to the rest of the world that would help us, it would encourage other countries to support the referendum,” he says.

Many theories are circulating regarding not just what will happen on Sunday, but what will unfold afterwards. There have been reports that if the referendum is blocked, Puigdemont will consider issuing a unilateral declaration of independence next week.

Others suggest he might call a regional election in a bid to bolster the pro-independence majority in the regional parliament. Some have ventured that Rajoy is mulling calling a general election, to capitalise on anti-independence feeling elsewhere in Spain.

There is, of course, always the possibility that once the dust settles, both sides will cautiously start to negotiate an increase in Catalan self-government, without granting it full independence.

But for Fuentes, it is too late for that. “For me that wouldn’t be enough. For me the only solution is independence, given the situation and knowing the Spanish state,” he says.

“We’ve started down this road. We’re not going to take a step back.”