Catalonia’s silent majority struggles to unite against secession

Many doubt region’s seemingly headlong rush towards independence from Spain

Lola Mayenco was one of 2.26 million Catalans who cast their vote in Sunday's controversial independence referendum. Her ballot paper, however, looked different than most – it was left blank.

“I don’t like nationalism, but not to vote seemed to me like losing a democratic opportunity,” says the Catalan writer.

It was a small gesture, drowned out by the violence that marred the day, and the political escalation that followed. But it was also symptomatic of the doubt with which many Catalans view the region’s headlong rush towards independence.

Amid the political drama of the past few days, it is easy to overlook that a clear majority of Catalans did not endorse secession from Spain on Sunday. Of the 2.26m votes cast, 2.02m were in favour of independence, or less than 40 per cent of the Catalan electorate.


Winning converts

Neither can the pro-secession camp claim that it is winning converts at the ballot box: the number of people voting –and voting for independence – has been broadly stable since 2014.

"About 3.5m Catalans are not in favour of independence, or at least not in the current way," says Miquel Iceta, the leader of the Catalan Socialist party, which opposes secession. "To get to independence you have to at least get the majority of votes. And the pro-independence parties haven't got a majority of votes. So why are they trying to impose independence on a majority that doesn't want it?"

The answer lies, at least in part, in the nature of Catalonia’s silent majority, a group that is divided against itself on all matters except their rejection of secession.

It includes radical leftists who abhor Catalan nationalism as much as Spanish nationalism, business leaders who worry about the stability of the Catalan economy, and a large group of people who simply feel Spanish not Catalan, or who are comfortable with their dual identities.

Some want Madrid to crack down even harder on the pro-independence government in Barcelona. Others wait desperately for an offer of political dialogue from Spain, and a serious plan to halt the escalating conflict.

Uniting them under one banner looks impossible, especially if that banner is the flag of Spain.

Serious proposals

"We are not the same. I have nothing in common with the Partido Popular [the centre-right party of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy]," notes Joan Herrera, a Barcelona lawyer and a former leader of the left-wing ICV party in Catalonia. "I am not in favour of keeping things as they are but I am not in favour of independence either."

A key problem, he argues, is that the current Spanish government never made a serious proposal to address Catalan concerns, be it on a new system of regional funding or an overhaul of the constitution that recognises the country’s “pluri-national reality”.

Like many Catalan opponents of secession, Hererra says he is deeply disappointed with both sides of the conflict. “We are confronted with a state that has abandoned Catalonia and a government in Catalonia that is acting very irresponsibly,” he says. “The past few days have been very tough.”

He was speaking as yet another mass pro-independence rally marched through the streets of Barcelona. Such demonstrations have been a feature of the Catalan secession movement for years.

Despite their advantage in numbers, the opponents of independence have nothing to match such street power. Unionist demonstrations do take place, but they usually represent only one of several anti-independence groups. Even this week, they refuse to march together.

“Opponents of independence don’t have the cohesion that the pro-independence movement has. At independence rallies you find anti-capitalists and people who arrive in their Porsche,” says Jordi Alberich, director-general of the Cercle d’Economia, an influential Catalan business group.

“The anti-independence groups are marked by differences and nuances. The Communists want to have nothing to do with the PP, for example. So it is very difficult to bring them together. There is no formula that unites them.”

Trauma upon trauma

According to Iceta, the silence of the majority is in part natural, and in part the result of political failings. "It is always like this. The voice of those who didn't want independence in Scotland was not heard either, at least until the referendum [in 2014] . It is always the people who want to change the status quo who are in motion, who are mobilising. The others are the silent majority."

He adds: “But we also have to admit that the independence movement has presented itself as a project that is inspiring, that is positive and that looks to the future. Our failure has been that we were not able to offer a project that is as inspiring and positive, and that looks to the future as theirs.”

After casting her unmarked ballot paper on Sunday, Mayenco says she returned to her home in Vilassar de Dalt, north of Barcelona, to host a lunch for friends. She asked her guests to leave their mobile phones by the entrance, to shut out the anger and recriminations spread on social media.

“We wanted to speak calmly and avoid piling trauma upon trauma,” she recalls.

The conclusion from the lunch was that “this is not a war we want to fight”, that the real issues facing Catalonia and Spain have to do with schools and the economy and countless other issues, not the creation of a new border.

“I understand that there are people who care deeply about this piece of land,” says Mayenco. “But we care more about the people who live on this piece of land.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017