According to Bloomberg, over 6,000 ballot boxes were hidden in secret locations around Catalonia (traditionally known as Catalunya). Normally, voting processes are all about transparency, and hiding ballot boxes would appear to be both unnecessary and suspicious.
But in this case, the ballot boxes in Catalonia were being hidden to protect the sanctity of the voting process.
On Sunday, October 1, the Spanish region of Catalonia voted on their independence. It’s a vote the Spanish government did everything to stop. It didn’t work. Despite threats by the Spanish government not to proceed, Catalans removed the doors of polling stations in order to prevent them from being nailed shut, and then occupied the stations so as to allow the vote to proceed. Spanish police moved in and violence ensued, with many arrests and almost 900 Catalans injured.
Catalonia is a region in northeastern Spain that has had its own distinctive language and culture since at least the middle of the 13th century, accompanied by a big desire for self-determination. After the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco in 1975, there was a surge in Catalan nationalism. The 1978 constitution then gave the region autonomy.
Now, in the last decade, many Catalans have sought strenuously to separate Catalonia and its capital of Barcelona from the rest of Spain. According to a poll by the Spanish newspaper El Periodico de Catalunya, 85 percent of eligible voters in Catalonia were in favor of holding the referendum vote. Only 41 percent, however, said they would vote “yes” for independence. So Catalans were quite divided on the issue.
The October 1st vote was not the first time the region has voted on independence. In 2014, there was a non-binding referendum, with 80 percent of participants voting for independence. But the vote was considered a failure, as only 32 percent of eligible voters turned up. 2017 sees a somewhat different political climate, however, and “separatists” now hold the majority in parliament.
Why didn’t Spain want the referendum?
* The economy: As reported by Al Jazeera, Catalonia makes up 15 percent of Spain’s population and, more importantly, 20 percent of the country’s economy. The gross domestic product of Catalonia is roughly equivalent to that of the United Kingdom, while the GDP of Spain sans Catalonia approaches that of Poland. Barcelona is also one of Spain’s largest tourist destinations. The rest of the country would lose those economic benefits if Catalonia were to secede.
* It’s unconstitutional: Spain’s 1978 Constitution was approved by referendum, including by over 90% of Catalans. Spain’s Constitutional Court has confirmed that their constitution does not contemplate the possibility of secession (nor does the U.S. constitution, by the way), nor a referendum on secession. It does, however, allow for a process of constitutional change. Thus, the constitutionally-supported path to Catalan independence would be to strive for a constitutional amendment allowing secession.
* Wave of separatism: Catalan independence would open the door wide for other would-be separatists, such as the Basques.
Why does Catalonia want to separate from Spain?
* Unfair financial distribution: Although Catalonia has been given autonomy over its own regional government, and control of important things such as health care and education policies, Catalans still pay taxes to Spain’s capital of Madrid. Many Catalans insist that as part of Spain, Catalonia does not reap benefits equal to what it contributes to Spain’s economy.
* Maintaining the Catalan identity: There is a long history of Catalonia’s unique identity being quashed. Throughout the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, Catalonia’s language and symbols were banned or suppressed by the Spanish government. Separatists have hoped that a successful referendum could help to maintain the culture that remains.
Previous polls had shown that Catalonians were quite divided on their desire for independence from Spain. However, as the Spanish government hardened its position— issuing threats, shutting down voting websites, and sending police to the region to seize ballot boxes, block polling stations and arrest those involved with the vote — their actions seem to have energized the Catalan drive for independence. The number of Catalans now favoring secession has risen.
The evening of the referendum, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy announced: “there has been no referendum of self-determination in Catalonia today.” Spain’s Constitutional Court voided the Catalan referendum law.
Then on October 10th, events grew more chaotic as Carles Puigdemont issued a “suspended declaration of independence,” ostensibly with the intention of encouraging negotiation with Madrid.
On October 21st, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced that Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution would be invoked, effectively suspending Catalan independence and imposing direct rule by Madrid.
On October 27th, the Catalan parliament proceeded with their overwhelming vote in favor of Catalan independence from Spain.
A week after the independence vote, hundreds of thousands marched in Barcelona in a Spanish unity rally, praising the use of Article 155.
The Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has been highly critical of Catalonia’s separatist actions, dissolving the Catalan parliament and announcing new regional elections to be held on December 21st. Madrid is also filing a lawsuit against Puigdemont and his staff for rebellion and misuse of public funds. If Spain were to win the lawsuit — submitted to the High Court and Supreme Court by Spain’s state prosecutor, Jose Manuel Maza — Catalan leaders would face a maximum jail time of 30 years for rebellion, 15 years for sedition, and 6 years for misuse of funds.
According to Maza, the leaders of Catalan have “created an institutional crisis that culminated with the declaration of unilateral independence, with total disregard for our Constitution.”
On October 30th, hours before the announcement of the legal charges, Puigdemont and several members of his cabinet fled to Brussels. However, according to Belgium’s migration minister, Theo Francken, Puigdemont has not yet requested political asylum.
On November 11th, tens of thousands gathered in Barcelona again, this time to support Catalan separatist leaders who were jailed following the separatist vote and declaration. The protest in support of the leaders’ freedom was organized by Catalan grassroots independence groups. Puigdemont took to twitter during that rally, tweeting: “Your light reaches us in Brussels and illuminates the path we must keep following” (translated).
Eight former Catalan leaders and the leaders of the Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural have been jailed so far. Puigdemont and his cabinet ministers in Belgium are fighting extradition. The December 21st vote looms large, and is coming soon.
This is only the current chapter in Catalonia’s colorful history. One can expect that this story is far from over.
by Zoe Licata (Boston, Massachusetts)