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On 16 March, thousands of supporters of Catalan independence marched through the Spanish capital, Madrid, to protest the ongoing trial of 12 separatist leaders. Demonstrators, many from Catalonia, peacefully marched through Madrid, carrying signs with messages such as “self-determination is not a crime.” They also called for a new vote on secession to replace the one from 2017. That referendum was marked by a severe police crackdown and heightened tensions between Barcelona and Madrid. Saturday’s march was organized by more than 60 civil society groups from all over Spain. According to the protestors, the turnout was 120,000, while the police gave a much lower figure of 18,000.
Carles Puigdemont, the former Catalan president, who is currently living in Belgium under self-imposed exile tweeted: “Today in Madrid there will be a representation of a people that progress in peace and solidarity, which wants more and better democracy, and which demands its right to exist and to be respected. Today will be a memorable day!” Al-Jazeera journalist David Chater who was at the demonstration said, “I think it’s a fair judgment to say you’ve never heard the voice of Catalan independence spoken so loudly and with so many numbers here in Madrid.”
It is certainly praiseworthy and commendable that the demonstration did not result in any violent confrontation between the protestors and law enforcement. In comparison to the injuries sustained by both protestors and police in the aftermath of the 2017 referendum, the Saturday protests were miraculously non-violent. However, one must maintain a certain cautious optimism about these unfolding events. The political situation in Spain has rapidly intensified, with a political crisis not seen since the financial crisis of 2008-2014. It is not unthinkable that an outburst of violence could take place within the foreseeable future.
The heart of the political crisis is, of course, the mentioned 2017 referendum. The referendum approved by the Catalan parliament on 6 September 2017 was declared illegal the next day by the Constitutional Court of Spain. Madrid argued that the referendum was a violation of the Spanish constitution, which emphasizes the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.” The vote was ultimately carried out on 1 October, with some 92 per cent of voters wanting independence and the establishment of a republican form of government (albeit with a turnout of only 43 per cent). Besides the poor turnout, several polling stations were closed off due to the police crackdown.
In the aftermath of the referendum, several events transformed it into a moment worthy of global attention. Firstly, the King of Spain Felipe VI called the referendum illegal and described the situation as “extremely serious,” a major break of protocol for a constitutional monarchy. Secondly, the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence on 27 October, thus solidifying the divide between Barcelona and Madrid. Thirdly, Carles Puigdemont, who had become the face of the independence movement sought refuge in the EU’s de facto capital Brussels.
Over these past two years, politics in Spain and Catalonia has been dynamic. While the sentiments surrounding Catalan independence have existed since the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714), it is recently that this political issue has come to the fore of Spanish politics. With a general election taking place in April, low approval of Spanish President Pédro Sanchez (36.1 per cent, December 2018), and the rise of the far-right party Vox, the politics of the Iberian nation is undergoing extraordinary change. Although Brexit in the United Kingdom and the Yellow Vest movement in France currently dominate headlines in European politics, it is crucial that attention is paid towards their southern neighbor.