After a series of actions taken by Spanish authorities, the movement for Catalan independence has been thrown into disarray. Early on Wednesday, September 20, Spanish police raided offices of the Catalan regional government, arresting over a dozen prominent separatists. This is the latest in a series of moves by Madrid to disrupt the forthcoming independence referendum, which central authorities claim to be illegal. Over the past week, police have arrested numerous other secessionists, seized Catalonia’s finances, and confiscated millions of voting ballots. However, the Catalan government based in Barcelona says it can and will go ahead with the referendum, scheduled for October 1. Despite the recent seizures, Catalan officials claimed to have retained 6,000 boxes of ballots in a secret location.
Catalan has been a lively and contentious issue in Spanish politics for years. As one of the richest and most populous of Spain’s autonomous communities, many Catalans believe that their contribution to the nation has been far greater than what they get back. The economic crisis and the resulting austerity has been particularly unpopular in the better-off region of Catalonia. In 2014, Catalonia held a “non-referendum popular consultation” on the question of Catalan independence, resulting in 80% affirmative from a roughly 40% turnout. The coming to power of a pro-secessionist coalition government in 2015 paved the way for the scheduled referendum next month.
For their part, the federal government has flatly opposed the legitimacy of the referendum and the broader secessionist movement. Madrid’s position is based on their interpretation of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which returned Spain to Constitutional Monarchy following the regime of Francisco Franco. The Constitution, they argue, makes no provision for a self-determination vote, hence the illegality of the forthcoming referendum. In keeping with this rejection of its illegitimacy, King Felipe and the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, have urged Catalans to boycott the planned vote.
In an open letter to The Guardian, prominent Catalan politicians and academics responded by extolling the vote as a vindication of Spanish democracy, citing the experience of the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. In the letter, the authors stated: “This referendum was democratically agreed to by the Catalan parliament. To attempt to impede or stop it through sanctions, criminal charges and direct action by the Spanish state is an affront to democracy and threatens to embitter relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain.”
As of yet, it is unclear exactly how the flurry of activity against the Catalan independence organizers will affect the scheduled referendum. Recent polling appears to indicate ebbing support for independence; in a public survey commissioned by the Catalan government in July, only 41% supported independence, with 49% opposing. Nevertheless, the strong showing at the annual Catalan day celebration on September 11, along with the current coalition government in Barcelona strongly supporting independence, it is clear that there is a strong underlying current of support for secessionism. The recent arrests and confiscations by the federal government may trigger that separatist feeling against what might be considered tyrannical action from central authorities. On the other hand, the heavy-handed tactics may also make some Catalans think twice about the consequences of a full break with Spain. No matter the outcome on October 1, the referendum will be unlikely to definitively settle the strained relationship between Madrid and Barcelona.
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