In Catalonia, Spain, the local separatist government faces one of the largest waves of voter suppression in the country’s recent history as it attempts to hold an independence referendum for the region. Police have seized up to 10 million ballots, imposed fines upon upper level Catalan officials, and temporarily arrested up to 14 politicians for misappropriating public funds to the “illegal” referendum. Additionally, the Spanish government has sent between 3,000 and 4,000 police with instructions to destroy any voting materials, including materials used by protestors to create posters.
Catalonia’s culture and language are completely separate from that of Spain. Its culture dates back nearly one thousand years and has Catalan as its most spoken language, not Spanish. Under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 – 1975, Catalonia’s culture was suppressed and the Catalans were forced to assimilate with the Spanish. After his death, Catalans were granted more freedoms and in 2006, the region was granted more power and financial autonomy. Despite this, parts of the 2006 statute were declared unconstitutional and repealed in 2010.
In recent years, the separatist movement in Catalonia has gained momentum, with 80% of Catalans who participated in the 2014 unofficial vote backing independence. The increased call for independence is most likely due to the inequitable cost of being a Spanish region. Spanish government data estimates that in 2011, Catalonia paid 8.5 billion euros more than it received in public services. The Catalan government believes the gap is closer to 11.1 billion euros.
On 6 September, the regional government ignored the Spanish constitution, which prevents the indivisibility of the country and enacted its own law to hold a referendum for independence on 1 October. As the vote defies the constitution, the Spanish government has declared it illegal and has stated that those who support the vote are committing a crime.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont insists that “no other court or political body” could suspend the powers of his government, though he did attempt to make amends with the Spanish government. He has offered to halt the referendum if he is provided with a legal vote sanctioned by Madrid, “It should hold talks to figure out when and how Catalans can vote and we will sit down and agree on it.”
Despite these seemingly flexible requests for independence, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has refused talks, “I say this both calmly and firmly: there will be no referendum, it won’t happen.” His spokesperson stated, “It’s ironic coming from those who have refused dialogue save for a very specific issue – the only one they care about – the independence referendum.”
Madrid’s refusal to allow the vote does not just stem from a constitutional standpoint. Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions – accounting for about 20% of the national GDP in 2013. To allow the region to secede from the nation would destroy Spain’s already struggling economy. This referendum has highlighted the increasing fear in Madrid of losing their economic hot spot and has caused the two governments to lash out at each other, creating a cycle of suppression and protest with the potential to become violent as 1 October approaches.
Regardless of independence, the right to vote has been a long held democratic belief that Spain has pledged to uphold. Yet it is failing to do this in the face of losing its most valuable region. In fact, the national government’s attempts to quash the referendum are pushing more Catalans to support the separatists, as Spain represses their rights. Julia, a native Catalan bluntly stated, “I don’t want independence, I just want to vote.”