Catalan referendum: a ‘democratic tsunami’ rises against Spanish state siege

By Dick Nichols September 24, 2017 
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The most critical week in modern Catalan history began today, September 24. With one week to go to the October 1 referendum on independence, the battle lines in what will be a decisive clash have formed. On the one side, the 80% of Catalan people who support their right to decide their country’s future; on the other, the 10,000 Spanish National Police and paramilitary Civil Guard charged with stopping the October 1 vote. Since the middle of last week, the two sides have been engaged in intensifying skirmishes that will end in one of three scenarios: the humiliation of the central Spanish government of People’s Party (PP) prime minister Mariano Rajoy (if the Catalan majority manages to vote); a setback for the movements for Catalan sovereignty and independence (if the police operation succeeds in closing polling stations); or a confused outcome due to some people getting into polling centres while others are kept outside by the “forces of order”. There can be no doubt about the determination of the Spanish government to stop a referendum that would, if the latest polls are correct, see a 60% turnout and an easy win for Catalan independence. There will be more than 2000 polling stations and the plan of the Rajoy government is to have enough police and civil guards on hand to paralyse voting. The police are being housed on three ferries berthed in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona. (Waterside workers in both ports have voted not to service the vessels). The latest cycle of tension began on September 20, when 41 Spanish Civil Guard raids on Catalan government-related buildings and private homes harvested thirteen high-level Catalan government officials and a lot of “suspect material” for the prosecutors charged with stopping the referendum. Their haul included ten million ballot papers stored in a printery warehouse in the central Catalan town of Bigues i Riells. But the raids also landed the Rajoy government with a mass revolt by tens of thousands of outraged Catalans: only too conscious of this reminder of Civil Guard operations during the Franco dictatorship, they protested outside the buildings being raided and occupied the centre of Barcelona and other cities and towns. The people were responding to the call of the Catalan mass organisations — the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Catalan language and culture association Omnium Cultural — to maintain a “marathon of mobilisation” up until October 1 and make the Spanish government pay the highest possible price for its “de facto coup” (phrase of Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont). The call was also backed by political forces and institutions that do not necessarily support Catalan independence, but do defend Catalan sovereignty. For example, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau publicly backed the continuation of street protests and warned Rajoy that he would find “the Catalan people more united than ever”. By this weekend, occasion of Barcelona’s annual Mercè Festival, Barcelona town hall was carrying the banner “More Democracy”. In Madrid, radical anti-austerity force Unidos Podemos (Podemos plus the United Left) condemned the raids: its MPs in the Spanish parliament staged a protest outside the building and later took part in a rally in support of Catalonia’s right to decide. This Madrid rally, held in the central Puerta del Sol, was one of forty or more that took place across the Spanish state on the evening of September 20. All the major institutions of Catalan civil society, from the two main trade union confederations to Barcelona Football Club and other sporting clubs and associations, from cultural organisations like the Barcelona Atheneum to the Third Sector (representing 3000 Catalan social organisations) condemned the raids, called for the release of the detainees and reaffirmed their support for Catalonia’s institutions.

The raid and the revolt

The Civil Guard raids came after the Spanish finance ministry had taken full control of Catalan government spending on September 16. All Catalan government departments now have to send their invoices to Madrid, where the Spanish finance ministry will decide what gets paid and what does not. To date over 30 Catalan research and cultural programs have had their funding cut. The raids were aimed at dismantling the infrastructure of the October 1 referendum. Those arrested were thirteen senior Catalan government officials in charge of computer technology, communications and finance. The most senior were Lluís Salvardó, the secretary of the Catalan treasury, and Josep Maria Jové, the secretary-general of the department of deputy-premier and treasurer Oriol Junqueras. Jové and Salvardó were the two officials presumably responsible for referendum preparations. Also arrested were the owners of the warehouse holding the printed material related to the referendum. (After up to three days in detention, all the detainees were released with the instruction not to continue in any way to assist in the preparation of the “illegal” referendum.) The huge public response to the raids started around 8am on the same day, when the news spread through social networks and people began to gather outside the buildings being targeted, most importantly the economy ministry in central Barcelona. Beginning with hundreds, the protests soon became thousands strong. By the evening, after the Catalan mass organisations had called on everyone to gather outside the economy ministry, more than 40,000 (council police figure) had turned up to protest the raids and reaffirm their determination to vote. “We shall vote!”, “They shall not pass!”, “Out with the forces of occupation!”, “Where is Europe?”, “The streets will always be ours” and “Strike, strike, general strike” were some of the chants that echoed across Barcelona until midnight. They were accompanied by singing of the anti-Francoist resistance hymn “L'Estaca” (The Stake), other Catalan protest classics and the national anthem “Els Segadors” (The Reapers). As the protestors gathered outside the buildings being raided, waving banners and posters produced on home printers (the Civil Guard had confiscated most of the official referendum posters) the workers inside draped banners and thank you messages out of the windows. The protests cut major Barcelona thoroughfares such as Via Laietana, where workers from the Workers Commissions trade union building came out to lead the picket outside the Catalan foreign affairs ministry across the street. One reason the protests swelled so rapidly was because students from Catalonia’s main universities abandoned their classes to join them. Behind banners with messages such as “Empty the lecture theatres, fill the streets” students from the out-of-town Autonomous University of Barcelona poured onto the trains into central Barcelona. This was to be the beginning of a powerful student commitment to mobilising up to October 1. Finally, at 10pm, with central Barcelona still full of protestors, a loud banging of pots and pans (cassolada) began, as people in all suburbs came out onto their balconies to show what they thought about the Civil Guard operation.

Catalonia-wide protest

Protest rallies were also held in cities and towns across Catalonia on the evening of September 20. One of these, in the provincial capitals of Girona was remarkably large — 13,000 (13% of the population) according to the municipal police. Moreover, many people from provincial Catalonia left work early to join the Barcelona rallies. The mood of the protests was one of determination to see the fight against the Spanish state intervention through to the end — Catalan rights re-won in the struggles against the Franco dictatorship had to be defended at any cost. One typical comment from young people was to the effect that “our grandparents didn’t suffer under Francoism so that we would let it reappear.” The rallies were peaceful, disciplined and good-humoured, a reflection of the understanding that the street clashes that have nearly always been standard fare in Barcelona demonstrations would only provide the Rajoy government with an excuse to ramp up repression. This approach of organised non-violent resistance scored an important win when armed Spanish National Police, supported by a helicopter, failed to enter the headquarters of the left-nationalist, anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP). The CUP headquarters were defended by a human barrier of up to 2000 supporters and sympathisers, led by present and former CUP MPs in the Catalan parliament. A comic aspect of the defence, which ended after seven hours of siege, was the instruction that no one was allowed to smoke a joint on the picket line: if they needed to, they had to go inside the building. According to one participant, the atmosphere inside the CUP HQ was unbreathable. That, however, was a small price to pay for getting every last piece of CUP referendum propaganda out of its headquarters and distributed. Since September 20, protest and mobilisation has, if anything, intensified. On September 21 alone, an all-day demonstration outside the courthouse hearing the charges against the arrested officials swelled to 20,000 (council police figure); students staged sit-downs on one of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares; a debate among pro-independence leaders before a crowd of a thousand at the Autonomous University confronted the issue of when, where and how to carry out a general strike in support of the referendum; “illegal” mass paste-ups attracted so much support that the police and Civil Guard have had to leave them alone; and, at 10pm, the night’s cassolada was as noisy, if not noisier, than 24 hours before. The days following were witness to:
• Continuing community protests in support of the 712 mayors who face charges of collaborating with the “illegal” referendum by providing council premises as polling stations;
• Barcelona waterside workers setting off tug boat sirens so that the sleep of Spanish police and civil guards housed in ferries berthed in the Port of Barcelona is interrupted;
• Students occupying the University of Barcelona in support of the referendum;
• The September 24 “mother of all paste-ups” organised by the ANC and Omnium Cultural through rallies in Catalonia’s main towns. The result was the pasting-up of one million posters; and
• Continuing 10pm cassolades.
At the September 24 rally in the provincial capital Lleida, Catalan government spokesperson Jordi Turull described the “marathon of mobilisation” being driven by the two mass organisations as “a democratic tsunami”. At the time of writing, the unity between the Catalan mass organisations, the Catalan government and the bulk of citizens supporting the right to decide is clear, with the mass of supporters of Catalan sovereignty taking to heart the September 20 call of deputy premier Oriol Junqueras (whose senior staff had just been arrested): “We [the government] have done what we can, but only the people can save the people.”

Towards showdown

In his address on behalf of the Catalan government in the early afternoon of September 20, Puigdemont said:
From now until October 1 an attitude both of firmness and serenity will be needed, of alertness and of readiness to complain about the abuses and illegalities into which the Spanish state is falling. But on October 1 we’ll be leaving home with a voting paper and we’ll be making use of it.
At 9pm, Rajoy replied with his own “institutional message”:
You know that this referendum cannot now be celebrated. It was never legal nor legitimate, now it is nothing more than a chimera or, what is worse, the excuse that some seem to be seeking to further deepen the rift they have caused in Catalan society… I insist, do not continue, you have no legitimacy. Return to law and democracy, let the people put these fateful days behind them.
In case that appeal fell on deaf ears, the Spanish PM cited his “determination to have legality enforced without renouncing any of the instruments of our rule of law.” On September 21, announcing the launch of the “Where Do I Vote” web site, Puigdemont re-stressed what he had said the day before:
On October 1 the referendum of self-determination that we have called will happen. It will happen because we had already prepared contingency plans to guarantee it, but it will happen most of all because it has the support of the vast majority of the population, who are sick and tired of the arrogance and abuse of the PP government. It is not now a question of what connection we want to have with the State but of whether we want to live in a regime of full democracy where freedoms are respected. That has been understood by thousands of citizens who have demonstrated across the Spanish state in solidarity with the Catalan people and their rights: I want to thank them fraternally for their courage and commitment.
This response to a Spanish state whose media were already congratulating the Rajoy government on having dismantled the referendum forced the Spanish interior ministry to make its next move. On September 23, the Spanish authorities, though the Spanish state prosecutor’s office Catalonia branch, moved to streamline the job of controlling the Catalan electorate by placing the 17,000-strong Catalan police force (the Mossos d’Esquadra) under its control. This operation, which should at the very least have been the work of a judge, was rejected by the Catalan interior minister, Joaquim Forn, on the same day. He said:
We condemn the intent to intervene in the Mossos d’Esquadra in the way that has already happened with the finances of the Catalan government. On behalf of the government of Catalonia we do not accept this interference from the State. It destroys all the organs that the present legal framework provides for coordinating security in Catalonia.
At the same time the head of the Mossos d'Esquadra, Josep Lluís Trapero, issued orders to all police stations to continue work as usual, while the Twitter site @mossos carried the message: "We shall continue to work as always, carrying out our duties in order to guarantee security and public order and be at the service of the citizens." Had the Catalan authorities acquiesced in the prosecutor’s plan for “improved coordination” among the Mossos d’Esquadra, Civil Guard and Spanish National Police, the Rajoy government’s plan to de facto implement article 155 of the Spanish constitution (suspending regional government) would have been complete.

Spanish media intoxication

In the intensifying battle for hearts and minds, the central government’s message of the need to defend “the law” is now being repeated ad nauseam by the mainstream Spanish print media — led by the “quality journal of record” El País — as well as by public and private radio and TV. While the pundits get apoplectic about the “lawless secessionist threat”, the Catalan case does not even get a look-in (with the partial exception of programs on the Sixth channel). The Spanish public is thus being softened up to feel that “they had it coming” if the Rajoy government decides it has to use all of the “instruments of the rule of law” at its disposal — such as fully suspending the Catalan government, arresting its leaders, or closing down Catalan public media — or if TV viewers are confronted with scenes of ordinary people being bashed for insisting on their right to vote. An example of the methods of the Spanish media was its treatment of the September 20 demonstration outside the Catalan economy ministry. This was entirely peaceful, if rowdy, with families including children taking part. However, during the demonstration the tyres of the three Civil Guard squad cars, whose occupants were inside the ministry building combing through files and computers, were let down and their windscreens smashed. The cars were also covered with pro-independence stickers. At the same time, the team doing the searching inside was wondering if it could get out and even considered calling for a helicopter to land on the ministry roof. (In the end it was safely evacuated by the Mossos d’Esquadra.) This event, together with the failure of the National Police to get into the CUP headquarters, led the Spanish prosecutors to announce that they were considering charging the leaders of the ANC and Omnium Cultural with sedition (carrying a jail sentence of up to 15 years) on the grounds of having incited a “turbulent mob” to break the law. Here, for the Spanish media, was the true face of the “secessionist challenge”. For three days TV viewers were treated to prolonged close-ups of the vandalised Civil Guard squad cars and invited to tremble about what sort of people would commit such an outrage [answer: any number of Spanish football fans after a team loss]. In case they were in danger of getting the answer wrong a stream of pundits were on hand to explain that the “secessionist intoxication” was making it impossible to safely walk the streets in Catalonia. Clearly, justice for the squad cars and the Civil Guard squad inside the economy ministry — whose radio communications were leaked to the media — cried out for the October 1 referendum to be halted by any means necessary.

Towards a crisis of the Spanish state?

The level of protest and resistance provoked in Catalonia by the PP government’s legal aggression could well lead to a political crisis in the Spanish state. In the short run, the minority Rajoy government enjoys majority parliamentary support for its crackdown against Catalonia — enthusiastic on the part of new right hipster party Citizens; obedient and even shamefaced on the part of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). However, given the prospect of an intensifying spiral of Catalan protest and Spanish police repression, the PSOE could increasingly pay for its complicity with the PP’s iron fist. Stress levels in its Catalan sister organisation — the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) — are already rising, with local mayors and members demanding an end to the repression of the State. If that continues — as seems certain — radical anti-austerity force Unidos Podemos and its allies would then be placed to make gains in the struggle with the PSOE for the leadership of the left. The greater the mass resistance in Catalonia, the more possible that outcome. Both Podemos and its allies and the PSOE are putting forward proposals for solving the problem of Catalonia’s relation to the Spanish state. They are, however, miles apart, with the PSOE’s based on supporting the Rajoy government police operation in the name of upholding legality and Podemos calling for October 1 to be allowed to go ahead (but without its result being accepted as binding). The PSOE proposal is centred on creating a parliamentary commission to discuss reforming the Spanish constitution, an initiative that will lead nowhere given the present balance of forces in the Spanish parliament. The Podemos proposal, launched at a September 24 conference in Zaragoza with the support of the “councils for change” and nationalist parties across the Spanish state, is based on accepting the principle of self-determination for Spain’s nations and nationalities. The Podemos proposal is the only way that the Spanish state “prison house of nations” has any chance of being transformed, but its chances of success depend critically on what happens on October 1. At Zaragoza, Ada Colau said: “What I want to say to [PSOE leader] Pedro Sánchez is that today a sense of state responsibility means listening to Catalonia and not lining up with the PP, which is suspending self-government … your responsibility is to listen to the 80% of Catalans who want to exercise their right to decide.” However, after the events of last week, it may now be too late for even the best-intentioned and democratically-based proposal for reforming the Spanish state. For millions in Catalonia, Spain is already gone, as expressed in this comment by writer and broadcaster Tony Soler in the September 24 Ara:
What will be the political outcome of the crisis? It’s very hard to say, but I would risk a few conclusions:
a. The political cycle that is beginning may be irreversible, but it will be a long process demanding conviction and resistance;
b. The Catalan government doesn’t right now have the means to make a declaration of independence effective...
c. The final result will depend on the ability of the people to reach beyond the present state of degenerated regional government; and
d. Spain as a political and emotional project is on its death bed in Catalonia, such that all legal- political efforts will be futile, if not counterproductive.
Already the question isn’t if, but when. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An earlier version of this article has appeared on its web site. Green Left Weekly’s European Bureau is also producing daily updates on the Catalan crisis. Send an email to if you want to receive them.