Spanish state moves to end Catalan self-rule after people power saves independence referendum
By Dick Nichols Is it possible to have a successful referendum when your country is effectively occupied by 10,000 police and paramilitaries with orders to stop it? The holding of Catalonia’s October 1 referendum on independence shows that it is: all you need is a mobilised people with a clear view of where they are going, Europe’s most powerful and persistent social movement to help guide them, and a government that’s committed to carrying out its promises. Add to those already rare ingredients imperviousness to provocation and violence, ability to improvise when logistics are sabotaged and determination to prevail in spite of a sea of difficulties (including severe tensions within your own camp), then you’ve uncovered the recipe for victory. The people of Catalonia proved this on October 1 when, despite over 90 attacks on polling stations by thousands of Spanish National Police and the paramilitary Civil Guard, and endless logistical glitches, over three million (57% of the electoral roll) came out wanting to vote and 2.26 million succeeded in doing so and in having their vote counted. The other 770,000 (figure of the Catalan government) either found their polling station closed to them or their vote being carried away in a ballot box confiscated by the “forces of order” who had bashed their way through peaceful defence pickets to seize election material apparently more dangerous than any terrorist suspect. Despite this brutal operation — whose 900 injured victims gave millions of shocked people around the world their first glimpse of the authoritarian, neo-Francoist heart of the Spanish state — the referendum organisation held up under the strain. Its survival allowed 2.044 million Catalans to vote for independence (90.18% of the counted vote), 177,500 to oppose it (7.83%) and 64,632 to vote informal (2.83%). In absolute terms, the 2.044 million-strong Yes to the question “Should Catalonia become an independent state in the form of a republic?” was an increase of 182,000 since the September 9, 2014 non-binding “participatory process”. Obviously, support for independence would have been higher if the referendum had been held in normal circumstances. Moreover, for the vote against independence to have equalled the vote for it, an extra 1.866 million would have had to have taken part in the consultation and all would have had to vote No. This completely hypothetical scenario would have required a participation of 4.153 million, 78.15% of the electoral roll and higher than in any of the five previous referenda in which Catalans have voted since the end of the Franco dictatorship.
A referendum … and a mass movementThe success of October 1 against all the violence, judicial aggression, dirty tricks and black propaganda of the Spanish state has given an enormous boost of self-confidence to those Catalans (80% of the population) who support their country’s right to determine its relation to the Spanish state. Dramatic and astonishing proof was the overwhelming adherence to an October 3 “civil stoppage” — actually general strike — against the police violence on October 1, as well as the size of the demonstrations that accompanied it. The stoppage was called by the Roundtable for Democracy, representing Catalonia’s pro-independence mass organisations, its main union confederations, small- and medium-sized business, and social, cultural and sporting organisations. In many centres the demonstrations — officially due to start at 6pm but already under way from 11am — were the biggest since the end of the Franco dictatorship. Probably the most astonishing turnout was in the northern provincial capital of Girona, where police attacks had been widespread and vicious (to the point of police using tear gas to clear a polling station in the town of Aiguaviva). According to municipal police figures, on October 3 60,000 of Girona’s 100,000 population overflowed the city centre to protest the police violence that had brought back memories of the Franco dictatorship, but also to celebrate the triumph of the referendum’s having taken place. In Barcelona, the whole city centre was paralysed by the presence of a crowd of 700,000 (municipal police figure): its epicentre was the student occupation of the University of Barcelona, an important organising point in the run-up to October 1. October 3 also saw 60 road and freeway closures that often closed off entire shires and the mobilisation of 5000 tractors to help carry them out (Farmers Union figure). Rural sector adherence to the stoppage was between 70% and 90%, depending on the region. One common feature of the rallies on the day was an act of appreciation for Catalonia’s firefighters. These had played a critical role on October 1, helping organise defence and making sure that shocked and enraged voters didn’t fall for police and Civil Guard provocations. As a result, one of the most popular chants of the last fortnight of mass protest (“The Streets Will Always Be Ours”) gave rise to an equally popular variant (“The Firefighters Will Always Be Ours”). The October 3 mobilisation went well beyond Catalonia’s pro-independence camp, drawing in tens of thousands of supporters of continuing union with Spain who were outraged at the violence unleashed on peaceful voters. This reaction had already been visible on October 1 itself: on seeing the police attacks on television many people who were undecided about voting expressed their disgust by coming out to vote
The people save their referendumOctober 1 was supposed to be the referendum that never was: its demise was announced time and again by the mainstream media. Today headlines like “The Law Dismantles The Referendum” (La Voz de Galicia, September 21) and “[Prime Minister Mariano] Rajoy Dismantles Catalan Government’s Plan B” (El Español, September 30) look very stupid indeed. Not that this embarrassing reality flatfooted Rajoy, despite his endless confident affirmation that “this referendum will not place” and despite his personal assurance to the leaders of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) that there would be no ballot boxes (and hence no need for police assaults to get them). On the night of October 1, the slippery Spanish PM simply declared that what had taken place in Catalonia that day was not a referendum. Rather, it was “a mere stage show, one more episode in a strategy against democratic social harmony and legality”. How did the referendum manage to happen? Basically, because every attack from the legal system and police forces of the Spanish state was met by a counter-attack led by the Catalan government, but with an increasingly important role being played by the pro-independence mass organisations — the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the Catalan culture and language defence organisation Omnium Cultural and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI). The Catalan people responded in their hundreds and thousands to the call for help with logistics and for mobilisation, creating informal and formal organisational networks (Committees for the Defence of the Referendum) and a street presence that overwhelmed expectations and is today sending shudders through the Spanish establishment. The barest facts of this pattern of blow and counter-blow were:
• On September 14, the Spanish Constitutional Court ordered the referendum electoral commission to suspend its work and on September 21 ordered fines of between €6000 and €12,000 a day against its 22 members. On September 22, the Catalan government accepted the resignation of the commission and handed its work to international observers;
• On September 15, the central Spanish government took over control of the finances of the Catalan government, and began controlling referendum-related expenditure;
• On September 15, the Civil Guard confiscated 1.5 million official referendum posters and millions of ballot papers. A day later the website “Let’s Paste Up” was created, from which posters were downloaded and pasted up in their millions by community paste-up teams;
• On September 15, the Civil Guard began closing referendum-related web sites. The Catalan government immediately reopened them within proxy servers, beginning a cat-and-mouse game in which referendum-related sites closed by the Civil Guard were resurrected under the care of enthusiastic internet addicts;
• On September 20, the Civil Guard raided 11 Catalan government and government-related buildings, and arrested 13 high-level Catalan government officials. The ANC and Omnium Cultural called on people to mobilise outside the economics ministry in central Barcelona and 40,000 responded;
• On September 21, the thirteen started to appear in court, supported by a demonstration of 20,000. Catalan premier Puigdemont announced that the referendum was still going ahead;
• On September 24, the ANC and Omnium Cultural announced their “marathon of mobilisation” at 500 meetings across Catalonia;
• On September 25, the Spanish state prosecutor ordered that the Catalan police be placed under the control of the Spanish interior ministry. The Catalan government refused;
• On September 26, the Spanish state prosecutor’s office demanded that the principals of all schools and community health centres hand over keys and security codes to the police. The Catalan health and education ministers took collective responsibility for making these premises available and school principals handed over keys to Puigdemont in a symbolic ceremony;
• On September 26, the Spanish state prosecutor in Catalonia ordered all polling stations closed from September 29 and surrounded by a 100-metre no-go area. The judge in charge of the case against the referendum overruled him, saying polling stations could only be closed on October 1;
• On September 27, teaching unions and education associations launched the website “Open Schools” through which people could volunteer to sleep over in schools from September 29 to October 1 – 70,000 people volunteered in less than two days;
• On September 29, the Civil Guard raided the Catalan government’s computer and communications centre, searching for referendum-related software. Despite this the government managed to elaborate software that meant voters could vote at any polling station on October 1.
The people versus the Spanish stateThroughout this period of rising tension even the most optimistic had moments of doubt about whether the referendum could go ahead. That it could was finally due to three key factors that the Spanish state failed to control. The first was the disciplined and organised occupation and defence of polling stations. Up to 2000 of the 2243 polling stations were occupied from Friday, September 29, with parents and teachers putting on imaginative programs of activities for children and for themselves (like a 24-hour table tennis tournament in one location.) This physical control of polling stations, in many places organised by the CDRs, meant that the police (Catalan and Spanish) and the Civil Guard had to decide what level of violence to use to lay their hands on the “illegal” voting material inside them. The Catalan police adopted the approach of not using any physical pressure; the Spanish agencies—as is clear from the footage that the world has seen—unleashed indiscriminate violence on young and old alike. As a result of the police effort, non-violent and violent, over 400 stations were either permanently or temporarily shut, enough to destroy the right to vote of around 14.5% of the electorate. However, this was insufficient to invalidate the referendum (as international observers noted). It also came at an enormous political cost to the Spanish state’s image as a “modern European democracy”. The second factor that escaped the control of Spain’s police apparatuses was organisational: the Catalan government managed to have ballot boxes manufactured and delivered to all polling stations. This was a World War II Resistance-style operation, involving storing the boxes on the other side of the French border and then distributing them via private households in Catalonia. Those involved will be talking about this operation for years. The ten thousand ballot boxes, work of Chinese firm Smart Dragon Ballot Expert, were imported into France via the port of Marseilles and then stored near Elna, site of a famous maternity hospital for Spanish women refugees from the Civil War (1936-39). They were next smuggled into Catalonia in private cars, often using the same back roads that refugees from Franco had followed out of Spain in 1939. The members of the informal network organising the referendum then hid the boxes in the safest places they could conceive, including up trees in remote forests, on top of lifts and down wells. The upshot was that not one box was found by the Civil Guard or the Spanish National Intelligence Centre (CNI) before October 1. The moment participants knew that the referendum really would be going ahead was early on the morning of October 1, when cars drove up to polling stations and unknown people rushed the ballot boxes inside through the cheering defence pickets. In addition to this brilliant operation, the last-minute new software program that had been developed to enable any voter to vote at any polling station held together — with delays and wobbles — on the day. The third and most important factor behind the success of October 1 was the refusal of the mass pickets confronting rampaging Spanish National Police and Civil Guards to be provoked into abandoning the agreed approach of peaceful passive resistance. This tactic meant that the attacking cop squads had to spend an inordinate amount of time disentangling often tightly organised human pickets, in many cases headed up by firefighters. In some cases — as when the inhabitants of Mont-Roig del Camp just pushed the Civil Guard out of town — the “forces of order” didn’t even make it into the polling station they were supposed to neutralise. The dignified patience and cheerfulness of those queuing to vote — sometimes for five hours — was remarkable. The behaviour of the people as they queued — passing the oldest and frailest to the front, sharing food and umbrellas under the drizzle, turning their mobiles to airplane mode to ease the load on the network, cheering those who had voted as they came out into the street — was solidarity at its best. The queue at some polling stations was even privileged. At Taialà, in Girona, the patience of the queue was awarded by a serving of fideuà (a paella-like dish with noodles instead of rice), provided by the family of world-famous award-winning chefs, the Roca brothers. Probably the most moving moments involved veterans of the Civil War — men and women at least 95 years old who had survived horrors like the Battle of the Ebro and Nazi concentration camps. As they emerged after voting everyone stopped talking and stood to applaud. The amazing stories of this day of dignity and outrage will continue to come in. What is already clear, however, is that the police and Civil Guard attack was planned along the lines of a Roman punitive expedition against a rebel tribe of Gauls. The polling stations most targeted were those where the Catalan premier, vice-premier and the speaker of the Catalan parliament were due to vote and those in the regions where independence sentiment is strongest. These included Girona, including the school attended by Puigdemont’s children and the Terres de l'Ebre (Lands of the Ebro, around the Ebro River delta), where a police charge left 42 wounded at a polling station in the town of Sant Carles de la Ràpita. By contrast, with a couple of exceptions the police and Civil Guard left alone areas governed by the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), such as the southern Barcelona Llobregat region. (In one case, they were persuaded to leave by an intervention by the PSC mayor of L'Hospitalet, Nuria Marín.) Industrial, working-class and migrant Badalona, where xenophobic and racist PP leader Xavier Garcia Albiol was defeated as mayor by a left coalition in 2015, was also left untouched. In Barcelona, where there were at least twelve major confrontations, the courageous forces of the law decided to avoid those areas where they would have expected most organised resistance, such as the old working-class suburbs of Poblenou and Poble Sec. A pro-independence stronghold like Arenys de Munt, where the first municipal referendum on independence was held in 2009, was also free to vote throughout the day. Just one week later, October 1 is already a day in Catalan history, with some local councils taking only days to rename squares after it. More critically, the day marks a political and psychological watershed: it was the moment when tens of thousands of Catalans who had not been supporters of independence gave up on Spain once and for all and began to see their future in the framework of an independent Catalan republic.
Catalonia: a crisis for Spain and EuropeThe reaction of the Rajoy government to its humiliation on October 1 was swift and vicious. In the days since the referendum:
• The National High Court (the Audiencia Nacional, a continuation of the Francoist Court of Public Order), has been investigating the heads of the Catalan police, the ANC and Omnium Cultural for possible acts of sedition (carrying up to 15 years jail) for their roles in the September 20 “tumultuous riot” (i.e., peaceful protest) outside the economy ministry in Barcelona;
• Sixteen judges began investigating whether the Catalan police were “passive” or “complicit” on October 1;
• The Spanish interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido ordered that the 10,000 Spanish National Police and Civil Guards presently in Catalonia be kept there as long as needed; and
• Zoido also ordered that Catalan police who had been decorated would have to swear loyalty to the Spanish constitution if they were to keep their medals.On October 3, Spanish King Philip VI appeared on television to denounce the Catalan government as an outlaw operation against whom the full force of the law should be used and to further propagate the myth that social harmony between Catalan and Spanish speakers is breaking down under the Puigdemont government. With this intervention, which could well have been written for him by PP speechwriters, the king abandoned all pretence of representing a common Spanish interest and tied his future to the fortunes of the Rajoy government: he was delivering its declaration of war on the Catalan government and movement. In an October 4 reply Catalan premier Puigdemont said: