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 movement

The 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 referendum

October 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 state

Throughout 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 Europe

The 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:
We are a society that is enormously united in its diversity. That is why we cannot share or accept the message that the Head of the State wanted to address to a part of the population. The king praises the message and policies of the Rajoy government that have been catastrophic in relation to Catalonia and he deliberately ignores the millions of Catalans who do not think like Rajoy. He deliberately ignores the Catalans who have been victims of police violence that has horrified half the world.
The king yesterday missed an opportunity to address all the citizens to whom he owes his crown and to whom he owes the respect entrusted him by the Constitution ... Nor during this crisis has he been at any time interested in knowing the opinion and perspective of the Catalan government. He has accepted a subordinate role that only seeks to smooth the way for decisions that the Spanish government has long been studying so as to liquidate Catalan aspirations to sovereignty, aspirations that it does not hesitate to treat as criminal and illegitimate and against which it uses endless resources
The “decisions that the Spanish government has long been studying” are whether putting down the rebellion in its Catalan province is best done via declaring a state of emergency (under article 116 of the Spanish constitution) or suspending Catalan self-government (under article 155). Either course will involve head-on conflict with the Catalan mass movement — an October 1 police operation scaled up tenfold. The central problem for the Rajoy government is to find grounds for a brutal suppression of Catalan rights that would be minimally plausible in the eyes of public opinion that has already seen cops bashing grandmothers. The PP government’s justification to date — that Madrid has only been dutifully upholding the rule of law—is increasingly unconvincing for people outside Spain. Why, they ask, were matters allowed to reach a point where the Catalan government was forced to violate the Spanish constitution to carry out a referendum and where Madrid thought it was OK to send in 10,000 police to stop it? During the week after October 1, the leading newspapers of Germany, France, Britain and the United States have all called on the Rajoy government to accept mediation — something that Rajoy has sworn not to do until the Puigdemont government “returns to normality” (interview with Rajoy in the October 8 El País). A more political pretext for intervention that the Rajoy government is now trying to manufacture is that it is needed to prevent the breakdown of social harmony in Catalonia. And since social harmony has not so far been under threat at all in Catalonia, it becomes necessary to work at making sure it is. This has to be a real, not a media intoxication operation. The fairy tale that Castilian-speakers are second-class, discriminated citizens in Catalonia — rough equivalents of Northern Ireland’s Catholic community — is broadcast incessantly to the rest of the Spanish state by the Madrid media “cavern”. However, it never survives the first contact with reality: when people come to Catalonia from other parts of Spain for the first time, they are pleasantly surprised, even amazed, that the locals don’t behave as expected. Instead of aggressively replying to them in Catalan and treating them with disdain, in the immense majority of cases the Catalan tribe amiably switches to Spanish (Catalonia is bi-lingual) and maintains normal, friendly exchanges. Friends and relatives who have immigrated to Catalonia from other parts of Spain in the past then have to put the new arrival through the necessary informational detox. The Catalan social mood remains light years away from the scenario that the Rajoy government would like to portray and create — that of the Basque Country during the years of operations by the military-terrorist group Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA) and counter-operations of the Civil Guard and the state-run hit squad the Anti-terrorist Liberation Groups. Rajoy and deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, his political commander-in-chief for the PP’s Catalonia operation, would be yearning for a scenario where “the enemy” was hooded youths throwing Molotov cocktails and the social atmosphere between pro-independence and unionist communities one of fear and distrust. (A rather pathetic attempt to get things moving down that road occurred on October 3 when over a hundred cars had their tyres slashed in towns in Girona province. The response of the region’s tyre garages was to offer replacements free or at cost price.)

Conclusion: towards showdown

Rajoy and his government would have been encouraged to move against the rebel Catalans by an October 4 “debate” (among political group leaders only) in the European parliament. In it the majority conservative, liberal and social-democratic groups agreed that the European Union had no mediating role to play in the conflict even as they gave lip service to the need for dialogue. The European Commission resolution in effect gave a free hand to the Rajoy government. For the European political mainstream and the Commission, Catalan independence is a headache that can well be done without: not only would it come while Brexit is still being negotiated, it would set an example of a successful struggle for national self-determination that all of Europe’s other nations without a state might want to follow. PP MEP Esteban Gonález Pons worked this nerve in his contribution on October 4: "If today you allow Spain to break up because of Catalonia, a line of dominoes will follow it across the continent. Instead of a Europe of 27, you’ll have a non-Europe of mini-states.” In his El País interview Rajoy stated that having the police and Civil Guard on standby in Catalonia was necessary as part of “the battle of European values” against the threat of “populism”.
In recent years, we have witnessed a challenge from a number of quarters to these European values that for me and, I believe for most Europeans, are the right values. Populism is surfacing everywhere. We’ve seen what happened with Brexit; there are figures such as Le Pen and Mr Farage, and there is the extreme right in Germany that challenges the supremacy of the law and respect for people’s rights.
These were seriously damaged in the parliamentary sessions that took place on September 6 and 7 [in the Catalan parliament, when the referendum law and law of jurisdictional transition in case of a Yes victory were adopted]. Which is why I say that this is Europe’s battle and that Europe has to win it in the same way it won the battle of the euro. And I encourage Europe to continue with what it’s doing which is defending the unity of its nations, the enforcement of the law and the Constitutions of its member states.
Even as it tries to claw back lost ground in the battle for hearts and minds, the Rajoy government is deploying increasingly heavy artillery against the Catalan rebels. The most powerful is economic blackmail. On October 4, Catalonia’s two important institutions, Banc Sabadell and CaixaBank, announced on urging from the Madrid that they were moving their headquarters (and location of income for taxation purposes) out of Catalonia. The Spanish finance minister Luis de Guindos changed the company regulations to help them: the shift could be done by their boards without holding a meeting of shareholders. The two banks were joined by the giant energy provider Gas Natural and the water multinational Agbar, while pharmaceutical giant Bayer demanded a "stable economic, political and legal framework" to continue investing in Catalonia. On October 8, Catalan public television also reported that the head of Development of National Labour, the Catalan big business umbrella, had warned premier Puigdemont of serious consequences if independence were declared. The International Monetary Fund advised that uncertainty could damage Spanish economy. The weekend of October 7-8 saw unionist demonstrations all over Spain, with 50,000 demanding jail for the Catalan leaders in Madrid and 350,000 (municipal police figure) to 950,000 (organisers’ figure) coming to Barcelona from all over Spain on October 8 to hear Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and former European Parliament speaker, socialist Josep Borrell, denounce the Catalan threat to the most unquestioned and sacred value of all — the unity of the Spanish state. At the same time, in his October 8 El Pais interview prime minister Rajoy made it clear that:
We are going to stop independence from taking place. As such I can say to you with complete candor that it is not going to happen. It is evident that we will take any of the decisions that the law allows according to how events progress. I want to say one thing with complete clarity: while the threat of a declaration of independence does not disappear from the political panorama it is going to be very difficult for the government not to take decisions.
In the face of this conquistador determination to crush it, the Catalan government, parties and independence movement are presently engaged in an intense debate over whether it is wisest to proceed with an immediate declaration of independence (as required by the referendum law). However, given that Rajoy has demanded a return to “normality” as a condition for negotiations, the eventual decision, while important, is not the most critical. The most vital issue is to strengthen Catalan society’s capacity to resist and make the price of the Rajoy government’s planned destruction of its self-rule as high as possible. In the words of Joan Josep Nuet, third deputy speaker in the Catalan parliament and national coordinator of the United and Alternative Left (sister party of Spain’s United Left):
We need a democratic front that goes from the small and medium business owner to the SEAT [car factory] worker; from the PSC to the CUP [left-nationalist People’s Unity List]. Someone might say that's impossible. No, it's not impossible.
That's the democratic front we need so they don't smash our face in: because, when they do come, they'll come with everything ... But repression comes with a high price. When there are tens of thousands of police, maybe thousands of soldiers, but hundreds of thousands of people, well, we already know how it will end.
This is the pre-war atmosphere in which the Catalan government must decide if and when it will put a declaration of independence before parliament. October 10 is the day presently set for premier Puigdemont to report: it could be an historic moment in the struggle for democratic rights in Catalonia, Spain and Europe. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its website.