How Spain and Catalonia are reopening the wounds of the Franco era

Blame for the frustration that hard-line separatists now feel will, as ever, be shifted to Madrid.

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Less than 80 minutes after voting started in Catalonia’s chaotic referendum on 1 October, it became clear that Spain’s conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, had committed one of the gravest mistakes in the 40-year history of the country’s post-Franco democracy.

That was when María Molina, an elegant, grey-haired woman from Barcelona, appeared on the front page of the local paper La Vanguardia’s website with thick globules of blood dripping down her face. She had been lifted up by policemen at a voting centre in the Infant Jesús secondary school and then dropped face down on the pavement.

As with most of the reported 893 people who sought some kind of medical attention that day, the cuts on her face were not what doctors call “major” injuries (the 64-year-old Molina had three stitches and went back to vote later; a total of four people were still in hospital the following morning). They were, however, a graphic depiction of the fear, anguish and humiliation being felt across much of Catalonia.

Rajoy’s errors are multiple. A legal referendum would almost certainly have resulted in a “No” that buried the independence issue for decades. Yet he has refused to organise one. The prime minister had the law on his side, since the courts had ordered that the referendum should be shut down. But by sending police to confiscate ballot boxes and, as is their custom, beat those blocking their way, he has done untold damage to relations with one of Spain’s most populous and wealthy regions.

Rajoy also blundered by gifting the narrative to the separatists. The victimisation that they had always claimed – and that one of the most extensive charters of self-government in Europe made difficult to portray – was suddenly made reality. Here was a (mostly) peaceful people being prevented from voting by goons in body armour. As a result, many previously non-separatist Catalans will now accept the idea that they belong to a repressed nation. So will some outside Spain. This may prove impossible to undo.

Does the referendum legitimise a declaration of independence? Conservatives and Spanish centralists are not the only ones who argue that it does not. The referendum results “cannot be a guarantee to proclaim independence”, said Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, as she waited to see whether the Catalan prime minister, Carles Puigdemont, would do exactly that. “We must not put our social cohesion at risk.”

Colau was speaking for many of the 52 per cent of Catalans who had voted in the last regional elections in 2015 for non-separatist parties (the voting system turned this into a separatist majority in the regional parliament, which is how the “binding referendum” was organised). This was a referendum designed and executed only by separatists. They wrote the question, oversaw the voting and were the only side to campaign or proclaim that the referendum had validity. Most Catalans did not cast a countable vote on such a fundamental, life-changing issue, mostly because the courts had declared the referendum illegal and partly because police blocked their way or confiscated ballot boxes.

Puigdemont’s slippery independence declaration on 10 October, with its indefinite “suspended effects”, was deliberately ambiguous. He wanted some people to think that it means independence has been declared, and others to think that it had not.

This begs a question. Did he ever intend to go all the way? Or did he think that Rajoy would take that decision out of his hands, by using powers that allow him to take direct control of the Catalan government? That would reinforce the narrative of victimisation without obliging him to risk the immediate welfare of his own people. With Rajoy’s government now poised to intervene, this may happen anyway. It will likely prove another gift to the the separatist narrative.

There are many good reasons for not pressing for full, immediate independence, beyond the divisive nature of the referendum results. Catalonia would be a precarious, marginalised state. No international body would recognise it and, without basic tax, judicial institutions and others, it would – at best – be fragile. It would also suddenly be outside the EU, so many more companies than have now left would disappear and its economy would be in tatters. In reality, Spain would simply impose direct rule while the rest of the EU either applauded or breathed a sigh of relief. Catalonia is not, after all, the only European region with a separatist movement.

Catalonia’s separatist leaders are fine strategists who have turned a minority political stance into a near-majority one in just six years. That is remarkable. These same leaders also know that there are now sensible strategic reasons for drawing back. One is that Rajoy’s government will not be in power for ever. Another is that, although the referendum has provided a little of the international sympathy they have long craved, this remains weak. However, they never told supporters that this was a game of strategy. They insisted instead that Europe would back them, while the economy remained stable. Both things are wrong.

Most importantly, Puigdemont also promised to declare independence within 48 hours if the “Yes” vote won. According to his government’s reckonings, the “Yes” option obtained 90 per cent of countable votes, or 39 per cent of the census. So where, many ask, is independence?

Blame for the frustration that hard-line separatists now feel will, as ever, be shifted to Spain. Rajoy has made this more credible. He and Puigdemont now stand on the brink. Both Spain and Catalonia have made glorious progress over the past 40 years. These two men now have the opportunity to throw much of that away. Unfortunately, they seem intent on doing so.

This article appears in the 19 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions