Spearhead Analysis – 05.10.2017
By Raja Safiullah
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Unofficial footage has emerged showing the Spanish police violently seizing ballot boxes, forcing voters out of polling stations, and even firing rubber bullets into the crowds outside polling stations. This has raised serious questions over the notable regression in state of affairs, in the post-Franco Spain. An alarming development that is reminiscent of Franco’s dictatorship, where separatist elements like Catalonia were repressed. And only recently, after Franco’s death and restoration of the republic, Catalonia had gained back the much sought-after regional autonomy that it had enjoyed in the pre-civil war years. Later events have led Catalonia to again consider its status—to remain part of Spain, seek greater autonomy or secede from Spain. These considerations were epitomized in the referendum of 1st October. The referendum was aimed at determining whether Catalonia saw itself independent of Spain or not. The Spanish government considered this exercise unconstitutional and therefore unlawful and has justified its crackdown on this basis.
Catalonia had emerged as a region of significance with its distinct language and customs back in the 11th century, long before the marriage and eventual merger of kingdoms of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile that gave birth to the modern day Spain. But it is noteworthy that Catalonia had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Aragon around the 12th Century, therefore it has in essence always been part of Spain from its very inception. Centuries of focus on amalgamation had sidelined their distinct identity to form the Spanish one, only to snowball in the 19th century with a resurgence of Catalan nationalism and call for separation. To address this persistent dissent, the newly formed republic in 1931 gave significant autonomy to the region of Catalonia. Only to be rescinded by General Francis Franco in 1939, after defeating the republicans in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and assuming dictatorial control of Spain. One of the first ventures he embarked upon once in power, apart from repealing the autonomy of Catalonia – a republican stronghold during the civil war -, was banning the Catalan and Basque languages to further suppress the separatist elements within Spain. Since both of these languages were seen as central to the regional identities, that stood at odds to the Spanish identity.
Franco’s death in 1975 changed fortunes for Spain, and importantly for Catalonia, as his successor Prince Juan Carlos I famously reinstituted the republic. And the subsequent 1978 Constitution restored Catalonia’s autonomy, followed by the 2006 statute that went to the extent of describing Catalonia as a ‘nation’. Only to be reined back in 2010 by the Spanish Parliament to build barriers for the ever-mounting self-determination tendencies of the Catalan region. While it may have limited the autonomy of the region, it also inadvertently ended up dealing a hefty blow to the legitimacy of the Spanish state in the eyes of Catalans. For only a few years later, pro-independence parties were able to win a majority in the region and pave way for the rise of Carles Puigdemont – 9th President of the Catalan region.
The Catalan President has exhibited an unwavering resolve to see through the secession, if the will of the Catalans demands it, and has shown signs of this resolve from his pre-political days as a journalist. He may turn out to be the single biggest factor that sees through the iconic act. Given the Referendum of Self-determination Law passed in the Catalan Parliament sees the referendum as binding and requires independence to be declared within two days, and anyone executing it would be in a collision course with the Spanish State. While at the same time facing opposition from a considerable part of Catalan Parliament that sees separation undesirable. For now only Puigdemont appears to be capable of unilaterally declaring independence, while the situation brews the potential of escalating into a civil war.
While the unofficial preliminary results coming out of Catalonia for now suggest that a whopping 90% of the voters have voted for ‘Yes’ to the referendum that specifically asked: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” It might be somewhat troubling for the rest of Spain, most of all Mariano Rajoy’s government in Madrid, that only a few months back polls indicated that the pro-independence aspirations were declining in Catalonia. But the subsequent backlash of the Spanish government by invoking the 1978 Constitution that declared ‘Spanish Kingdom to be indivisible’ and ‘unilateral declaration of independence by any region to be unlawful’, might have pushed those still on the fence over to the separatist camp in Catalonia. And the situation has only worsened by the police brutality that was at display on 1st of October 2017, orchestrated by Rajoy’s government, basing it on the ruling of the constitutional court – with the figures going up as high as 800 injured by the police crackdown.
While much has been said of the ruling majority in the Catalan region, that was able to gather 48% of votes in the 2015 elections, much remains to be said of the anti-secessionist parties that secured a considerable 40% of the votes in Catalonia. These anti-secessionists continue to voice their reservations over the referendum, citing the failure of the 2014 referendum (non-binding): in which although 80% voted for separation from Spain, but only a 2.3 million of the total 5.4 million registered voters casted their votes – making the referendum somewhat unrepresentative. Similar fate appears to be unfolding for the 1st October 2017 referendum, where the anti-secessionists who hold considerable support have again called for the boycott. And given the police’s crackdown it seems likely only the most resilient separatists were able to muster the resolve to go out and cast their votes. With the turnout expected to be low again.
Despite the division of opinion in terms of whether Catalans see themselves as part of Spain or not. One recurring theme that seems to be principally common in all Catalans is the belief that they are being ripped off by the Spanish state. With Catalonia, that includes Barcelona, being one of the most affluent regions of the country in terms of contributing almost 20% to the GDP, making a huge tax base and a loved tourist destination. This has given rise to a feeling that Spain takes more from Catalonia, than it has ever given back. Coupled with the grievances of suppressed identity of Catalonia for centuries, and kept in check even in a democratic set up that in essence promises self-determination seem to leave many Catalans seeking greater autonomy, greater economic benefits, more recognition, and in a lot of cases, outright separation.
In spite of all the challenges, the Catalan parliament was able to sanction the referendum much to the dismay of the Spanish Parliament. The latter had tried to hog the process by turning down the indents for the referendum, by involving the constitutional courts or by mobilizing the police on the day of referendum, but to no avail. The separatists that seem angered by the curtailing of the autonomy and the eventual crackdown of the Spanish state once Catalonia set about exercising the autonomy they felt was legitimate has created a wound not easily healed. Call for separation even if not by a clear majority in Catalonia let alone a unanimous plea, is a grave reality for the Spanish state to deal with, multiplied by millions and out on the streets. If Puigdemont is able to see through the separation, which would place Catalonia out of Spain but firmly in the EU, it is bound to have far reaching consequences.
From within Spain another age old dissenting voice that had turned discreet for a moment could turn to a roar again. Basque has turned out in support of the Catalan Referendum and on Friday staged demonstrations across the region in support of Catalonia’s independence bid. With Joseba Equiba, spokesman of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), saying that he was hopeful that Basque could one day hold its own referendum and beseech the question of independence. Basque has had a similar story to Catalonia in the sense that this region too was suppressed during Franco’s repressive regime, but the region has always been poorer and their struggle far bloodier – giving rise to the ETA separatist group that allegedly killed around 800 people in attacks spanning 50 years, before laying down their arms in 2010.
Beyond Spain, EU watches on in angst as well. As pointed out by the Belgian premier in relation to the police crackdown in Catalonia that, “Violence is never the option!” Yet it seems Catalonia’s struggle might have given different ideas to other separatist movements either active or dormant elsewhere in Europe. Projecting the notion that something as simple as a referendum couldn’t be brought about in a democracy without violent means. And the test of Belgium’s own character nears as the pro-independence New Flemish Alliance (NFA) grows its influence in the Chamber of Representatives. Wherein, the NFA’s leader Bart de Wever has sensationally claimed that the Flemish-speaking Flanders region that makes up almost half of Belgium’s population and most of its economy could break away from the French-speaking Wallonia, though not any time soon. While Scotland might be preparing to go in for another UK exit referendum, after one failed in 2014. Since Scotland’s insecurities of playing second fiddle to England’s wishes visibly resurfaced after Brexit. As the Scottish felt they were forced out of EU due to Brexit, even though they by and large voted for staying put. Northern Italy grapples with its own separatist sentiments specifically in the north. With the Padania region, purely financially motivated, seeks a way out of a debt crisis Italy finds itself knee-deep in. Given the region makes up most of Italy’s GDP as it operates as an industrial powerhouse and a banking center. Similar reservations about staying in Italy are held further up north in the South Tyrol region that already keeps most of its revenue to itself. France has its own troubles on the Island of Corisca, with Paris conventionally critical of compromising on the French language and identity, to give any form of autonomy to regions like Corisca. Followed by a never-ending list of secessionist or autonomy-seeking aspirations in Western Europe that could be triggered by the boldness of Catalonia, to reshape Europe and consequently EU as we know it.
When the former USSR broke up, several independent states were created in Eastern Europe while Western Europe remained less fluid in this regard over the years, and it’s time of reckoning might finally have come about as a domino effect to the scenes in Catalonia. Meanwhile, the troubled region still ponders over the 1st October referendum that has if nothing else given more impetus and support to the separatists in the streets of Catalonia seen targeted by the Spanish Police. This crackdown sanctioned by Rajoy’s government could prove to be counter-productive. As the referendum happened in spite of the resistance, albeit with a low turnout; and more importantly, with every act of unprovoked aggression the Spanish authorities saw a bit of their legitimacy in Catalonia chipped off. Open to debate remains, what Puigdemont and other pro-independence leaders hoped to achieve from a referendum bound to give another low turn-out. And more so, what they can do with the results that’ll present before them soon enough and echo around Europe. Regardless, the Catalan situation has highlighted the need for states to deal judiciously with nascent separatist movements that could snowball if mishandled or through external exploitation.