Defying Spain, Catalans Vote for Independence, But What’s Next?

Catalans demonstrate in support of the referendum campaign. Barcelona, Spain, October 19, 2014. (Joan Torrens/Flickr)

Catalans have voted for independence in a referendum that holds no official sway but has enormous significance. Now this part of Spain needs to decide where to turn next.

The referendum was promoted by a coalition of forces, backed by the Catalan government, that argue that Catalonia has the “right to decide” whether it should be independent. About 2.2 million people voted in what has been called a symbolic referendum on November 9. A significant 80.7 percent backed total independence. Between 10-11 percent wished Catalonia to federate with Spain, and 5 percent supported the status quo. This was understandably seen as a success by the Catalan government and has strengthened the standing of President Artur Mas.

The turnout was comparable to the number of people who participated in the recent European elections in the region. That said, it was only about 36 percent of the total census and a long way off the 69 percent of the census who turned out to vote in the 2012 elections to the Catalan government.

The major reason was that, encouraged by the parties opposed to the referendum, the vast majority of those who wish to either maintain the constitutional status quo or who favor more moderate reform simply did not vote. It was, after all, a vote that was to have no tangible outcome and was opposed by the Spanish state. So while the turnout was impressive, the result also indicates that separatists would not necessarily get an easy ride from the “no” block if a real referendum were to take place.

Long Time Coming

The vote has been the fifth major mobilization of Catalan society since 2010. The catalyst for this wave of action was a decision by Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal to annul key parts of the new Catalan Autonomy statute. The statute had been agreed with the Socialist government and approved by the Spanish parliament but was referred to the Tribunal by the opposition Popular Party.

This ruling brought to the fore a number of discontents within Catalan society at current constitutional arrangements and their economic implications. There has been a growing discontent at the level of fiscal transfer from Catalonia to the central state and at the relatively low level of infrastructural investment in Catalonia. The severe recession that has hit Spain has only aggravated this discontent.

What’s more, there is a belief that Catalans are not particularly well liked in parts of Spain, a problem that has certainly been exacerbated by the use, in the past, of anti-Catalan rhetoric by the People’s Party, which has been in power since 2011.

Catalans Divided?

Any compromise to end the current impasse will be difficult to achieve. Some commentators believe that Mas will be willing to reach an accord short of outright independence. Prior to the massive demonstration that accompanied the 2012 national day, the political formation he leads, a coalition of two parties called Convergència i Unió, only asked for greater home rule. And his main partner Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida still favors federalism over separation from Spain.

Yet Mas voted for independence on November 9, and now wants all the parties in favor of Catalonia’s “right to decide” to form a single block in new elections to the Catalan parliament. Having demonstrated the dominance of these parties in Catalonia he then aims to negotiate with the central government the holding of the “definitive referendum” over Catalan independence.

His main rival within the “right to decide” camp, the leader of the Catalan Republican Left Oriol Junqueras, wants to go further, and for the government to “exercise independence” and elaborate a Catalan constitution in the wake of a victory for the “right to decide” block in these elections to the Catalan parliament. The implication is that Catalonia could break away from Spain without reaching an agreement with the Spanish government. Given that the “right to decide” supporters are highly mobilized and that the opposition is divided, it seems likely that it could win these elections. However, the next few weeks will see tense negotiations between these two figures. It will be a big blow to the cause of Catalan independence if they cannot reach an agreement. Junqueras, one senses, will need to make concessions, as Mas is unlikely to agree to any unilateral break with Spain.

Perhaps Mas would change his stance on independence were major concessions forthcoming from the center. However, the Popular Party has made clear that it will not make such concessions. A big difference with Britain is that the major Spanish parties unequivocally see Spain as the nation. One could not imagine the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, imitating David Cameron’s comments in the run-up to the Scottish referendum, and calling Spain a “family of nations.”And yet the pro-referendum parties see Catalonia as the nation and argue that it should decide its relation with Spain.

The Popular Party is also furious that its attempt to scupper the vote by getting the Constitutional Tribunal to block it failed. Indeed, its first reaction was to announce that the courts would be taking action against Mas and his government for conducting an illegal referendum. Annoyed, according to newspaper reports, at political interference, the Spanish and Catalan prosecutors have stepped back and are discussing what action to take. It seems that Mas will be accused of disobeying the orders of the Constitutional Tribunal. This would lead him to being banned for politics for a time. But it is open to doubt how soon this could come into effect.

The Political Crisis

But all this is playing out against an extraordinarily volatile political backdrop. The Popular Party and the Socialist Party have both been badly shaken by the economic recession and a string of corruption scandals. The latest opinion polls give them well under 30 percent of the popular vote each.

The new left-wing party Podemos is in the ascent. Polling over 20 percent of the vote, despite being less than a year old, these newcomers could have influence in future negotiations and are likely to be more favorable to a full-blown federal alliance between Catalonia and Spain. Moreover, the Socialist opposition will certainly be more flexible than the government and now seem to be elaborating serious proposals for constitutional reform.

There will be both local and regional elections followed by a general election next year. These could trigger a massive reconfiguration of the Spanish political system and a new constitution, which takes on board many Catalan demands. A possible post-election scenario is Mas agreeing to negotiate a new status for Catalonia with Podemos and the PSOE. However, this would need to be put to the Catalans in a referendum and one of the options would have to be independence. On the other hand, the Popular Party could hang on as Spain’s major party and try and block major change. But in this case the likelihood is that at some point the Catalan parliament would declare unilateral independence, triggering a constitutional crisis of unforeseeable consequences.

This is an updated version of an article that first appeared on The Conversation on November 11, 2014.