12th Apr 2024

Catalans gear up for de facto independence referendum

  • One of the big concerns for both Catalan and Spanish nationalists is the question of Catalonia’s place in Europe. (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

Catalans will go to the ballot box on Sunday (27 September) in a regional election that has turned into a de facto referendum on independence from Spain.

Polls indicate a majority in favour of a group of secessionists going on a joint ticket.

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  • "I would have settled for a solution like in Switzerland where they have Cantons that decide for themselves", says Jose María Abella. (Photo: Helena Spongenberg)

Incumbent Catalan President Artur Mas requested an early regional election after Madrid turned a blind eye to the non-binding referendum on independence last November, where 38 percent of the Catalan population voted 80 percent in favour of a secession from Spain.

The referendum was later deemed illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

Many Catalans feel culturally and economically undervalued by the Spanish establishment – especially from Mariano Rajoy's conservative and centrist People's Party (PP) government, which has been in power for the past four years.

"I would have settled for a solution like in Switzerland where they have Cantons that decide for themselves," says 53 year-old Jose María Abella.

"But if we always get a no, no and no, then at the end we move on on our own. There are increasingly more supporters of independence."

"The Spanish are very angry that we want to leave and that can end up bad. I'm sorry about that, I would have liked a good relationship with Spain," he added.

37-year-old Fran Robles said: "A secession is in no one's interest, neither for Catalonia nor for Spain. We've been together for more than 300 years, we can put up with each other for a little longer."

For Robles, the current situation is more of a political problem.

"It's not an identity crisis and it's something that can be solved. I hope that the political leaders (Mas and Rajoy) will sit down together and negotiate a solution, but it's not in their interest right now," he said, explaining that both are facing elections - Rajoy later this year - and that looking tough helps get votes.

Some Catalans fear the possible consequences that secession would imply, while others feel that Catalonia would be better off remaining a part of Spain.

"I wouldn't like for Catalonia to become independent," says 61-year-old Mercedes Díaz. "They'll take away the euro and say that we're neither from Spain nor from the EU."

"We're good within Spain and in every region there's always a handful who wants independence."

High turnout expected

The Catalan population is split over the issue of sovereignty, as are Catalan businesses. Voter turnout is expected to be among the highest in an election in many years - over 70 percent.

So far, the election campaign echoes the local and other regional elections across Spain this Spring, with younger political parties challenging the foothold of the more established conservative PP and the Spanish Social Democrats.

However, the main talking point in the run-up to Sunday's election revolves around whether or not Catalonia should secede from Spain.

The governing centre-liberal party Convergencia (CDC) and its main support party, left-wing Esquerra Republicana (ERC) – both pro-independent – have, together with members of civil society, formed a common political platform called Junts pel Sí – Together for Yes.

The group is headed up by former green MEP Raül Romeva (2004-2014) and is joined by the incumbent President Mas, the leader of ERC Oriol Junqueras, as well as independence activists from civil society.

The political platform has already announced that, should they win a majority in the Catalan assembly this Sunday, they will immediately start a process of state-building negotiated with Madrid and proclaim independence within six to 18 months.

Only one other party standing in the election supports such a move - that of the radical left-wing and secessionist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP).

The conservative PP, currently in power in Madrid, and the centre-right Ciutadans, which is quickly gaining voters from the PP, are against secession and argue that Catalonia would be much better off remaining within Spain. The Catalan Socialist Party also believes that Spain is better together. Ciutadans is also demanding a regeneration of Spanish politics.

Absolute majority

A political platform of left-wing and green parties including Podemos - called Catalonia Sí que es Pot (Catalonia Can) - focus more on social policies for Catalonia. On the issue of independence, they argue that Catalans should cast their votes, but only with the blessing of Madrid - a blessing the current Catalan government has given up on obtaining.

Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy insists that a Catalan secession from Spain is unconstitutional and will not be permitted.

According to the 19 different polls published in the last three weeks, the two separatist groupings – Junts pel Sí and CUP – are set to win the election and quite possibly with an absolute majority.

Ciutadans - led by Inés Arrimadas - is expected to become the main opposition party in the Catalan Parliament, closely followed by the left-wing Catalunya Sí que es Pot. Traditional parties like PP, PSOE and the regional christian democrat party Unió are expected to win less seats than at the previous Catalan election in 2012.

The results of Sunday's election will reveal just how many Catalans want independence, and the Spanish general election expected before the end of 2015 will show how Madrid in turn plans to deal with the Catalan question in the long run.

One of the big concerns for both Catalan and Spanish nationalists is the question of Catalonia's place in Europe.

European Commission chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, said last Thursday that any region becoming independent from a member state would automatically become a third country and may ask for membership of the European Union.

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