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I’m posting in the hope that readers in Spain will continue to provide insightful commentary about what comes next after the government in Madrid tried to crush the independence referendum in Catalonia, with only partial success. Even though Catalan officials declared victory and are moving forward with their plans to declare independence soon, the fact is that the central government managed to disrupt the referendum sufficiently so as to raise doubts about the vote. Turnout of ~43% was high in light of shuttering of some voting places, the confiscation of ballots and voting boxes, and the shows of brute force, leading to reports that over 860 were injured. Moreover, despite EU leaders have remained silent, so Catalonia is very much on its own.
The English language reports are transfixed by the violence but also seem uncertain about how to position themselves, no doubt in due in part to taking interest very late in the game. Nevertheless, even with these accounts dutifully stressing that the referendum is illegal, are also painting the picture that the crackdown was excessive. For instance, from Bloomberg:
On Sunday night, Rajoy praised police for their “calmness” in defending the constitutional order after they raided polling stations and seized ballot boxes in their efforts to shut down the vote. As forces deployed, camera phones beamed the confrontations to the world. In one video, broadcast by a local newspaper, a woman is seen being thrown down a flight of stairs. In another, police rip ballot boxes from the hands of would-be electoral officials…
As polling stations prepared to open at 9 a.m., officers in riot gear smashed in the doors and dragged protesters away by the hair, beating some with batons and firing rubber bullets at others. The Catalan government said 73 percent of polling stations had opened.
Of course, it may be that Twitter images like this are driving the reporting:
— Vanessa (@vane_gayoso) October 1, 2017
These Catalans didn’t come to protest. They came to vote. Who are the democrats and who the violent thugs? pic.twitter.com/N9phnO7r8s
— Ian Fraser (@Ian_Fraser) October 1, 2017
Even the reliably neoliberal New York Times described the stalemate in stark terms:
Catalonia’s defiant attempt to stage an independence referendum descended into chaos on Sunday, with hundreds injured in clashes with police in one of the gravest tests of Spain’s democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.
National police officers in riot gear, sent by the central government in Madrid from other parts of Spain, used rubber bullets and truncheons in some places as they fanned out across Catalonia, the restive northeastern region, to shut down polling stations and seize ballot boxes….
The day’s events left nothing clear except that the clashes over the status of the region — Spain’s economic powerhouse, where yearnings for a separate nation have ebbed and flowed for generations — had left supporters on both sides more hardened and polarized than before.
The Madrid government, with the backing of Spanish courts, had declared the referendum unconstitutional and ordered the vote suspended. But that did not stop Catalans from gathering before sunrise on Sunday, massing on rain-slicked streets across the region.
“Spain has shown us today its ugliest and darkest face, that which we really thought had disappeared 40 years ago,” said Mario Pulpillo, 54. “You simply can’t use violence against people who just want to vote.”
Despite the police threat, Mr. Pulpillo, who uses a wheelchair, said he went to vote “to make sure this was our feast of democracy, not our humiliation at the hands of a Spanish state that believes in repression.”
Voters like him made the turnout an extraordinary show of determination in the face of a steady drumbeat of threats from Madrid.
However, even though Catalonia may not have won, Rajoy has clearly lost. His crackdown on Catalonia was a stark reminder that he is a legatee of Franco. The Guardia Civil, which were sent in to bar the election, are a national paramilitary force created by Franco, because the central government could not rely on local police. Indeed, the media reports I saw (I worry about relying on English language sources) said the police in Catalonia for the most part stood aside. So Rajoy’s crackdown is applying pressure on long-standing fault lines.
Had things not gotten to this point, the government in Catalonia might have been satisfied with a “most favored region” deal, since a major beef has been that Catalonia has less autonomy than other regions. But the way so many people to came out to vote in the face of Madrid’s thuggery has stiffened the resolve of the separatists. As a political scientist told me, “Like the Kurds, it’s what they want, even if it’s suicidal.”
By contrast, Rajoy already has a fragile coalition. The Basques have every reason to be alarmed about the rough treatment of Catalonia. If they pull out, they could bring the government down. It’s over my pay grade to game out what might happen next, but Rajoy has clearly overplayed his hand, and he has also not allowed himself a way to retreat gracefully. So the only safe bet is that things will become even more chaotic over the coming few weeks.
Readers Sue and Jesus Martinez provided particularly informative reactions and links yesterday. I’m hoisting bot of Jesus’ for those who may have missed them, and hope they will also spur more commentary from readers in Spain or who have a good reading on the politics.
From Jesus’ first comment:
Regarding the Spanish government’s actions:
1.I think that the hard-liners took over control two weeks ago but they seem to have vanished now. They overdid it, and the civic reaction has set limits to their actions. I may be wrong, but my impression is that it was a big bluff that would only work if people didn’t react and international reactions were late and lame. They are in retreat now. That is my hope at least. I perceived a changed tone (even in the Spanish media) after the UN statement that Sue mentioned in comments first. It seems to have been a watershed that has changed the game (although there is no public acknowledgement of that, of course). It is not only that they have met the limits of what they can do. It is that they have actually overstretched badly: many of the actions of the last ten days are illegal according to the Spanish law, and I think that if the conflict is not resolved quickly at a political level we are going to see appeals at the European Court of Justice that are going to have damning consequences for Spain.
2.Their plans for after the vote: no bloody idea. I think that they just plan to sit and wait until all this goes away. I know it sounds insane, but that is my impression. Their only option was that people would shit their pants and not vote. I think that their tactics may be to be nicer to the Catalan government from now on and to keep on saying no to everything. Honestly, I can’t see a single idea in Moncloa (site of the Spanish government offices) regarding this conflict. And, objectively, all options beyond the status quo are horrible for them.
1.Even if the referendum is a big victory (we’ll see that in a few hours: there are reports of police trying to stop the vote, but they seem to be limited to a few polling stations, and if so they would be just for the show), the refusal of the Spanish government to anything more than five-o’clock-tea kind of conversations is going to leave our government in a tricky situation. Madrid has control of the tax spigot, and a couple of days ago Puigdemont, the Catalan PM ruled out a unilateral declaration of independence. So it seems that the Catalan government seems open to negotiations, but things being as they are now means that the Spanish government has the upper hand in specific issues, even if we are politically reinforced by today’s vote. And Madrid may accept negotiations about certain things, but independence is NEVER, NEVER, NEVER going to be in any agenda that they accept to discuss.
2.I think that a unilateral declaration of independence is a huge risk that might backfire, and that at the moment we should focus on solidifying the support for independence gained these last two weeks. But then, I read opinions by patronisingly reasonable, law-abiding, never-break-a-thing bastards repeating that such a declaration would be a disaster and I think: that’s probably the thing to do, then.
On a more general note, and out of a certain sense of guilt about my (very long) posts possibly being too parochial for most of you, two reflections on mechanisms of cultural/social/political dominance that have occurred to me these days:
1.In an essay (on education, I think), Bertrand Russell, discussing literacy, made the point that the aim of both the Church and the State was to control the masses; but that the interests of the Church were better served when people were illiterate, whereas the interests of the State are better served when people are literate. These days I have seen (it is definitely a subjective impression) among people who are well-informed, who read the newspaper and who would claim to have an idea of how the world works (what we would call serious people), a distinct bias towards being more scared, doubting themselves more (they were all pro-independence) and being certain that there would be no vote; on the other hand, less-informed people would plainly say that yes, there would be a vote and were showing more indignation than fear. If today there is a big turnout and the vote proceeds normally, Russell’s words would be vindicated big time. And I am afraid that I would have to include myself in the list of informed dupes :-(
2.The second comment is about expert opinion: in this Catalonia-Spain debate the official definition of expertise is: words by someone with the proper academic/intellectual capacities who is against independence. They can be rabidly against, make displays of reasonably-sounding third-way opinions (yes, there is a third-way in this debate and it is as bogus as the Blairite one) , they may consider independence as an exercise of sheer fantasy that inevitably crumbles down in the face of reality, or they may be exquisitely equidistant. But they must never, never, show a solid preference for independence. The moment they do it, they are automatically expelled from the Kingdom of Expertise, and they become partisans. So it can be said without a shade of doubt that no expert supports Catalan independence.
Reader Dan pointed out:
The Catalan independence movement involves people from all sides of the political spectrum. Part of the coalition (for example, what comes from the old CIU) is very right wing, as socially and economically extremist as the PP that governs nationally.
Absolutely what has triggered this is the following – most of Spain is fed up with corrupt, incompetent government subservient to bankers and energy companies that is dedicated to diminishing the welfare of ordinary people – in Catalunya there presents itself the utopian solution of starting all over again – it’s an infantile solution – but it’s appealing to the frustrated and desperate. It’s like voting Brexit, Scottish independence, Trump, Podemos, etc. the source is similar in all cases.
Of course there is more. The linguistic difference is real. There have been independence wanting Catalans for a long time, and there are other, more serious reasons for wanting independence, some of them quite reasonable. In the end the question shouldn’t be whether those reasons are right or wrong, but rather, given that a substantial portion of Catalan society wants independence, how to organize a process that determines whether such independence should occur, and in what terms. A schism of that sort is a like a divorce. It can occur amicably, when both sides behave like adults, or it can degenerate into fighting over money and children. What is happening is the latter. Serious issues, like who pays for the pensions of public employees post independence, have to be discussed, not just blown off. But prior to that, there has to be a constructive effort to channel the desires of the Catalan population to be heard. Maybe such a vote would fail, maybe not (I personally have no problems with Catalan independence as a consequence of a well organized process), but the central government’s refusal to even broach the issue is simply blind stupidity.
Now of course things are worse. The time for reasonableness has passed. There will probably be a unilateral declaration of independence and if there is the central government will declare some sort of martial law and take over. The end game of such developments cannot be good. Who wants them is a fool. But both governments apparently want them.
And from Iganacio:
If you can read spanish I recommend today’s editorial from El Periodico de Catalunya:
Fracaso colectivo (collective failure)
I cannot agree more.