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Spain at a crossroads

With the Catalan independence referendum fast approaching, a stand-off has emerged between Carles Puigdemont’s government of Catalonia and the central government in Madrid. Puigdemont is determined that the referendum should go ahead, whilst Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is equally determined that it should not. The struggle for power has escalated and is threatening to split the country whilst observers, aware of Spain’s recent history of division, are left watching with increasing concern.

The independence movement in Catalonia appears larger than ever, having just mobilised over a million people on the streets of Barcelona to celebrate Catalonia’s National Day just recently. Therefore if the “yes” vote were to succeed, it could result in Catalonia abandoning Spanish administrative and legislative control.

The independence movement within Catalonia is long-established but has dramatically picked up its pace since 2006 when the Spanish High Court moved to challenge Catalonia’s autonomy. This was angrily received by Catalans, who felt it was an attack on their regional identity and many soon demanded independence.

Catalonia has had a long history of nationalism

This continued through the following years with symbolic referenda on independence from 2009-2011, each showing huge support for the movement.  A 2010 protest attracted over a million people and by 2012 a snap election resulted in a pro-independence majority for the first time in the region’s history.

So, by 2015, with pro-independence parties winning a majority of seats in a plebiscite, new president Carles Puigdemont announced a binding referendum on independence to be held this autumn, now scheduled for 1 October.

A previous attempt to hold such a referendum in 2014 was blocked by the Spanish constitutional court. So, despite an 81% “yes” vote, it was considered a non-binding consultation and, with only a 35% turnout, the results were limited in their influence over Spanish politics, with an apparent boycott by voters who opposed the motion. A poll in July more accurately reflected this doubt among those concerned about the independence movement. Those saying they opposed the vote reached 49.4%, as opposed to those in favour at 41.1%.

Legally, the Spanish constitutional court has once again blocked the referendum. However, in a sign that this time it means business, the Catalan government has flexed its muscles and has passed the legal framework necessary for a political transition in the case of a “yes” vote.

The prospect of a legally-binding referendum has resulted in the Spanish government resorting to more extreme measures in attempting to prevent it from going ahead.

These measures include the potential control of Catalonia’s finances, abolishing its regional autonomy and even going to the extent of threatening jail time for Catalan leaders. However, these Catalan leaders have refused to back down, with Puigdemont publishing a new link to the referendum site on his Twitter account when the website was shut by the civil guard on 13 September.

Madrid has also threatened that anyone found distributing ballots could face prosecution, whilst the 700 mayors who are actively participating in the election are being formally investigated by the police. A prominent Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, has also recently reported that if all else fails, electricity could be cut at polling stations to thwart the vote.

This continued conflict has left many people caught in the middle, with 55,000 citizens receiving letters requesting that they help run polling stations. Under Catalan referendum law, they are obliged to do so, yet this very law has also been ruled unconstitutional by Spain’s constitutional court.

Additionally, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has also called the referendum an “intolerable act of disobedience”, which has left many wondering if they should even vote. With police still searching for a supposed 6,000 ballot boxes, hidden by supporters of the referendum, the loyalties of the Catalan police could also prove crucial as to whether the referendum actually occurs.

One woman in who has been caught in the crossfire is Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona. She has been a critic of the referendum, suggesting it needs a minimum participation level to avoid repeating the 2014 result where many of the citizens who opposed independence boycotted. She has continued to accuse the Catalan government of “ignoring half the Catalan population”. Yet, despite this she backs the principle of a referendum, in writing a joint letter with Puigdemont to the Prime Minister and King calling for an open dialogue on the issue, believing Catalans should determine their own future.

The Prime Minister immediately dismissed this and has since been defiant in ruling out any possibility of a referendum. This has dramatically added to the growing tensions in the past few days.

So, as we approach referendum, Spain appears to be in turmoil. As Madrid refuses to accept the prospect of a referendum with Rajoy categorically stating “it will not happen”, Catalan mayors have been signing declarations of support for the referendum under the hashtag “#josigno”.

One thing is for sure: the issues surrounding the independence debate are not going to be solved by a definitive vote either way, with Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy appearing to try to preempt an independence victory by stating “what is not legal, is not democratic”.