Catalans eye new independence ‘referendum’

For Europe’s separatists, September is fast becoming the month to vote for independence.

Catalonia independence
Pro-independence citizens in Catalonia hold up giant letters reading 'We are ready Independence' [Reuters]

Last September, Scotland narrowly elected to remain part of the United Kingdom in a historic referendum. Now Catalans will have the chance to register their support for leaving Spain after Catalan nationalists called snap regional elections to be held on September 27.

On January 14, Catalonia’s centrist President Artur Mas announced an agreement with his nationalist rivals, Esquerra Republicana (ERC), to run separate tickets but with a shared road map towards secession, making September’s vote a de facto referendum on leaving Spain.

“Our adversaries would have wanted us to remain divided,” Mas, the leader of Convergència i Unió (CiU), the largest bloc in the Catalan Parliament but trailing in opinion polls, said in a recent televised address. “We managed to re-establish our unity.”

If the nationalists win a majority, Mas has said the government will push for independence.

Mas’ move brought an end to two months of squabbling between the rival pro-independence parties, which had threatened to derail the nationalist movement in Catalonia, a prosperous region of some 7.4 million people in northeast Spain.

“The tensions between ERC and CiU were becoming worrying for pro-independence supporters that were starting to wonder if the whole process was about to collapse,” says Laura Pous Trull, a journalist with the Catalan News Agency ACN. “Mas’ agreement with ERC reignites the process when many were starting to become sceptical about it.” 

Supporter relief

In Barcelona, Catalan independence supporters welcomed the deal between Mas and his opposite number, Esquerra Republicana leader Oriol Junquera.

“The most important thing is that not what was said but that they are in agreement,” says independence activist Liz Castro. “People are relieved. People who are in favour of independence really want independence so having no agreement was really damaging. There was a lot of confusion, disorganisation and frustration.”

The frustration among Catalan nationalists stems, in part, from a perceived loss of momentum in the wake of November’s illegal ballot on independence. Although 2.3 million people turned out to vote – and the overwhelming majority backed leaving Spain – the unofficial referendum brought secession no closer.

Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has consistently refused to countenance any change to Catalonia’s constitutional position.

Nationalists now hope a majority for pro-independence parties in September’s elections will presage negotiations on leaving Spain.

“If ERC and CIU – maybe also with MPs from more radical left-wing CUP – get an overall majority, Catalans will have a mandate to negotiate independence from Spain. Every vote for them will be considered as a ‘yes to independence’ vote,” says Pous Trull.

Support for Catalan independence has risen dramatically in the recent years, fuelled by Spain’s economic crisis and a 2010 Constitutional Court decision that struck down a statute of Catalan autonomy that had already been endorsed in a referendum. Since then millions have taken to the streets demanding a plebiscite on leaving Spain.

There has been a general feeling of frustration in Catalonia, but if there was a hard referendum on independence a lot of people would fall away.

by - Michael Keating, Aberdeen University

Auspicious month

September is an auspicious month for Catalan nationalists. September 11, the date Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces in 1714, is Catalonia’s national holiday. Last year on La Diada, hundreds of thousands of independence supporters converged on Barcelona, forming a huge “V” for vote in Catalan red and yellow.

There are, however, indications the appetite for Catalan independence is waning. Opinion polls published by the Catalan government in December showed a majority in favour of remaining part of Spain for the first time in two years.

“There has been a general feeling of frustration in Catalonia, but if there was a hard referendum on independence a lot of people would fall away,” says Michael Keating, chair in Scottish politics at Aberdeen University and a researcher on sub-state nationalist movements in Europe.

“Catalans haven’t had the kind of full debate that took place in Scotland. There are still a lot of uncertainties about what independence means,” Keating told Al Jazeera.

Questions are being raised, too, over whether CiU and ERC, the dominant forces in the Catalan parliament since it was re-established in 1980, will be able to win a majority in September’s elections.

Mas’ party has been weakened by a series of corruption scandals, while Podemos, the fledgling political party that has electrified Spanish politics, threatens to take votes from the pro-independence parties, particularly the republican left of ERC.

“Until now the independence movement was the only movement in Catalonia, and even in Spain, talking about hope, change and transformation. Now Podemos are also using these words, so the pro-independence movement has competition for the first time in years,” says Dani Cetra, a sociologist researching Catalan nationalism.

Rise of the left

Podemos, which was formed just a year ago by writer and television presenter Pablo Iglesias Turrió, is currently topping opinion polls in Spain. The party is cautiously against Catalan independence, but in favour of holding a vote.

A measure of Podemos’ growing importance in the Catalan debate came recently when renowned Catalan singer and independence supporter Lluis Llach said publicly, “The battle that Catalonia solves through the search for independence is the same as the one that Pablo Iglesia’s party represents in Spain.”

Analysts warn the political landscape – in Catalonia and in Spain – could change dramatically between now and September’s elections. The whole country goes to the polls in municipal elections in May, and a general election is due between November 2015 and January 2016.

Catalan nationalists are expected to outline a road map for independence in the coming weeks. Joint plans to build alternative state structures are being developed. Nevertheless May’s local elections could put a strain on the newfound unity between ERC and CiU.

Even if independentistas do emerge with a majority in September, the road to Catalan statehood is hardly clear-cut. 

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” says Marc Vidal, foreign editor of pro-independence Catalan newspaper ARA. “Nobody is talking about declaring independence the day after the election, but we don’t know what the outcome will be.”

One thing seems certain: come September, the eyes of all Europe’s nationalist movements will be firmly on Catalonia.

Source: Al Jazeera