Can immigrants affect Catalonian aspirations?

Even if only a fraction of Catalonia’s immigrants vote, they might have a key role in the final outcome of a referendum.

Some immigrant community leaders have taken part in pro- or anti-independence rallies, writes Munoz [EPA]

On October 2, the president of Catalonia’s regional government, Artur Mas, signed a decree officially calling for a referendum on Catalonia’s independence. However, after the Spanish government’s appeal, the Constitutional Court issued a cautionary suspension of the vote that is supposed to stay in place while the legal dispute is solved. This might take weeks, months or years and that is entirely dependent on the court’s discretion. But the Catalan government is not willing to accept a delay in its plans, and has officially said that it is planning to hold the vote anyway, perhaps with an alternative legal formula.

The Catalan independence movement gathered widespread attention from international media for the first time in September 2012, during the massive demonstrations in Barcelona. The Catalan political arena was not well understood outside Spain, and until then, the scarce reports in the international media tended to portray Catalan nationalism as a moderate, non-secessionist movement seeking greater autonomy within Spain in a non-contentious way.

That representation was basically correct. Until recently, only a small minority of Catalan public opinion and parties favoured independence from Spain. But this is no longer the case: Today, a highly active social movement, as well as a majority of Catalan MPs, support an independence referendum. Spurred on by the holding of an independence referendum in Scotland, despite the negative outcome, opinion polls show that, over 74 percent of Catalans think that a vote on the issue should be called, although not all of them would support secession.

Game-changing element

Little discussed, however, is a new element has come into place since the early days of the movement. The Catalan population has changed dramatically during the last 15 years. While in 2000, only about 2 percent of Catalonia’s residents were of foreign origin, in 2010, the figure reached an all-time high of 16 percent. Albeit, the harsh economic crisis has since then, interrupted the influx – today 15 percent of Catalans are foreign nationals. One fifth of the foreign nationals that live in Catalonia come from Morocco, and a similar proportion come from South America. There are also communities from Romania, Pakistan, and China. And their say will count too, in determining the final outcome of the process.

Spain suspends Catalonia independence vote

While the goal of holding a referendum on the issue enjoys wide consensus within Catalonia, it is less clear what the outcome of such a vote would be. Support for independence has sharply grown in recent years, but the experiences of Scotland and Quebec show how difficult it is for a secessionist movement in a relatively wealthy democratic context to actually prevail at the polls.

Current figures on support for independence vary across polling houses, but most estimates place it at around 45-50 percent, with upfront opposition ranging between 30 to 35 percent. The rest of the electorate has yet to take a clear position, and issues such as the EU membership or the alternative offered by the Spanish government might be key for them.

Of course, support for independence is not homogeneous across the Catalan population. As in Scotland, those over 65 years of age display the lowest support – 38 percent. While there are no sharp ethnic or cultural divisions in Catalonia, cultural background does also play a role: 70 percent of those that have Catalan as their main language favour independence, and support drops down to 50 percent among the bilinguals and 20 percent among Spanish-speakers. Those with a leftist or centre-left ideology are more likely to support independence, as are those with higher education.

With such a close scenario, in an open vote, every group will be important. Among them, the immigrant communities. The law passed by the Catalan Parliament to regulate the referendum is significantly more open to immigrant participation than the Spanish rules for regular elections. Non-national residents would be granted the right to vote if they have been residing in Catalonia for over a year if they come from another EU country, and three years if they are from non-EU countries.

Consequential vote

This decision to also open the vote to the immigrants might prove consequential, even if only a fraction of them show up at the polls.

Although some immigrant community leaders have taken part in pro- or anti-independence rallies – based mostly on their political allegiances with local parties – it is yet unclear how the communities at large are going to behave, especially because the law requires that they register to vote before the referendum. It is unknown how many of them will actually register: The fact that most of them have been living in Catalonia for less than a decade might mean that political links with the host country are still weak. Of course, even if if they vote in small numbers, they might have a key role in the final outcome of a close race: Many have remembered the allegations that immigrant communities voted massively against independence in Quebec’s 1995 referendum, infamously phrased by Jacques Parizeau as the independence option having been beaten by “money and ethnic votes”.

This is why both pro- and anti-independence movements and parties have directed specific campaign activities towards these communities, and not without some controversy.

Recently, the Spanish Minister of the Interior, a well-known member of the Catholic group Opus Dei, accused a pro-independence group called “Nous Catalans” (New Catalans) of promising “paradise on earth” to the more than half-a-million Muslims living in Catalonia in exchange for their support. The group responded by accusing the minister of racism and claimed that their campaign activities were fully public and democratic.

Some Spanish media have also suggested that the recently approved plan to incorporate the teachings of Islam and Arabic and Berber languages in certain public schools with a high proportion of Muslim pupils was part of the strategy to buy off these communities.

Even with the uncertainty involved in the final outcome, support for a referendum is unlikely to fade away easily. The pro-referendum movement is strong and well organised, and the issue will be kept at the top of the political agenda despite the Spanish government’s opposition. At the end, Rajoy’s unwillingness to negotiate might backfire, and reinforce the pro-independence camp by convincing some undecided voters that it is very unlikely that Catalonia will ever get more autonomy within Spain.

Jordi Munoz is senior research fellow in political science at the University of Barcelona. He specialises in public opinion analysis and voting behaviour.