Catalonia in Revolt: How Did We Get Here and What Happens Next?

by Javier Moreno Zacarés

24 September 2017

Toshiko Sakurai/Flickr

Revolt has erupted in Catalonia. Mass unrest is spreading in response to the clampdown of the Spanish state on the independence referendum planned for the 1 October.

The Spanish government has assumed direct control over Catalonia’s finances and security forces in an attempt to effectively suspend its devolved self-government. Several high ranking members of the Catalan government have been arrested and 10m ballot papers have been seized. Predictably, this repressive turn has only further inflamed the desire for self-determination amongst Catalans. Huge demonstrations have recurred throughout the week, some of which have turned violent: on Wednesday, a crowd outside the Catalan finance ministry attacked a group of gendarmes performing a registry, destroying their cars and allegedly seizing their weapons. Moreover, Barcelona’s dockworkers are refusing to service ships carrying deployments of gendarmes to the region.

These events announce the foretold arrival of a ‘train collision’ (choque de trenes) between the Spanish state and the Catalan government on the issue of the region’s right to self-determination. All bridges have been burnt. Earlier this week, after Spanish unionists and Catalan nationalists traded accusations of ‘coup d’etat’ in parliament, Catalan parties walked out of the session in protest amidst shouts of ‘don’t come back’.

How did we get here?

The clampdown of the Spanish state evokes bitter memories from Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship (1939-1975), when Catalan language and culture were persecuted – a dark period still within the living memory of many. After the death of Franco, the Spanish constitution of 1978 devolved a considerable degree of self-rule to Catalonia, with the opposition of a begrudging right-wing. This history is crucial to understanding the current outrage: the cherished self-government of the Catalans has now been suspended by a government headed by the conservative People’s party (PP), originally founded by high figures from within the dictatorship.

Throughout the 2000s, PP maintained a ‘scorched earth’ electoral strategy with regards to Catalonia. Aware of its lack of appeal amongst Catalans, PP abandoned its attempts to gain ground in the region and instead focused on agitating its Spanish nationalist base. To do so, the party employed an aggressive anti-Catalan rhetoric that encouraged outrage at the use of the Catalan language, and deemed any exhibition of Catalan symbols as a provocation. The moment of truth came when PP impeached the 2006 Catalan statute of devolution – passed by the Catalan parliament with a large majority – which included the purely symbolic recognition of Catalonia as a ‘nation’. The Constitutional Court struck down the text in 2010.

The result has been a dramatic surge in pro-independence sentiment: in 2006, only 13-16% of Catalans expressed a desire for an independent state. By 2013, this figure had surged to 46-48%. The yearly celebration of ‘la diada’ (the Catalan day) have become massive protests for self-determination. Throughout this time, the PP government has been extremely uncompromising about the idea of a referendum, offering no argument against it other than that it would be unconstitutional (as if the law were immutable and could not be changed).


Since 2012, the Catalan government has been in open rebellion against the central state, vowing to hold an independence referendum by any means necessary. In 2015, a regional re-election was held as a proxy plebiscite (the electorate was told to vote for a pro-independence party if they supported a ‘yes’ vote or to vote for a unionist party if they wished to remain in Spain), with the promise of a unilateral declaration of independence if the ‘yes’ vote won. The result was a large parliamentary majority for pro-independence parties, but a share of the popular vote that fell short of a majority (48%).

The Catalan parliament deemed the result inconclusive and turned inward to design the structures of a future independent state; the blueprint of which was to be ratified by yet another referendum. This is the vote at stake: on 20 August, the Catalan parliament passed crucial legislation to equip this process with the necessary legal infrastructure. The Constitutional Court immediately struck down the bill, but the Catalan government has decided to go on with the referendum anyway.

This new referendum inspired many doubts at first, even amongst those who ardently support the Catalans’ right to self-determination. Some expressed worries at the democratic deficit surrounding the vote: no minimum turnout has been established, yet prominent Catalan politicians have been adamant that they will declare independence if the leave vote wins, no matter how low participation is. Moreover, no official electoral register has been released, so there are no means to ensure against election fraud. Others also point out that the plebiscitary elections of 2015 already showed insufficient popular support for the continuation of the independence process.

Yet the clampdown has set these doubts aside for the time being: all that matters now is to resist the encroachment of the Spanish state.

What now?

The manoeuvres of the Spanish state complicate the logistics of the planned referendum, which may or may not happen. Most likely, the vote will be deferred to a new round of regional elections, held as a proxy plebiscite (as in 2015). However, even if pro-independence forces secure a popular majority in these elections, it remains unclear what a unilateral declaration of independence will mean without the support of any foreign power or international institution.

PP will not be backing down with regard to Catalan self-determination and neither will be its liberal allies in Ciudadanos: unionism is deeply wired into the consciousness of the Spanish right. The centre-leftists of PSOE, who recently elected a leader who supports Catalan nationhood, have been remarkably silent in recent days. Podemos has called for a wide turnout on 1 October but has insisted on the need for a legally-binding referendum. But perhaps most interestingly, the Basque nationalists, uncomfortable with the events, are raising doubts that they will renew their support for the government’s budget. If this happens, there will yet another general election in Spain next year.

The only certain thing is that the convulsion events of the last week – the worst constitutional crisis since the fall of the dictatorship – will scar the relations between Catalonia and Spain for a long time to come.

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