Catalonia and Spain
On Sunday October 1st, the autonomous region of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain held a referendum on independence from the Spanish state. The day was marred by scenes of violence as the Spanish police used batons, rubber bullets and riot shields to forcibly halt persons from visiting polling stations. The police even went as far as to shut down many of the polling stations and confiscated ballots across the region, bludgeoning the democratic process. Catalan firefighters did their best to protect voters but were hapless to prevent the Spanish police from injuring over 900 persons.
The controversial referendum was declared illegal by Spain’s constitutional court last month. Despite this, regional president Carles Puigdemont insisted on following through with the referendum which he himself signed into law after a parliamentary session on the 6th of September. Furthermore, the bill he signed stipulates that the Catalan government must declare independence 48 hours after the vote which they attempted to do on Monday before being suspended by Spain’s constitutional court.
It is significant to note that while Catalonia has enjoyed relative peace with the Spanish for the past 5 centuries whilst remaining part of what constitutes “Spain”; separatist sentiments have always existed amongst sections of Catalan society. With this in mind, it is easy to how the victory of the separatist Catalan Democratic Party in the 2015 Regional elections fanned the flames of resentment, culminating in the tensions which began on Sunday.
In reality, the situation is not as black and white as it might appear on the surface. There are many people in Catalonia who do not wish to see the region split from the rest of Spain. Similarly, there are many in Spain who wish that their government would allow the secession process to occur freely. The situation is extremely tense, as neither Madrid nor Barcelona seem to be interested in changing their current stances and both sides are claiming the moral high ground.
All things considered, the violence that occurred during Sunday’s referendum should not be happening in a nation which claims to be built upon democracy. The far-right Spanish nationalist sentiments that exist among Spanish police and military needs to be weeded out if there is to be any hope of mediation. Simultaneously, the Catalan regional government should seriously reconsider making any unilateral declaration of independence. Doing so would only further incense the government in Madrid and may even lead to military forces being deployed. Furthermore, only 43% of registered voters in Catalonia turned out for the referendum. Consequently, the 90% in favour result is easily explained by the fact that only those in favour of independence really turned out to vote; the Catalans opposed to independence boycotted for fear of giving the referendum legitimacy.
Tensions in Spain are running high and the situation rests on a knife’s edge. The events of the past week have only served to add more straws to the back of history’s camel. Both governments in Madrid and Barcelona need to take steps towards mediation and compromise in order de-escalate the situation before things become much worse.