When is a referendum not a referendum? Like Scotland, the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia is home to many who dream of independence. On November 9, they will get their chance to vote on whether or not they wish to separate from Spain. Unlike the Scottish case, however, that vote is non-binding. It is also, according to the Spanish government, illegal. So while the decision of the country’s Constitutional Court to suspend the act has not dissuaded the pro-independence movement from going ahead with the polling, it has left both Catalans and Spaniards wondering what Sunday’s vote will mean.
A vote on independence has been a long time coming. Although many Catalans have historically felt themselves to be separate from Spain because of their distinct language and culture, that sentiment only began to coalesce into a drive for sovereignty in 2010, when the Spanish constitutional court ruled on the revised statutes outlining Catalan autonomy, and outraged many in the region by striking down a proposed preamble that referred to Catalonia as a ‘nation.’ The economic crisis compounded the disillusionment; as Spain’s wealthiest region, Catalonia felt that it was paying a disproportionate amount to keep the central government afloat. In 2012, 1.5 million Catalans took the occasion of their regional holiday to pour into the streets for unexpected demonstration in favor of independence. Spurred by their enthusiasm—and seeing in it a much-needed boost for flagging public support for his government–Catalan president Artur Mas quickly adopted a vote on independence as his government’s primary goal.
Three years later, that goal has eclipsed all others. Although barred from legally holding the vote, Mas is under tremendous pressure from other pro-sovereignty parties, whose support his government needs to do survive. Which is why he chose his words so carefully when he spoke on November 5 to the Forum Europa, a political organization. “We are maintaining the participatory process of November 9th.We will do what we have to do to defend the country. And we are determined to do so.”
That may sound steadfast, but in that carefully-selected name, “participatory process”, lies evidence of diminishing ambitions. Under this alternative, the government will not officially convene the vote, which means that municipalities have the option not to hold them. Nor will it organize electoral registers—citizens register simply by showing up to vote. “It’s become more like a demonstration,” says Michael Keating, University of Aberdeen political scientist, and director of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change. “It’ll be like another version of that big march that a million people turned out for.”
Because the Spanish constitution bars referenda on secession, even the initial ‘consultation’ that Mas’s government proposed would not have been binding. But movement leaders hoped that an outpouring of support for independence would be enough to garner international support. “That’s exactly what they expected,” says Keating. “That Europe would see what was happening, and come and tell Spain, ‘you have to let this happen. But Europe doesn’t do that. They didn’t intervene in Scotland; they said, ‘It’s none of our business, it’s up to the UK.’ And they’re not going to intervene in Spain.”
It remains unclear what role the government will play in Sunday’s vote. Although the vast majority of the region’s municipalities have agreed to open a polling place, they are not, under the new formulation, required to do so, and it has been suggested that much of the organizing will be left in the hands of pro-independence civic organizations like the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural, which on Wednesday began a massive calling campaign to get out the vote. That kind of effort has made it increasingly clear that the only people who will turn up to cast their ballot are independence supporters; opponents will boycott it, or simply stay home.
“It still has sense,” says political scientist José Ignacio Torreblanca, director of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, of the vote. “But only as a way for the independence movement to test its own relative strength. They need to count their supporters, and this will allow them to do that.”
If the goals of the independence movement for Sunday’s vote have diminished, so too has the ferocity of the Spanish government’s response. Although there were media reports in October that it had sent squads of anti-riot police to the region, and Mas himself urged people this week not “to be afraid,” the government currently seems disposed to look the other way during the polling. As if to prove the point, deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría used a press conference after today’s weekly cabinet meeting to suggest that Mas restrain from requiring others to comply with his decision. “If he considers himself…above the law, he shouldn’t make a single civil servant adopt attitudes that he or she is the least bit uncomfortable with.“
“It’s Kafkaesque,” says Torreblanca. “The independentists are going ahead with a vote that doesn’t have the meaning they want it to, and the Spanish government is turning a blind eye to something it says is illegal. It’s a sufficiently bad option for everyone, but it’s not the very worst option for anyone. So better not to call things by their real names.”
At the ANC, the name they’re giving Sunday’s vote is “a step.” The organization, which has spearheaded the push toward independence, agreed to support Mas’ alternative ‘process’ only if he called government elections in the next three months—elections which would function effectively as a plebiscite on independence. They’re still waiting for an answer. But in the meantime, explains ANC volunteer consultant Ana Rosenfeld of the polling, “It’s a step. It’s not the definitive step we wanted—we need to take more. But we have to do this for dignity’s sake. We can’t allow the Spanish government to impede our right to vote.”