Do you want Catalonia to be a state? If yes, do you want that state to be independent? After tremendous controversy and a long wait—some put it at months, others at centuries—Catalans finally had the chance to answer those questions publicly. On November 9, 2.3 million went to the polls to vote on secession from Spain. The results represented a triumph for the pro-independence movement, not only because they managed to pull it off in the face of fierce Spanish opposition, but because the returns were so overwhelmingly in their favor: nearly 80.76% answered those two questions in the affirmative.
If Catalonia were Scotland, its leaders would have awoken this morning to begin the awesome challenge of decoupling their nation from the central state that has ruled it for centuries. Instead, they woke flushed, but wondering what comes next. Unlike David Cameron, who agreed to honor the results of the Scottish independence referendum, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has declared any Catalan referendum—including yesterday’s straw poll—unconstitutional. That fact, coupled with a level of participation yesterday that was overwhelming but may not translate into an absolute majority, has left as much uncertainty as it has euphoria.
“Our citizens have shown that they want to rule themselves,” said Catalan president Artur Mas as he spoke to the media after the polls closed, and promised to push for a binding referendum. And although he called the voting a “total success,” he also noted that it was symbolic.
Certainly in terms of its peacefulness and orderliness, the poll was a victory. Although there had been rumors of an increased police presence in the region, and President Mas had gone so far as to tell the mayors and volunteers that they “needn’t be afraid” about what might happen on Sunday, the voting took place in an atmosphere far more festive than tense. Instagram and Twitter were filled with images of long lines at polling places and selfies of people happily holding up their ballots.
That said, there was no shortage of efforts to impede the vote, even as it was underway. In the months and weeks leading up to November 9, the Spanish constitutional court twice suspended the straw poll, and as late as the evening before, the attorney general’s office declared that it was investigating whether the use of schools and other public institutions for polling represented a crime. Overnight, locks were placed on the doors of several polling places, and early on the morning of the 9th, hackers sent out a press release purporting to be a letter of resignation from the leader of the Catalan National Assembly, a pro-independence organization that has spearheaded the referendum movement. In Girona, a group of skinheads tried to destroy a ballot box (they were promptly arrested). But a demand that the regional police identify the people in charge of each polling place never materialized, and a court ruled against one political party’s last-ditch judicial effort to have the ballot boxes seized. When the mayor of Horta San Joan decided that he would not open a polling place in his town, president Mas’ political party (CiU) simply paid for a bus to transport residents who wanted to vote to the nearest ballot box.
Indeed, the Spanish government looked the other way as 1317 municipalities opened polling stations, and in the end, slightly over 40% of Catalonia’s roughly 5.4 million eligible voters went to the polls.
Those numbers matter, even if the vote legally doesn’t. “Even though it’s a simulacrum, pro-independence partisans take it very seriously,” says Carles Castro, political analyst for the Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia. “It’s a thermometer of what they could expect in a real referendum.”
Because the straw poll did not contain the electoral guarantees of a true referendum, and was organized and promoted entirely by pro-sovereignty groups, it was largely expected that those opposed to independence would not turn up to vote (and indeed, the percentage of returns against both statehood and independence was a mere 4.5%; an additional 10% voted in favor of statehood—meaning greater autonomy within a federal-style system—but rejected independence). If yesterday’s poll is indeed an accurate reflection of what Catalonia could expect in a binding referendum with greater electoral guarantees and a high level of participation, then somewhere between 40 and 50% of the total eligible population would vote in favor of independence.
“The results really strengthen Mas’ position,” says Ferran Requejo, professor of political science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. But they also present the pressing problem of what to do next. Both the hardline independence party Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the massive pro-independence civil association, Catalan National Assembly (ANC) agreed to support the alternative consultation Mas arranged after the Spanish court shot down a more official one only in exchange for early regional elections. Those elections, it is thought, would function as a plebiscite on independence. And if current polls are any indication, ERC—a party that has called for a unilateral declaration of independence–would win them, not only putting Mas out of a job, but throwing Spain into constitutional crisis. “So he’s going to have to negotiate with ERC,” Requejo says. “Mas will only agree to early elections if they have a joint list, with him as number one, and Junqueras (leader of ERC) as number two.”
He’s also going to have to do some negotiating with the Spanish prime minister, who until this point has refused all dialogue, even on things like restructuring the fiscal system under which Catalonia operates. For some, the fact that Rajoy’s government essentially turned a blind eye while yesterday’s vote took place suggests that it may be softening. “I sincerely believe it’s possible that there’s going to be some kind of rapprochement, an invitation to negotiate,” says analyst Castro. “The ball is in Madrid’s court.”
If Madrid accepts the challenge, the Catalan situation may prove more like the Scottish one than previously suspected. After the ‘Yes,’ movement lost its bid for independence, Cameron promised to devolve greater power and autonomy to Scotland. If Rajoy takes the opportunity to do the same, agreeing, for example, to a more federal system, he just may avoid a another referendum—and almost certain rupture—down the line.