Catalonia’s referendum is putting pressure on Madrid

10 Février 2014

On December 12th, 2013, after long weeks of discussion, the Catalan government finally decided on the particularities of the referendum on independence, which is set to take place on the 9th of November 2014.

Plaça Catalunya, Barcelone | © Valentin Berthoux/Le Journal International
Plaça Catalunya, Barcelone | © Valentin Berthoux/Le Journal International
The referendum will be comprised of a two-part question. “Do you want Catalonia to become a state?” In the case of an affirmative answer, citizens will have to answer a second question, “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?” This two-part question is the result of hours of negotiation between Catalan political parties. The choice of how to word the question has been the center of an important debate within the Catalan society, which is facing a central government unwilling to hear any talk of independence. The stakes are high and the outcome of the discussion is very important; it was about whether or not to grant representation to citizens who support the “3rd way.”

This 3rd way, which is frequently discussed, is an intermediary solution less radical than independence. For some people, maintaining the status quo is not sustainable but they don’t want Catalonia to secede from the rest of Spain. One proposition from the PSC (Catalan Socialist Party) supports this idea of a federal state. But this 3rd way is hardly making any strides amidst a debate which is gradually radicalizing.

More than just a series of articles or statements, Catalan politics have managed to pass the buck to Madrid, which continues to repeat that a referendum held in the Catalan region is not allowed under the constitution. By clearly stating their agenda, Catalans are pushing Madrid to break the silence and to speak clearly on the matter. Madrid is now in a delicate situation where prohibiting a referendum would be seen as an antidemocratic measure on the international stage.

Internationalization of the conflict

Catalans understand that the support of the international community is essential. The president of the Generalitat, Artur Mas, has been taking action and leading meetings for months in other regions and in Brussels in particular in order to give the situation some positive publicity. Recently, he has been writing to several European States and institutions in order to defend his goal of a referendum and of self-determination for the Catalan people. The “Via Catalana,” a massive human chain which spread across the whole of Catalonia, took place on the 11th of September 2013 and was based on the example of the Via Balta of 1989. Referring to another similar event furthered the internationalization of the conflict.

Today, it appears clear that Catalans are about to win this bet. The battle between Barcelona and Madrid has almost become Manichean and the central government, by continuing to refuse the referendum, is taking on the role of the “bad cop” fighting against freedom of expression and sovereignty of the people. Abroad, some have already raised their voices in order to demand the right to hold a referendum in the name of democracy and for the sake of self-determination.

Madrid’s bad political strategy

Madrid is now in a fragile position. Rajoy’s conservative government refuses to enter into a dialogue with Catalonia and is hiding behind an alleged constitutional question to justify its position that a referendum cannot be held. One sees the logic in this refusal; the conservative government is trying to appease an important part of its electorate which defends traditional state centralism.

Regardless, this strategy might prove to be wrong. Even right at this moment, the main argument of the pro-independence movement is that Madrid is refusing to uphold democracy by ignoring people’s demands. It is clear that Mariano Rajoy, by refusing dialogue and addressing a direct demand, is feeding the separatists’ cause.

Have the Catalans already won their bet?

After more than a year, the battle lead by Artur Mas is slowly paying off. Today, speaking of independence in Catalonia is no longer taboo. Just a few years ago, this debate was confined to a select few and had not yet gained mainstream momentum. However this no longer seems to be the invention of a president at the helm of a risky political move. If the pro-independence debate has been resurrected, it is because Catalan civil society seized upon the idea and went out to the streets in massive numbers, repeatedly. Since 2010, huge demonstrations have taken place, each time reaching millions of people. For a region with only 7 million people, the mobilization can only be qualified as massive.

But the question of the referendum raises new issues. Now, with more than 3 options for citizens to ponder, which will be the threshold to consider one option as the winning one? Mas’ government has said that an option will be considered valid if it exceeds 50% of the vote. In referendums with more than two options, getting more than 50% can be difficult. The last poll showed that 44% of the Catalans are in favor of independence and would vote “yes” on the two questions. This is a positive statistic for the separatist movement. What this poll shows, above all, is that 20% of Catalans haven’t yet decided on anything. This very high percentage calls for caution and means that the end of the story is clearly unpredictable.

What has been happening for the last few months, beyond a struggle for independence and for freedom of expression, is that Catalans are managing to gradually and finally express their collective identity and their constitution as a nation, to Spain and to the rest of the world. This affirmation, more than being anecdotal as a shared consciousness, is a major breakthrough as it comes fewer than 40 years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship.


Valentin Berthoux
Etudiant en master de sciences politiques à l'Université Autonome de Barcelone. Je m'intéresse à la... En savoir plus sur cet auteur