Catalonia’s referendum: a triumph for democracy built on people’s power
by Dick Nichols, in Barcelona • Is it possible to have a successful referendum when your country is effectively occupied by 10,000 police and paramilitaries with orders to stop it?
The holding of Catalonia’s October 1 referendum on independence shows that it is: all you need is a mobilised people with a clear vision of where they are going, Europe’s most powerful and persistent social movement to help guide them, and a government that’s actually committed to carrying out its promises.
Add to those already rare ingredients commitment to avoiding provocations and violence, ability to improvise when logistics are sabotaged and determination to prevail in spite of all difficulties, including often severe tensions within your own camp. Then you’ve discovered the recipe for victory.
The people of Catalonia proved that on October 1 when, despite over 90 attacks on polling stations by Spanish National Police and the paramilitary Civil Guard and many logistical failures, over three million (57 per cent of the electoral roll) came out to vote and 2.26 million succeeded in actually doing so (and having their vote counted).
The other 770,000 (figure of the Catalan government) either found their polling station sealed off or their vote being carried off in a ballot box that had been confiscated by the “forces of law and order”. These had bashed their way through peaceful defence pickets.
Despite this brutal operation—whose 900 injured victims gave millions of shocked people around the world their first glimpse of the authoritarian, neo-Francoist heart of the Spanish state—the referendum organisation held up under the stress.
Its survival allowed 2.02 million Catalans to vote for independence (89.2 per cent of the counted vote), 176,500 to oppose it (7.8 per cent) and 65,700 to vote informal (2.9 per cent). In absolute terms, 2.02 million voted Yes to independence.
This was an increase in the numbers wanting to say farewell to Spain of 158,000 since the September 9, 2014 non-binding ‘participatory process’ began the present phase of consultations on the issue.
Obviously, support for independence on October 1 would have been much higher if the referendum had been held in normal circumstances.
October 1 was the referendum that was never going to happen, and whose demise was announced time and again in Spanish state establishment media. Today headlines like “The Law Dismantles The Referendum’” (La Voz de Galicia, September 21) and “[Prime Minister Marano] Rajoy Dismantles Catalan Government’s Plan B” (El Español, September 30) are looking very stupid.
Not that this reality has bothered Rajoy, who had been endlessly repeating that “this referendum will not take place”.
Simple: on the night of October 1 he declared that what had taken place was not a referendum. Rather, it was “a mere stage show, one more episode in a strategy against democratic social harmony and legality”.
So how did the referendum manage to take place? Basically because every attack from the legal system and police forces of the Spanish state was met by a counter-attack led by the Catalan government and pro-independence mass organisations—the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the Catalan culture and language defence organisation Omnium Cultural and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI).
The Catalan people responded in their hundreds and thousands to their call for mobilisation, creating a street presence that has overwhelmed expectations and is sending shudders through the Spanish establishment.
The barest facts of this pattern of blow and counter bow were:
- • September 15: the Civil Guard confiscates 1.5 million official referendum posters and millions of ballot papers. A web site (“Let’s Paste Up”) is created, from which posters are downloaded and pasted up in millions by community paste-up teams.
• September 15: the Civil Guard closes down referendum-related web sites. The Catalan government immediately reopens them behind proxy servers, beginning a cat-and-mouse game in which the Civil Guard closes down referendum-related web sites only for them to reappear.
• September 20: the Civil Guard raids 11 Catalan government and government-related buildings, and arrests 13 high-level Catalan government officials. The ANC and Omnium Cultural call on people to mobilise outside the economics ministry in central Barcelona: 40,000 turn up.
• September 21: the thirteen start to appear in court, supported by a demonstration of 20,000. Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont announces that the referendum is going ahead.
• September 24: the ANC and Omnium Cultural announce their ‘marathon of mobilisation’ at 500 meetings across Catalonia.
• September 25: the Spanish state prosecutor orders that the Catalan police be placed under the control of the Spanish interior ministry. The Catalan government refuses.
• September 26: the Spanish state prosecutor’s office demands that the principals of all schools and community health centres hand over keys and security codes to the police. The Catalan health and education ministers take collective responsibility for making these premises available and school principals hand over keys to premier Puigdemont in a symbolic ceremony.
• September 26: the Spanish state prosecutor in Catalonia orders all polling stations closed from Friday, September 29 and surrounded by a 100-metre no-go area. The judge in charge of the case against the referendum overrules him, saying polling stations can only be closed on October 1.
• September 27: teaching unions and education associations launch the web site Open Schools through which people can volunteer to sleep over in schools from September 29 to October 1. 70,000 people volunteer in less than two days.
Throughout this period of rising tension even the most optimistic had moments of doubt about whether the referendum could go ahead. That it could was finally due to three key factors that the Spanish state failed to control.
The first was the disciplined and organised occupation and defence of polling stations. Up to 2000 of the 2315 polling stations were occupied from Friday, September 29, with parents and teachers putting on imaginative programs of activities for children and for themselves (like a 24-hour table tennis tournament in one location!)
This physical control of the vast majority of polling stations meant that the police (Catalan and Spanish) and the Civil Guards had to decide what level of violence to use to lay their hands on the “illegal” voting material within.
The Catalan police adopted the approach of not using any physical pressure; the Spanish agencies—as is clear from the footage that the world has seen—unleashed indiscriminate violence on young and old alike.
Their effort was enough to close down 92 polling centres, and to destroy the right to vote of around 770,000 (Catalan government figure)—about 14.5 per cent of the electorate.
However, this was insufficient to invalidate the referendum completely (as international observers noted). It also came at an enormous political cost to the Spanish state’s image of a “modern European democracy”.
The second factor that escaped the control of the Spanish state’s police apparatuses was technical: the Catalan government successfully managed to have ballot boxes manufactured and delivered to nearly all polling stations.
This was a World War II Resistance-style operation, involving storing the ballot boxes on the other side of the French border and then distributing them via private households.
The moment we knew that the referendum really would be going ahead was early on Sunday morning when cars drove up to polling stations at and unknown people rushed the ballot boxes out of them and inside—through the cheering defence pickets.
In addition, the last-minute new software program that enabled any voter to vote at any polling station held together—with delays and wobbles—on the day.
Last, and most important, was the dignified patience and cheerfulness of those queueing—sometimes for five hours—to vote. Also, the refusal of the mass pickets confronting rampaging Spanish National Police and Civil Guards to be provoked into abandoning the agreed approach of organised peaceful resistance.
This tactic meant that the attacking copper squads had to spend an inordinate amount of time violently dismantling pickets. In some cases—as when the inhabitants of Mont-Roig del Camp just pushed the Civil Guard out of town—it wasn’t even successful.
The behaviour of the people as they queued—passing the oldest and frailest to the front, sharing food and umbrellas under the drizzle, turning their mobiles to airplane mode to ease the stress on the network, cheering those who had voted as they came out after voting—was moving solidarity at its best.
On October 3, as this piece is being written, a wounded and humiliated Spanish state is about to try to suspend Catalan self-government. King Philip has appeared on television to denounce the Catalan government as an outlaw operation against whom the full force of the law must be used.
At the same time, however, today’s general strike in Catalonia has been accompanied by the biggest demonstrations in modern Catalan history.
The people, including those who don’t support independence, are completely outraged by the October 1 police attacks and determined to support Catalan institutions against the marauding Rajoy government.
The outcome will be: either a terminal crisis of the Spanish monarchy or a brutal Turkish-style repression in a “civilised” country of Western Europe.
• Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of the Australian Green Left Weekly. He is based in Barcelona
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