Opinion

Puigdemont’s strategy proves fruitful in wake of chaotic Catalan independence vote

After clashes with Spanish authorities led to hundreds of injuries over the weekend, Catalan nationalist leader Carles Puigdemont Puigdemont now has an excuse for making a unilateral declaration of independence, writes Gwynne Dyer.

Catalan independence protesters in 2012. A referendum held this past weekend on Catalonia independence erupted into chaos after authorities in Madrid intervened to halt the vote. WikiCommons/Kippelboy photograph

PUBLISHED :Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 1:41 PM

Catalan nationalist leader Carles Puigdemont got most of what he wanted out of the chaotic pseudo-referendum on Sunday: 761 people injured by the Spanish police trying to block it.

One or two martyrs dead for the cause of Catalan independence would have been even better, and no doubt the 761 injured include a fair number of sprained ankles and broken nails, but the pictures will do the job. Even the foreign media coverage bought the story that the brutal Spanish police were suppressing the popular will—so now Puigdemont will have an excuse for making a unilateral declaration of independence.

Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan regional government, is no stranger to histrionics. In the past he has compared Catalan separatists’ non-violent campaign for independence to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 and even to the Vietnam War.

“Every day is a Vietnam,” Puigdemont said in a TV interview last year, which seems a bit over the top as American B-52s hardly ever bomb Barcelona. But that’s the sort of stuff that rallies the troops, and there is a minority of people in Catalonia who really want independence. There always has been, because Catalonia has had a hard time from some Spanish governments in the past.

  

It fought on the losing (Republican/Communist) side in the Spanish Civil War, and tens of thousands of Catalans died when General Francisco Franco’s fascists won the war. Franco punished Catalonia by banning the use of the Catalan language (which is quite close to Castilian Spanish, but different enough for people to care about the difference).

But today Catalonia is the richest region of Spain. The Catalan language enjoys equal status with Spanish and is used in the schools. The region’s wealth has attracted so many people from other parts of Spain over the years that 46 percent of the population now speaks mostly Spanish. (37 percent use mainly Catalan, and 12 percent say they use both equally.)

So why do so many Catalans want to break from Spain? Historical grievances dating from the Civil War and even before; resentment that so many Spanish-speakers have immigrated to Catalonia; resentment that they have to share some of their wealth with poorer parts of Spain (but this is Europe, where that is perfectly normal); and most of all what Sigmud Freud called “the narcissism of minor differences.”

Equally minor differences saw Norway break away from Sweden non-violently in 1904, and Slovakia peacefully secede from former Czechoslovakia in 1993, so pettiness in itself is no obstacle. Catalan separatists, however, faced two major obstacles: an independence referendum is illegal under the Spanish constitution—and if they did hold a proper referendum, they’d almost certainly lose.

  

The problem is all those Spanish-speaking people who don’t share the romantic nationalist dreams of many (but not all) Catalans. A poll in March showed 48.5% opposing independence and 44.3% in favour; by July it was 49.4% against independence, and only 41.1% for it. It’s not easy to disenfranchise all those “Spaniards” (most of whom were actually born in Catalonia), so a simple referendum won’t deliver the goods.

Puigdemont’s big idea probably occurred to him after a symbolic referendum in 2014 produced an 80 percent majority for independence—because it was illegal, and therefore only a third of the population (almost all Catalans) voted in it. What if he held another illegal referendum, but this time have the Catalan parliament, where his coalition has a narrow majority, declare it “legal and binding.”

Once again, most Spanish-speakers wouldn’t vote—but this time, he said, there will be no requirement of a minimum turn-out, and the regional parliament can declare independence “within 48 hours” if the vote goes in favour. Or, if the Spanish government intervenes to stop the vote, as is its right under the constitution, he could use that as a pretext for a unilateral declaration of independence.

It was win-win for Puigdemont, and lose-lose for the Spanish government. If Madrid didn’t intervene, Catalonia would declare independence on the strength of a referendum in which only a minority of the population, almost all Catalan-speakers, voted. If it did intervene to stop the referendum, it would be guilty of “thwarting democracy,” and the images of Catalan protesters being dragged away from polling booths would prove to the world how evil the Spanish government is.

  

Madrid went with the latter option, and now is seen across the world as an oppressor. Puigdemont, in a televised address Sunday evening, said: “With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.” He also hinted that a unilateral declaration of independence was on the way.

Nice strategy. Shame about the mess.

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