There were elections today in Spain. I was still reeling from the shock of the UK’s exit poll when the campaigns started here. This has got me thinking of the last time Catalonia headed to the polls; not, that time, for local town hall elections, but for the much-hyped independence referendum, sorry, “participatory process”. Six months after that day, here are my thoughts:
I don’t know what I was expecting from the day. The anticipation, the build-up had been astonishing. The main, yearly protests on the Catalonian National Day had been of incredible scale – in 2013, independence supporters formed a 480 kilometre human chain, the Catalan Way. 480 km. The 2014 version was an 11km “V” for victory/vote/will (victòria, votar, voluntat). The Spanish government’s local office put it at 500,000 people, the police at 1.8 million, the Autonomous University of Barcelona at 900,000. Take your pick. Whichever, it’s big.
Locally, there was a different protest seemingly every week in the last couple of months before the vote. One day students, the next teachers. One time it was people banging saucepans, the next lighting lanterns aiming to be visible from space (which was more successful in its WhatsApp chain message incarnation that in reality. You wonder if they’d seen pictures of what conurbations already look like from space).
The one that had most impact on me had taken place about 6 weeks before. It was a cold, wet evening at the end of September. I mean wet: rivers in the streets, surprising to this Briton levels of wet. And it was a Tuesday. And I arrived an hour after the official time of the demonstration. Undeterred, there were still hundreds of (rather damp) independence supporters outside the town hall in this one small town, with hundreds more streaming away as I walked there. (Geddit? Streaming? Because it was soaking? Like, because water… Oh never mind.) The momentum, the excitement, the levels of passion, everything seemed to be building and building and… and…
And cut to the day itself… kinda nothing. To get a feeling of the atmosphere, I left my apartment a few minutes before voting opened at nine. In the next few minutes I saw at least twice as many joggers than people of evident allegiance to any camp. I saw more police cars driving round than people proclaiming any view. There were 5 people with any kind of partisan clothing, though with two of them it was just a simple yellow scarf tucked into a jacket.
With hindsight, it’s a credit to Catalonia, the respect for the process and for freedom of choice. At the time, it felt like an anti-climax. There seemed to be more buzz in the café I sat in that morning than in the streets, but you get families going there for a late breakfast every weekend.
This isn’t to say there weren’t little outbreaks of excitement during the day. A couple of people I know apparently went around with a guitar to busk outside polling stations, but as far as I understand they would sing only one or two songs and then would move on to the next place. The other event was when someone called Xavi (who kicks a football for a living, apparently) came home to vote. Indeed, he voted at the station I’d been to earlier that day.
Erm… What else can I say? I had a nice toastie for lunch. Ham and cheese and fried egg and mushroom. Seriously, when I said this climax was anti, I meant it. It was a sedate, reasonable day. It was a referendum, not a revolution.
That night I sat in front of the TV in the apartment I was then a lodger in. The anti-climax even ran to the TV coverage: they were ramping up to the end of polling. When the hour chimed, they were in a polling station. The three people working in the particular room posted their ballots, then they took the tape off the box and started counting, calling out the first couple to the camera, “sí, sí”, “sí, no”,… Then it was back to pundits filling time until the results started coming in.
On the face of it, the result was great for the separatists. Over 2 million turnout (which seemed to be a rough target to reach to claim some validity for the result) and over 80% sí-sí, ie: ballots that Catalonia should be a state and that that state should be independent of Spain. This stunned me. I didn’t expect anywhere near 80%. Opinion polls had been running consistently lower. My feeling was that active support was running close to 50%, but not more. As we saw in the UK election, that’s all academic in the face of the actual result. 80% is overwhelming support. A huge victory for the separatists.
Then you do the maths. 2 million is a nice headline figure and it is a reasonable proportion of the electorate – it’s over 40%. This does lend the vote some weight and legitimacy – it’s much harder for Madrid to ignore something that has mobilised so many people, however they voted. Here comes the but: But it’s still under half of the eligible voters. 80% of less than half is a long way from a majority. We need an assumption here of course, but it’s one that I think is reasonable: people who support independence will have voted. If you want an independent Catalonia, this was your opportunity to show it. If you support a united Spain, however, you may well not have voted. It was “unofficial”, potentially even “unconstitutional” and “illegal”. And the limited anecdotal evidence I have supports this. Pro-independence friends voted, others stayed away.
There are fewer Catalan flags around town now. Way fewer. A lot of people have taken them in. The referendum was a game of chicken and Madrid didn’t blink. They weren’t going to. The two main parties both oppose independence, Catalonia is a relatively affluent region they don’t want to lose, the Spanish Constitutional Court had ruled any vote unconstitutional. Scotland hadn’t set a precedent. No foreign government was likely to side with Barcelona over Madrid (size matters: how many side with Taipei over Beijing?). Prime Minister Rajoy immediately labelled it a failure, citing the low turnout. They tried and it did nothing.
So, those still in the game heighten the stakes. The next move is to try and pass motions in local councils that independence-supporting parties control to declare independence. One party in particular, called the Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya) is a promoter of this idea. As a good friend pointed out to me, last time this sort of declaration was passed through town halls (though all over Spain) it was for the Second Republic and part of the build-up to the civil war and 36 years of dictatorship…
The independence movement is not going to go away. They’ll try again and again. Support will wax and wane as it always has – the current momentum only really dates from the 2007/8 financial crisis after all. But they’ve got a long way to go yet.