The ‘numeronym 1-O’ also known as the referendum of “1st October” held in Catalonia as stirred an unprecedented political uncertainty in Spain and Catalonia. Catalonia was an autonomous region of Spain which was granted this status after the fall of the dictatorial regime of General Francisco Franco and re-institution of Constitutional Monarchy in 1978. Catalonia’s government follows the Generalitat institutional system i.e. the autonomous system of government, which consists of Presidency of the Generalitat, the Government and other institutions established in the Statute of Autonomy (known as the “Estatut”). The Parliament is elected democratically, which consists of a single chamber of 135 members.
Every year, it is estimated that Catalonia racks up 10 billion euros ($12 billion) more in taxes to Madrid and in return receives merely 5 percent of regional economic output, according to data provided by the Spanish Treasury. When compared to the Spain’s poorest region, Andalusia is allotted almost 8 billion euros more than it contributes. Catalonia ranks 9th on the list of the most widely spoken languages in Europe. However, it is not on the EU’s list of 24 official languages. Due to the pervasive emotion of economic oppression and negligence among the majority of Catalans, there was a demand for formation of a separate nation. The demand for secession was so strongly felt by the majority of the Catalans that, in 2015, a coalition regional government constituting of pro-separatist parties, which promised that independence was brought to power. It is headed by Carles Puigdemon, the regional premiere of Catalonia. Thus, the Catalan Parliament held an independence referendum on 1st October 2017.
The Constitutionality of the Referendum
A referendum in principle is instrumental in expressing views of the people. It empowers the electorate to voice their opinion in decision making and policy determination of their country by providing them with direct participation. Referendums have been classified into various categories like mandatory-optional, binding-advisory, government-controlled referendums, constitutionally required referendums, and referendums by popular petitions & popular initiatives.
Spain has held a referendum to decide on its EU membership in the mid-1980’s. However, the referendum held on 1st October 2017 did not get recognition by the Spanish Parliament. The main contentions voiced by Madrid were that the Spanish Constitution in its Article 1 and 2 enshrines the principles of national sovereignty, which resides in the Spanish people as a whole, and of national unity, which in line with the fundamental precepts of advanced democracies. The Constitution does not permit break-up of Spain. Additionally, the referendum was held to be in violation of the Constitution as the right to decide the sovereignty of the nation resides with all the citizens of Spain alike and this referendum permits “Catalan-only” to decide for the Independence of Catalonia from Spain. Spain’s Constitutional Court also decided in favour of the Spanish Government, arguing that the referendum was in contravention of the country’s 1978 constitution which bars the break-up the country.
The Highhanded Approach of Spanish Government
The Spanish Government deployed police to prevent the independence vote on October 1, with orders to seize any polling booths that were set up. It gave out a statement condemning the attitude of Catalan Government, stating that “in recent weeks, the secessionist defiance promoted by certain institutions in Catalonia has escalated in a way that underscores its authoritarian, arbitrary and anti-democratic nature, and its intention to openly contravene the prevailing legal framework.” In a raid on a warehouse in Barcelona prior to the day of the referendum, police confiscated around 1.3 million leaflets and other campaign materials.
Despite opposition and uncertainty about the effectiveness of the referendum, more than 2 million Catalans supported it. The approach adopted by the Spanish Government was in line with an autocratic ruler. Firstly, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy addressed Catalans as fools for taking part in an illegal referendum. Subsequently, the national police and Guardia Civil – a military force charged with police duties – were sent into Catalonia in large numbers to prevent the referendum from materializing. They violently attacked the voters at the polling stations- tossing them across staircases, seizing the voting machines, indiscriminately firing previously banned rubber bullets on the crowd gathered outside the polling stations. The standoff injured at least 893 civilians and 431 police officers on October 1. All the aids and helpers in the referendum face a risk of being fined up to 300,000 euros.
The attempt by the Spanish Government. to stop people from casting their vote seems to have backfired. Protesters said the violent police crackdown against the ballot had energized the secessionist camp. Opinion polls conducted before the vote suggested only a minority of around 40 percent of residents in the region back independence although a majority want a referendum to be held. The discontentment among the masses grew as Government denied them the basic democratic right to vote and exercise the autonomy granted and guaranteed in the Constitution. Thus, the referendum witnessed a landslide victory in the favor of Independence for Catalonia.
Catalonia’s regional government spokesman Jordi Turull stated that 2.26 million people had cast their votes on Sunday with 90 percent of those voting in favor of Catalonia, a wealthy region in north-east Spain, to gain independence. Voter turnout was low at around 42 percent.
The Spanish Government did issue an apology for the violence inflicted on the gathering but not without a pinch of salt. Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis issued an apology in the following words, “If there was any use of force by police, in any way, it was because they were prevented from doing what they were asked to do”. The use of violence was condemned even by neutral spectators like the European Union. Its official statement, “Violence can never be an instrument in politics” was followed by a warning that if Catalonia’s secession from Spain is successful, “it would find itself outside of the European Union.”
What to Expect Next?
According to the Catalan government, referendum results indicate that 90% of people cast their ballots in favor of independence. A total of 2.26 million Catalans – 42% of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters voted for Independence of Catalonia. If Catalonia unilaterally declares independence, Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain is expected to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. The article, which has never been used, allows the Spanish government to step in and take control of an autonomous region if it “does not fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”.
The Referendum and FC Barcelona – “mès que un club”
This football club has always been safe havens for Catalonia’s Nationalism spirit. The club embodies its motto- ‘mès que un club’ (literal translation, more than a club) in all sense. The club has not hesitated from expressing their political beliefs in the past and this referendum is no exception.
During the dictatorial regime of General Francisco Francolanguage, culture and Catalan flag were all banned. However, it was in the FC Barcelona stadium, ‘Camp Nou’, that people were free to express their love for Catalan Nationalism. They waved the banned Catalan flag and sing songs in their native language. The stadium still witnesses chanting and waving of Catalan flag, called ‘Senyeras’, when the clock hits 17:14. It holds historical significance for Catalonia, it was on Sept. 11, 1714, that Catalonia became a part of Spain after its defeat in War of Succession.
Currently, FC Barcelona plays in the Spain’s La Liga League. However, it will no longer be permitted to be a part of the league if Catalonia gains independence from Spain. The matter is of concern as the team currently sits top of the league rankings and has won 24 La Liga titles. The future of the club in La Liga League is surrounded by uncertainty.
Along with wrangling over the violation of court orders, rule of law and threat of sovereignty, it is time to be concerned with the prime stakeholders of the entire scenario. The citizens of Catalonia. The result of this referendum has installed a stalemate, which is creating an uncertainty for the citizens. The fact that people are turning up in large numbers for voting in the referendum despite being attacked and warned that, doing so will be a criminal offense is indicative that this kind of an unflinching vigor is a product of an urge to set free the shackles of oppression.
Nevertheless, even if the Spanish government does not approve of it, this referendum will form a part of “soft” state building. Symbolic votes for independence functions act as part of mass mobilization to bolster the internal legitimacy. This type of symbolic mobilization adds to the pressure building mechanism.