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Catalonia: Destination Independence

by Nazir Tabassum

It is the people and not the geographical boundaries of any geographical entity that are sacred. People have a right to change the geographical delimitations of a state in which they live, depending upon their social, political and economic requirements at any given period of time. The concept of statehood is bound with the concept of population. People create states and states never grow from nowhere. Global history gives evidence in support of this assertion.

Catalans, a nation of 7,522,596 (2016), are the most dynamic people; they have a long history starting from the pre-historic period, and passing through various eras of stone and metal ages, pre-Roman and Roman periods and the Muslims rule too, and then witnessing cultural and linguistic Renaissance they entered into the industrial age.

They were badly affected by the Napoleonic and Carlist wars in the beginning of the 19th century. But in the latter half of the 19th century, industrial revolution changed the whole scenario of this land frothing with the hard labour activity of its people. Apart from other factors, National Protectionist Laws boosted the industrialisation process in this country. In those times, Catalonia became the focal point of important revolutionary uprisings. Through the early 20th century, the leftist movements here were on the rise and it was because of their struggle that 8-hour work day was won for Europe in 1919. Even today, it is the most industrialised zone of Spain.

Catalonia, an autonomous community of Spain, is located on the north-eastern extremity of the Iberian Peninsula. It is designated the status of a nationality by its Statute of Autonomy. It consists of four provinces – Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. Barcelona is the capital and the largest city, as well as the second most populated municipality in Spain and the core of the seventh most populous area in the European Union.

In 1914, four Catalonian provinces were authorised to create a common wealth, without any legislative powers or specific autonomy that was disbanded in 1925 by the dictator Primo de Rivera. With his fall, Catalonia experienced a brief period of Republicanism. But when Gen Francisco Franco took over the reins of Spain, he imposed linguistic, political, and cultural restrictions all over the country. All kinds of public activities associated with Catalan nationalism, republicanism, anarchism, socialism, liberalism, democracy or communism, including publication of books on these subjects or simply discussions in open meetings, were banned.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia recovered its political and cultural autonomy, restoring the Generalitat (government) in 1977 and adopted a new Statute of Autonomy in 1979. Today, Catalonia is the most economically dynamic community of Spain. And Barcelona, its capital city, is the major International Cultural Centre and the most hunted tourist attraction of Europe. Barcelona hosted the Summer Olympic Games in 1992.

Catalonia has long been striving hard to achieve the status of independent statehood, separate and distinct from Spain. For this purpose, they held a Referendum in 2014. As a result, 92% of the 2.3 million voters supported Catalona’s transformation into a state while 80 % of the 2.3 million voters expressed their preference for the state to be independent.

On 9th November 2015, the law makers of Catalonia approved a plan for secession from Spain by 2017 with a majority vote of 72 to 63. But this plan was suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court, yet the government insisted to carry out the plan in spite of the suspension.

On 9th June 2017, the government announced to hold referendum for independence on 1st October 2017 but the Spanish Court declared it illegal. The Public Prosecutor’s Office of Catalonia ordered the seizure of referendum paraphernalia, such as ballot papers, boxes, promotional material and websites.

On 20th September 2017, 11 days before referendum, the Civil Guard mounted an operation to raid offices of government ministers and detained officials involved in referendum. This act was ensued by large protest marches. In spite of all that, the referendum was held as scheduled by the Catalonian government. The following question was asked:

“Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

More than 2,020,000 voters (91.96%) answered “Yes” and around 177,000 answered “No”. In spite of the high handedness of the Spanish government the turnout was 43.03%.

The Catalonian government estimated that up to 770,000 votes could not be cast due to the closure of polling stations because of the crackdown by the police, although the universal “census system” introduced earlier allowed the electors to vote in any given polling station.

Catalan government says that the turn out would have been higher were it not for the Spanish police suppression of the vote, and that were it not for the closure and police pressure, the turn out could have been as high as 55%.

Carles Puigdemont, the regional President of Catalonia, stated in his first interview after referendum that he would declare INDEPENDENCE as soon as the final vote tally was determined, and would subsequently act in a matter of days. Spain’s king Felipe criticised the referendum for “eroding the harmony and co-existence within Catalan society itself, managing, unfortunately, to divide it”.

On 5th October, the Constitutional Court of Spain suspended the Parliamentary session of Monday, the 9th October, after Puigdemont said they would be pushing for the declaration of independence. On 10th October, Puigdemont signed a declaration of Independence. On Saturday, the 21st of October, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, said that his government was taking the dramatic step of invoking article 155 of the constitution to “restore the rule of law, co-existence and the economic recovery and to ensure that elections could be held in normal circumstances”. On 22nd October, the Catalans demonstrated against Prime Minister Rajoy’s plan to impose a direct rule.

On Saturday, the 21st of October, Puigdemont described Madrid’s move as the worst attack on Catalonia’s democratically elected institutions since General Franco’s dictatorship. He accused the Spanish government of “slamming the door “on his appeals for dialogue to resolve the country’s worst political crisis since its return to democracy 40 years ago. Soon after that, Catalan government said they would fight “tooth and nail to defend Catalonia’s democratically elected institutions” and the mandate it had received through the unilateral independence referendum held on 1st October.

When asked during BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Why does the Spanish government say the Catalan referendum is illegal?” Alfonso Dastis, the Spanish Foreign Minister said: “We are going to establish the authorities who are going to rule the day-to-day affairs of Catalonia according to the Catalan laws and norms”. This was no answer to the question asked.

The Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, called the measures of the Spanish government a “de facto coup d’etat” and Puigdemont said the legislature would meet to discuss its response.

There seems to be little chance for both the parties to back out of their stands; this is the main hurdle in bringing about a negotiated solution of the stalemate. The EU said they will not intervene in the matter as they view it as the internal one of Spain. The situation is affecting the economy very badly. What comes out ultimately, is yet to be seen.

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