A symbolic and non-binding vote on independence in Catalonia

Published: 10 November 2014
Author: Daniel Cetrà

Yesterday there was a symbolic and non-binding vote on independence in Catalonia. In a festive atmosphere, 2.3 million Catalans made their way to polling stations. Voters were asked two questions: whether Catalonia should be a state, and if they replied yes, whether it should be an independent state. Results showed that 80.7% (almost 1.9 million) voted yes to both questions, 10% (more than 230.000) voted yes to the first question and no to the second, while 4.5% (almost 105.000) voted no.

The vote was more an act of protest of the pro-independence side than one of self-determination. The results confirm that the ‘Yes’ side turned out massively, while only some supports of ‘third ways’ (e.g. federalism) and very few supporters of the status quo participated.

The main message of the vote was one of persistence in spite of the Spanish government’s opposition to a binding vote. The symbolic consultation was in itself an act of civil disobedience, as both organisers (Catalan government, city councils and volunteers) and voters ignored a Constitutional Court order suspending the vote.

The vote was symbolic because the Spanish government does not recognise the right of the Catalan people to make a decision on this matter. As a result, the vote was not official, there was no census of voters, there were no official campaigns, no postal voting was allowed, and there were less polling stations than usual, which were in turn run by volunteers.

The participation of more than 2 million people in a vote that was only symbolic and that experienced such technical obstacles was seen as a success by the pro-independence camp. Catalan president Artur Mas called the vote ‘a democratic lesson’ of the Catalan people and asked Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy ‘to confront the Catalan question politically’. The Spanish Justice Minister, Rafael Catalá, dismissed the vote as ‘useless’ and ‘lacking any kind of democratic validity’.

Mas’s leadership of the so-called ‘Catalan process’ has been reinforced. He can argue that he has fulfilled his electoral compromise of calling a vote on independence despite Madrid’s blocking attitude. He will send a letter to Mariano Rajoy asking again for an agreement to hold ‘the definite consultation’ (e.g. an agreed referendum), but there seems to be little room for a deal at the moment.

A loss of the Partido Popular’s absolute majority in the next Spanish general election (November 2015) could create a window of opportunity for Catalan demands. It is becoming increasingly clear that Rajoy’s blocking attitude is not appeasing and intensifies demands for an official referendum. But compromises are difficult, partly because the dispute between the Catalan and the Spanish government is grounded on competing visions on nationhood and sovereignty.

The most likely future scenario in Catalonia is early elections, which could be held in 2015. These elections would be ‘plebiscitary’, which means they would be instead of a referendum. Catalan parties would unambiguously campaign for or against independence and would seek to obtain a majority in the parliament. This is not without problems, and there is currently no agreement among pro-independence parties to form a common list.

To sum up, yesterday more than 2 million Catalans casted a symbolic vote on independence in the hope that this will put pressure on the central government to permit an official referendum. The results are not representative of Catalan public opinion, but the high turnout in such challenging circumstances suggests that the Catalan demand will not fade away anytime soon.

Professor Luis Moreno

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