Unease lingers in Spain’s Catalonia one year after independence referendum

  • 1 Oct 2018

As Madrid rejected Catalonia's referendum results on October 1 last year, the country's affluent autonomous region continues to hold on to its secessionist sentiment.

Catalan President Quim Torra and regional politicians sit behind pictures depicting Catalan politicians who have been jailed or have fled the country as they attend an event to mark the first anniversary of the Catalan banned independence referendum in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain, on October 1, 2018. ( Jon Nazca / Reuters )

Catalonia’s separatist activists are holding demonstrations across the region, blocking major avenues and transportation lines to commemorate last year's pro-independence referendum that was held on October 1. 

Thousands of defiant protesters aim to demonstrate in Madrid, the seat of Spain’s central government, to send a message that Catalonia’s independence movement is still alive.

Catalonia’s independence referendum, which was considered unconstitutional by Madrid, was violently suppressed by Spain's security forces last year. This year there are signs that what happened in 2017 could be repeated in slow motion. 

David d’Enterria, an ardent supporter of Catalonia's independence movement, pointed out the stark difference of opinion between Madrid and Barcelona, the regional capital of Catalonia. 

The Spanish central government police is “rallying” in Barcelona “to celebrate one year of their brutality” against the region’s pro-independence activists, D’Enterria said on Twitter. 

For the Catalan independence bid, “We won. We won’t forget,” he wrote in another tweet. 

But Matthew Bennett, a pro-unity Spanish analyst and reporter, thinks the independence referendum was an “illegal, skewed and separatist show vote.” 

Catalonians overwhelmingly voted ‘Yes’ on last year’s referendum. Though approved by the region’s parliament in a majority vote, Spain’s conservative government rejected the referendum and jailed pro-independence politicians. 

Carles Puigdemont, who was the president of Catalonia and leading the independence movement during the referendum, and his cabinet were dismissed by Madrid immediately after the referendum. Puigdemont escaped arrest and left  Catalonia. He is now living in Germany. 

Even more, Spain, which is not a federalist state but has autonomous regions, decided to institutionalise direct rule over Barcelona following the independence declaration last October. The highly unpopular measure ended last winter before Catalonia elected its new president.  

While Puigdemont has been declared a political fugitive by Madrid, pending an extradition request from Germany, the independence movement has not backtracked at all, electing a pro-independence lawyer, Quim Torra, as the new regional president in May. 

Catalan President Quim Torra, who is a hardline defender of the Catalan independence bid, speaks during an event to mark the first anniversary of the Catalan banned independence referendum in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain, on October 1, 2018.(Reuters)

But this time the vote was tight. He was elected to Puigdemont’s post just by a one vote difference (66 to 65). Madrid also has a new socialist-led government after Mariano Rajoy, the former conservative prime minister, was ousted on corruption charges by a parliamentary majority vote in June. 

Despite governmental changes in both Madrid and Barcelona, the political stalemate has still been in place and the strength of recent separatist protests might signal that a new political crisis is at Madrid’s gates. 

A recent survey conducted by Metroscopia showed that nearly 70 percent Spaniards believe that the political dilemma in Catalonia has become worse than last year. 

Catalonia: An economic powerhouse

One of the main drivers of Catalonia’s independence bid are its academics most of whom are working for prestigious American universities like Harvard, MIT and Princeton. 

In 2012, they established the “Wilson Initiative” to promote Catalonian independence on the grounds that the region’s economy is good enough to meet the requirements of statehood. 

Catalonia is the richest autonomous region in Spain. Pro-independence protesters stand outside the stock exchange during a demonstration marking the first anniversary of Catalonia's banned independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, on October 1, 2018.(Reuters)

They named their initiative after Woodrow Wilson, the US president during World War I, who was a strong advocate of  self-determination. 

In 2012, Catalonia was the top regional contributor to Spain’s national GDP, according to the country’s National Statistics Institute. In 2013, the region was also the top benefactor to Spain’s exports. Barcelona’s exports almost doubled compared to Madrid's, the Spanish capital, according to the country’s secretariat of commerce. 

Despite Catalonia’s economic strength, some of the recent independence showdowns have demonstrated that global political trends do not usually favour independence bids. No sovereign state has recognised Catalonia as an independent state. Other independence referendums have also failed in recent years. 

Scotland, which is part of the United Kingdom, held an unsuccessful independence referendum in 2014. Iraq’s Kurdish region led by the former President Masoud Barzani held a referendum last September, which was rejected by the Baghdad government despite its overwhelming ‘Yes’ vote in the region.