If the popular consensus for independence is roughly tied in Catalonia, the ground may be shifting thanks in part to the tactics of the Spanish government. In its efforts to squash a planned October 1st referendum on the question of independence, the Spanish government has actually defied 70% of the people who, regardless of the way they would vote, believe such a vote should take place.
The heart of the issue is twofold: Catalonia has its own language and culture which is not Spanish and the wealthy region believes it pays far more in taxes to Madrid than it receives in value in return. In short, at least half of the people there want independence because they have their own culture and language and because they feel cheated by the tax scheme by which Catalonia, they believe, pays for poorer regions who do not manage their affairs as well.
With public sentiment being so close, one might consider efforts to woo the Catalans and increase the NO vote: a lost referendum on independence would legitimize the Spanish government and delegitimize the independence movement to a substantial degree. But through strong-arm tactics, including threatening to arrest 720 of Catalonia’s 948 elected mayors for supporting the referendum, the Spanish government is delegitimizing itself and bolstering the yes vote.
The Spanish government has threatened to arrest elected leaders for pursuing a referendum which 70% of the population see as legitimate and think should go forward. The legal language of arguing that the Spanish Constitution forbids such actions is seen locally as just more mumbo jumbo, an excuse, not a justification, for thwarting an effort to hold a vote.
After the Spanish Supreme Court banned the referendum website, which was taken down promptly by the hosting company, the Catalonian government immediately found a new host, not under Spanish jurisdiction, and the site was back up in minutes. The entire exercise in trying to shut down the site was useless and made the Spanish government look petty and weak.
What is worse, if appears that, short of military action, the Spanish government cannot stop the referendum and has resorted to a combination of legal threats against officials who are supporting the referendum, as well as the Catalonian regional government, while urging people not to vote in the referendum. This last bit will suppress the NO vote and give the yes vote an easy victory, while the measures taken by the Spanish government are bound to both increase the YES vote and the resolve of voters to show up in defiance of the authorities. Last Monday over a million people rallied in the Catalonian capital, Barcelona, for independence while there is no campaign or public presence for the NO vote. The only response of the Spanish officials is, “this is an illegal act”, a snub which is bound to alienate even Catalans who were solid NO votes.
Regardless of the Spanish Constitution, many Catalonians have never accepted the notion of the “occupation” of their homeland. The seething anger is quite literally 250 years in the making, and Catalonia as a region was conquered, it never joined Spain willingly, and nor was its annexation by Spain ever popular or welcome: not for 250 years.
The Spanish government had a chance to actually and finally win the formal approval of Catalonia being part of Spain. It could have both made its case and offered some form of devolution akin to how the British government won over the Scots. It is quite possible, and probable, that the NO vote would have won.
But fear of loss has resulted in intransigence from Madrid against a referendum process over 70% of Catolonian citizens want to go forward: some so they can vote for indepdnence and some so they can finally put an end to such efforts. But Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria has said no dialogue is possible with Catalan authorities until they scrap their plans, a move that would ensure electoral losses for those leaders who promised their voters such a referendum. The order to arrest 720 democratically elected mayors for carrying out a referendum wanted by 70% of the public is only going to fan the flames of indepdnence and drive a wedge between Catalans and Spaniards.
As it stands, prosecutors in Madrid want to charge regional President Charles Puigdemot, and other officials, with civil disobedience, misfeasance, and misappropriation of public funds. If convicted, the accused could face. over a decade behind bars.
This move has not painted the Spanish government in the best light, especially considering that the holding of the referendum is popular and that these officials were elected on the basis of their promise to hold such a referendum. While Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy calls on Catalans not to vote and turns his police loose on the Catalan government and mayors, tensions mount.
Will the referendum be held? Will the Spanish authorities round up 720 mayors? Given the climate, a referendum now could see a turn-out in excess of 60% with the yes vote winning over 90% of that vote and a solid majority of all voters: the Spanish government have only alienated Catalans and made matters worse.
Assuming that the Spanish authorities use brute force and prevent the referendum, and round up elected officials, then more militant independence groups will swim in a sea of popular support. The imagery of Spanish police and/or military columns rolling in to take over will play right into the narrative that Catalonia is being occupied by a foreign power. The instability it causes will hasten the electoral demise of the Conservatives, although the Socialists would have no different a policy.
What is the real fight? As with so many battles in history, the fight is over taxes. High taxes paid to Madrid are not seen as beneficial to Catalans, and, in fact, are seen as a drag on their economic prosperity. True, Catalans have their own language and culture, but being part of the Spanish state could be a net positive for the region if the circumstances were right, and if the return on investment for taxpayers was seen as equitable.
By refusing to either reduce taxes or redirect revenue in a manner seen as equitable to Catalans, while suppressing the referendum, the Spanish are potentially sowing the seeds for an actual insurgency. No doubt, even if the insurgents strictly adhere to the rules of warfare, they will be branded terrorists. This would not be a successful branding among Catalans if they see Spanish police arresting elected officials for trying to hold a referendum they promised they would hold if elected and that has popular support. The Catalans themselves will brand the Spaniards as foreign occupiers.