November 12, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On November 9, 2.305 million residents of Catalonia defied a November 4 Spanish Constitutional Court ban and voted on what future political status they wanted for their country, which is presently one of the 17 “autonomous communities” (regional governments) within the Spanish state.

This “participatory process” presented voters with the same ballot paper as the original non-binding consultation that had been adopted by the Catalan parliament on September 26. That too had been suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court on appeal by the national government of People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

After this first legal veto the Catalan minority government of right-nationalist party Convergence and Union (CiU) adopted a substitute ballot for November 9, one that had more the status of a mass survey of public opinion than a formal plebiscite.

Yet the double-barreled question asked was still the same:

(1) Do you want Catalonia to become a state?

(2) If yes, do you want that state to be independent?

The near-final results of the poll were 1.86 million (80.76% of voters) for independence, 232,000 (10.07%) for Catalan statehood but not independence, 105,000 (4.54%) for no change in Catalonia’s status and 107,000 (4.62%) either offering other suggestions or spoiling the voting paper.

Participation exceeded the most optimistic expectations of the organisers, who had informally set 1.5 million as a respectable target. Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) co-coordinator Joan Herrera called it “the biggest demonstration in the history of this country”. The unprecedented turnout was one more powerful act of Catalan mass protest, defying not only the Constitutional Court’s ban but Spanish state intimidation.

This included the refusal of the national Post Office to deliver material related to November 9, requests from the national prosecutor’s office for the names and addresses of school principals and others charged with opening their workplaces as voting centres, heavy hints that the national prosecutor might require the Catalan regional police to close the centres down and intimidatory letters to national civil servants warning them not to act as volunteers in any “illegal activity”.

At the time of writing the furious aggression of the Spanish government continues, not only in ministerial declarations against the “unconstitutional farce” but in rumours that Catalan government ministers, including premier Artur Mas, will be charged with violating court orders and perverting the course of justice.

The decision of the Catalan government to call the bluff of the Rajoy government was key to the success of the “participatory process”. When forced to choose between the Spanish court prohibition and Catalans’ enormous desire to vote on November 9, the CiU government really had no choice but to come down on the side of the latter.

In so doing, premier Mas did what he said he would never do—violate Spanish state legality. This was the first time since the 1978 adoption of the present Spanish constitution that a regional government has defied a Constitutional Court ruling.

At one point in the cat-and-mouse game with “Madrid”, it looked as if the Catalan government might comply with the court prohibition by surrendering formal responsibility for the vote to a non-governmental organisation—as it was being begged to do by the social-democratic Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC). An obvious candidate would have been the National Pact for the Right to Decide, an umbrella grouping of 3000 organisations supporting Catalonia’s right to self-determination.

However, the government knew that such a move would be seen as weakness and was in any event confident that the Rajoy government would not act to stop the vote by having the national prosecutor’s office order the Catalan state police to block access to voting centres.

The repercussions of such an action—with television from around the world broadcasting scenes of police stopping millions from voting—would have been devastating, especially for a national government shaken to the core in recent weeks by corruption scandals and the stunning rise of the new radical political force Podemos (now over 25% in the polls).

On November 5, Mas urged all residents in Catalonia to “keep calm and participate”. On November 6, CiU coordinator-general and MP Josep Rull stated: “The ballot boxes will be there and the government will be putting them there.”

On the day

Voting on the day opened at 9 am, but from 8 am massive queues were already forming outside polling stations. The mood was calm, but euphoric, as it sank in that Catalonia really was going to vote on its future after a difficult and tortuous journey through a legal and political obstacle course that also tested the unity of the parliamentary parties committed to a Catalan right to decide (see section below, “The road to defiance”).

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