The Eve of Referendum: What to Know and What to Expect

Catalans will vote tomorrow on whether their region should become independent. Here’s what you need to know.

Sept. 30th, 2017

Pro-independentists distributing information on the referendum in Barcelona. Photocredit: Albert Han

Pro-independentists distributing information on the referendum in Barcelona. Photocredit: Albert Han

What is the Catalan Referendum?

Catalonia will have a binding referendum tomorrow, Oct. 1st. Those who are residents in the region will be able to vote on the question, “do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” The referendum law was passed by the two main separatist parties (Junts Pel Sí and Esquerra Republica Catalana) in the Catalan Parliament on Sept. 6th , with regional president Carles Puigdemont as the de facto leader of the independence movement.

Why do some Catalans want independence?

For years the independence movement was supported by a small number of Catalans, gaining momentum only when the region’s revised statute of autonomy failed to gain approval in 2010. Economic problems played a big role in the movement’s ascent: many complain that Catalonia contributed a disproportionate amount of taxes to central authorities in Madrid, while not receiving enough funding for basic needs in the region.

Underlying the economic argument is a strong sense of nationalism and the struggle for autonomy. Throughout the Middle Ages Catalonia had maintained its own laws and institutions, only to lose them in 1714 when the Bourbon king Philip V abolished autonomy and suppressed Catalan language and culture. During the 19th century, its rise as an industrial powerhouse fueled a wave of nationalism and the call for autonomy; an autonomous Catalonia was brief during the 20th century, and Franco’s dictatorship (1939 – 1975) following the Spanish Civil War saw further repression of Catalan society.

The experiences of the past three hundred years instilled a strong sense of nationalism and autonomy in Catalans. No longer satisfied with present relations with Madrid, many Catalans believe that their region, with its own distinct language, culture, and traditions should run its own affairs.

What is Madrid’s position?

The referendum law was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain, while authorities in Madrid, led by prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the minority governing People’s Party (Partido Popular) vowed to prevent the referendum from taking place. Faced with a secession that is deemed as “the biggest political crisis since 1978”, Rajoy has repeatedly said that there won’t be a referendum.

In response, the Attorney General’s office cited more than 700 municipal mayors in Catalonia who could face charges of disobedience, perversion of justice, and the misuse of public funds for supporting the referendum. Under orders from the Madrid, national police have raided printing offices in search of voting ballots and materials, shut down Catalan websites connected to the referendum, and detained key members of the Catalan government.

What are the polls saying?

The latest poll, conducted by the Institute of Opinion Review and published by the Catalan newspaper Ara.cat on Sept. 16th showed that 69.9% of voters would vote in favor of independence with a turnout rate of 60.2%.

How have tensions arisen?

Relations between Catalonia and Madrid have worsened over the past few weeks. Following the arrest of 14 cabinet members, thousands took to the streets to protest, calling Rajoy’s government a throwback to the dictatorship era. University students have gone on strike Thursday and Friday to voice their support by holding large. The central government has deployed thousands of police officers for fear of violence, while the Attorney General, José Manuel Maza, suggested that Puigdemont could be arrested for holding the referendum. Police forces have been ordered to prevent voting stations from opening on Sunday morning, while organizers have called for citizens to occupy voting stations from Friday night to Sunday to guarantee the referendum will take place.  

The referendum has gained supporters and detractors across Spain: demonstrations voiced their support for the Catalan referendum in the Basque Country and Galicia, where separatist movements are present, while right-wing Falangists are planning demonstrations in cities across the country to support the unity of Spain.

What is the international response to the Catalan referendum?

Although viewed as an internal affair, the referendum has elicited international responses as tensions continue to rise. The United Nations Office of the High Commission issued a statement on Sept. 28th urging Spanish authorities to not “interfere with the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and public participation”. President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said in a live interview that “we will respect a Catalan vote”, while noting that an independent Catalonia would have to rejoin the EU.

What will happen if a majority of Catalans vote ‘yes’?

The referendum law stated that the region will declare independence within 48 hours if a majority votes for yes. Afterwards, what would happen is hard to predict. However, Madrid has promised to do everything it can to prevent a secession.