The following account involves a case of a town where violence was not perpetrated by police, in a context of a substantial civilian population actively defending ballot boxes. It can also be mentioned that in many cases the police refused to follow orders to disrupt the referendum.
Relating to the current situation in Catalonia, I am happy to share some personal comments following a very special day last Sunday, a day full of emotion, tension and companionship, shared with kids, friends and neighbours in our little village just North of Barcelona.
Of course the ‘referendum’ that took place last Sunday was far from worthy of that description. In the run up, the Spanish government led by President Mr. Mariano Rajoy and his right of centre PP party, ensured through rushed court actions, the physical requisition of ballot boxes and papers, and the downing of web sites and IT systems, that the vote lacked any real legal basis. Neither was there any sort of campaign for the ‘No’ vote, with the large number of remain supporters simply staying at home.
Nevertheless people still turned out. In my village they turned out in their thousands. Across Catalonia they turned out in their millions. They turned out from Friday evening, filling town halls, schools and other public places nominated as polling stations. They organised parties, sports tournaments, sleep-ins and rotated vigilances, all with the hope of keeping out the Civil Guard who had been literally shipped in from garrisons all over Spain in the days preceding.
The vast majority of people who did turn out knew that there was little possibility their vote would lead to Independence. Indeed many have long preferred finding some negotiated middle road. However crucially what they all wanted, was simply to vote. What they wanted was to express their views, and make their voices heard.
Since the political transition following the death of Franco in 1975, large chunks of Catalan society has neither identified with, nor felt represented by the alternating central parties of PP and PSOE in Madrid, feeling short-changed economically and side-lined socially and politically. As my neighbour Carmen, a school teacher expressed: “This is not about a vote for the future, the future is uncertain, we know that. This is about a vote to finally break with the past”.
On Sunday morning the streets of our village were busy from the early hours. There was expectation and uncertainty. Dozens were queued to vote, and those that had voted remained packed around the town hall in defence of any intervention from the Civil Guard. Throughout the whole day I estimated there oscillated between 500 and 1,000 people permanently on guard outside of the polling station. There were constant reports of Civil Guard actions in nearby villages, images of which have since been shared worldwide.
After lunch I accompanied my two kids to vote, one ‘No’ and one ‘Yes’, and we joked and hugged with friends and neighbours. It was quite emotional. In the late afternoon the polls were closed, but the crowds remained to guard the ballot boxes, until late into the evening when the local Mayor came to the window, gave thanks to all, and announced the results amid relieved cheers, applauses, and even fireworks.
The handling of the situation by Mr Rajoy has been gravely miscalculated. The orders given to send in the Civil Guard and their subsequent actions have only served to strengthen the resolve of would be ‘Independentistas’ , and crucially sway more moderate opinions. In addition, the videos seen around the world have brought an international focus to what is basically a national issue, and done little to add to the friendly ‘fiesta’ image of this fantastic country. Even today, two days later, the Government continue to praise the “professional and proportional actions” of the Civil Guard, and to insist they were sent to ‘defend’ the Catalan people from the trouble making ‘extremistas’.
What happens next is uncertain. The Spanish Government continues to insist that the problem in Catalonia is with a minority of Independence seeking politicians and collaborators, who are somehow illegally fooling the rest of the Catalans. Por Favor!!! I have spent the last 26 years in Catalonia, shoulder to shoulder with people from all sorts of backgrounds and educations, and it is a fantasy as well as an insult to their intelligence to believe in this simple populist view. The issues here are far more complex, and need better quality leaders than Mr Rajoy and his team to tackle them.
I personally hope that Catalonia does not leave Spain. I have always considered this option an unnecessary shame. But I am not Catalan. If the Spanish Government, whoever is in power, wish to persuade these people likewise, they will have to do much more than sending riot police with batons.