Catalan referendum: Spanish state flexes its Francoist muscle

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Spanish state police have launched widespread attacks on the Catalan people’s attempts to hold an independence referendum. Hundreds have been injured in police attacks. The vote, ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court, asks Catalans if they want to start the process of building a republic, independent of the Spanish state. The people have faced massive repression by the Spanish government, which includes financial intervention, arrests of members of the Catalan government, raids to seize voting material and mass deployment of armed police. Far from seeking dialogue and political negotiation, the government of Mariano Rajoy has stepped up authoritarian measures which echo those of Franco’s dictatorship. JUANJO RIVAS reports from Madrid.

Historical background

Spain was one of the few European countries where a fascist government survived after the Second World War. After the death of the dictator Franco in 1975, the political forces left to nego­tiate a future government were abso­lutely unbalanced: while the right-wing controlled the state apparatus and its national media, the left-wing had had to operate clandestinely for years, or was returning from exile. The Spanish Constitution that was born out of this unequal ‘transition’ secured the interests of a ruling class that had been in power under the dictatorship. It also ensured that Franco’s emphasis on centralism continued, including the denial of plurinationality and the use of the military to ensure the unity of the country. This fake transition resulted in maintaining the old oligarchs, obscene privilege for the Catholic Church, immunity for tor­turers and a profound democratic deficit. Subsequently, any demand for democracy and recognition by the Basque Country, Catalonia and Gali­cia was met with repression.

In 2002, the conservative government enforced a law to ban a Basque nationalist party and in 2006 opposed the statute of autonomy for Catalonia. During its first mandate (2011-2016), the right-wing cabinet of Mariano Rajoy enforced further repressive laws limiting freedom of speech – re­inforcing the centralised and authoritarian nature of the Spanish state. These policies have fuelled anger about the lack of democracy and a historical desire for independence in Catalonia. In November 2014, a non-binding vote revealed that 80% of the population of the region would favour a referendum to create an independent state. The coalition which emerged from the Catalan election in Sep­tem­ber 2015, led by Carles Puigde­mont, took on board the demands from the streets and committed itself to designing a roadmap for a referendum. This odd coalition was made up of bourgeois conservative nationalists (Junts pel Sí), who were pushed to go ahead by moderate left-wing (ERC) and anti-capitalist (CUP) independence activists. Junts pel Sí originally emerged from a pro-austerity coalition traditionally allied with the Spanish two-party system, but within it seeking to defend the interests of Catalan entrepreneurs. CUP, meanwhile, stems from a network of activists involved in grassroots neighbourhood action, ecologists and feminists, who have built an influential political movement.

State of emergency

The Spanish government made a decisive move on 20 September 2017. Early in the morning, units of the military police known as Civil Guards coordinated raids on 41 buildings in Barcelona including the Catalan offices for the economy, government, institutional relations, work and social issues, telecoms and the IT centre, as well as personal homes of technicians and high ranks of local government. They arrested 14 people believed to be key organisers of the referendum. Printing material and nearly 10 million ballot papers were seized at an industrial site, and the military instituted a search for any contracts or documents supporting the referendum connected to those arrested.

In response, on 21 September tens of thousands of Catalans poured onto the streets, occupying squares and gathering around the targeted buildings. Large numbers of police turned up at the head office of the left-wing nationalists of CUP, attempting to search it. As they did not hold a warrant, the crowd prevented the police search and maintained the picket until the police withdrew eight hours later. Thousands gathered around the Depart­ment of the Economy, a building guarded by only 20 officers – who only received back-up hours later once two police vehicles had been smashed. Although mainstream media tried to use that incident to portray the protesters as violent, in reality this mass and now permanent mobilisation has been peaceful, giving out carnations and exercising a joyful civil disobedience. From 24 September students established a 24-hour picket at the University of Barcelona and called for a strike by secondary and university students between 27 and 29 September.

The response of the Spanish Office of Home Affairs was to escalate matters, creating a de facto state of emergency and sending further large numbers of police forces to Catalonia. Foreseeing the need to accommodate ever-greater numbers of security personnel, the minister decided to hire foreign ships. A ferry in Tarragona and two ‘Looney Toons’ cruise ships for children in Barcelona now host thousands of police officers brought from all over Spain. The cabinet refused to provide figures, but the ships have capacity for 5,000. Immediately, dockers took action in the form of pickets on the docks and refusal to supply the boats.

As the Catalan government refused to call off the referendum, the Home Office announced it would control polling booths and arrest any organisers who turned up. Regional police have been relieved of their authority and the whole operation has been centralised under the command of Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos – an army officer sentenced in 1999 for leading a group of civil guards who tortured a Basque activist and pardoned that same year by President José Maria Aznar. On 26 Sep­tem­ber new convoys departed from Spanish police stations and barracks, carrying personnel and materiel, including armoured water tanks. It has em­erged that 75% of Spain’s riot police have been stationed in Catalonia, together with 10,000 Civil Guards, something not seen in the last 40 years. On 27 September, a military detachment was deployed to Valencia, to prepare for possible action during or after the 1 October vote. It is clear the Spanish state is ready to completely militarise Catalonia and launch full-scale repression on its population. It seems unlikely that they can close all 6,000 schools where voting is due to take place by force but they may try to establish militarised perimeters to prevent queues of voters being visible to the world’s media. If they do try to prevent people from voting, there is bound to be resistance.

The way forward

The Spanish government has done everything it can to dismantle the electoral system for the referendum, and then hypocritically accused the organisers of not meeting electoral standards. More than 700 nationalist mayors have been threatened with legal action if they in any way facilitate the vote in their municipalities. Whatever the outcome on 1 October, mobilisations will contin­ue on the streets. There have been solidarity marches in the Basque Country and gatherings in other towns to support the right to decide, although often counter-picketed by fascist groups, which have noticeably increased their racist attacks following the terrorist attack in Barcelona in August.

The anti-capitalist, pro-independence movement expects to push its social agenda against cuts, evictions and austerity policies in the frame of a Catalan republic, but has already won a step forward. The great victory of the Catalan movement for independence is to have turned the struggle for national rights into a struggle for civil rights. The unity around the right to decide has forced the Spanish state to confront the paradox of defending its own ‘democratic right’ while attacking the basis of democracy, such as the freedom of speech in Catalonia. As in May 2011, the movement has un­masked the state violence against any real democracy and the underlying aftertaste of a never-broken dictatorial rule.