For months now, it has been impossible not to hear the word “Catalonia” on Spanish television and radio or see it in newspapers. Sometimes it seems like Spain talks about little else than the Catalan region’s push for independence.
A controversial referendum is set for Sunday, 1 October.
The upcoming vote has been front and center for three key reasons:
Catalan independence would be the greatest shake-up in the history of Spain’s four-decade-old democracy, only surpassed by the failed coup d’état of February 1981.
The scheduled referendum has exposed a gap in Spanish society with unforeseeable consequences. One thing is certain: Nothing will ever be the same again between the Catalans and the rest of Spain.
The Catalan independence process is endlessly complicated. Nobody fully grasps how this moment came about, what is happening now and what could happen tomorrow.
But here are some points that can help you (kind of) understand the debate over Catalonia.
1. What does the Catalan government want?
Catalonia is already a semi-autonomous region in northeastern Spain. Its government wants the Catalan people to have the chance to vote in a referendum on whether to remain a part of Spain or to become fully independent. The question on the ballot will be: Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?
2. What does the Spanish government want?
They don’t want any change. They want Catalonia to remain a part of Spain.
3. Why do Catalans want to leave Spain?
It’s unclear whether a majority of Catalan voters will choose independence. Some polls suggest that the remain-with-Spain option could win.
Those advocating for independence argue that Catalonia contributes more to Spain economically than Spain contributes to Catalonia. One of the most successful slogans in recent years has been, “Spain is robbing us.” Advocates also argue that Catalonia is a historic nation with its own culture and language and that the desire for independence goes back a century.
4. Are they really going to vote on Sunday?
The Catalan government, presided over by Carles Puigdemont, has called a referendum for 1 October. But this referendum is not legal because the Spanish Constitution does not envision self-determination for a Spanish territory. Only a constitutional amendment could legalise a referendum that proposes to split the country apart. The national government has said over and over again that it will never, ever change the Constitution to open the door to independence for a territory.
The Catalan government is still moving forward, even if it has twisted the law to get to this point and will continue twisting it in the future. Catalan authorities are assuring people that they will be able to vote Sunday whether the rest of Spain “likes it or not.”
5. But if it’s illegal, how will they vote?
That is a very big question. It’s unclear whether basic needs, like ballots, ballot boxes and voter rolls, have been taken care of. The term surreal doesn’t quite cover the situation.
On 20 September, the Guardia Civil, a national law enforcement agency, seized almost 10 million ballots that had been prepared for the referendum. The Catalan government has called for voters to print their own ballots and deposit them in ballot boxes.
As for the location of those ballot boxes, the Catalan government said it has hidden them so that the national government can’t seize them. It promises that ballot boxes will be available on Sunday. The Spanish government has no doubt these boxes exist, but suggests they are outside Spain because otherwise it would have found them. The national government has warned that, if found, even a single ballot box will be seized by the Guardia Civil. Officials are playing a game of cat-and-mouse, raised to a democratic problem of the first order.
Catalonia won’t have established polling stations on Sunday. The Spanish government has given the order to seal all polling stations. Therefore, 1 October will dawn with the usual polling stations, like local schools, sealed and guarded by law enforcement officers so that no one can deposit a (non-existent) ballot in a (currently non-existent) ballot box.
Last but not least, the Catalan government doesn’t have an electoral register listing the names of those who have the right to vote and where they should, theoretically, cast their ballots.
6. Is all this a rather brazen challenge from Catalonia to Spain?
Yes, it is. And yet the Catalans also have an argument that is difficult to counter: They only want to do something as democratic as vote and decide for themselves.
7. Has the Spanish prime minister handled the situation well?
No, he hasn’t. One of the major reasons Catalonia has reached this level of confrontation is because for five years, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ignored the voices warning that there was a very serious political problem brewing in Catalonia that had to be resolved. Rajoy is known to think that the best way to solve a problem is to do nothing.
He has not even agreed to talk with top Catalan authorities to look for points of agreement. His answer to every approach has been no, no and no. And so it has been impossible to reach a deal, especially when the other party keeps insisting, “We want to vote, we want to vote, we want to vote.”
8. If the Catalan people vote for independence, will Catalonia become independent?
Anything could happen. But if independence were to be declared, it too would not be legal. The international community, starting with the European Union, would not recognize an independent Catalonia. However much it has tried, the Catalan government has not managed to wrangle a single endorsement from any international government. “It would be foolish for Catalonia to not continue in Spain,” US President Donald Trump said this week.
9. How is Spanish society coping with this mess?
With deep concern and much uncertainty. In recent weeks, society has become polarized between supporters and opponents of independence. Some people are cheering the police who have been sent to the Catalan capital of Barcelona to keep order on Sunday. Others are shouting, “We will vote, we will vote!” One notable piece of symbolism: More and more balconies in the rest of Spain are draped with Spanish flags, while more and more balconies in Catalonia display Catalan flags.
10. Is there a risk of civil war?
No. Pablo Iglesias, leader of the leftist party Podemos, raised that possibility this week when he denounced the national government for creating a “pre-war scenario.” But nobody in Spain truly fears the conflict will end in a civil war. Spain suffered one between 1936 and 1939, a devastating conflict that still survives in the collective consciousness as a history lesson to never repeat.
11. So what is going to happen on Sunday?
Nobody knows. Neither the Spanish government nor the Catalan government, nobody. The only certainty is that 2 October will come around, but everything else remains uncharted territory.