Battle over Catalan independence referendum continues

Part of one of the Barcelona rallies in support of the referendum
Contributed by Joe Montero

As Catalonia moves closer to holding a referendum on independence on 1 October, the political climate continues to heat up.

Last week, the central Spanish government moved in and arrested 14 Catalan government officials for organising the vote, took over the regional governments finances and public servants and increased its policing of the population. The Catalan police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, has been put under the command of the interior ministry.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists that the referendum is illegal under Spain’s constitution and will not be allowed to go ahead.

Reaction from the Catalan population was immediate. Huge numbers hit the streets to protest. Armies of volunteers took it upon themselves to deliver millions of ballot papers, replacing those that had been seized in the raids. Every day, evening rallies begin with the banging of pots and pans at 10 pm, signaling people to come out of their homes and they have responded.

This has been raising the political heat.

Then came the Merce Festival, which celebrates the patron Saint of Barcelona, Mare de Deu de la Mercè. The city turns into one big five-day party centred at 24 venues. It is also an occasion when Catalans celebrate their history and identity.

It was inevitable that the referendum would become a big part of Merce.

True to form, Madrid sent in re-enforcements of police and military from all parts of Spain and publicly branded any form of support for the referendum as an act of treason, , in an operation  widely seen as a deliberate provocation, to cause an outbreak of violence and therefore justification for harsh measures.

It has not worked, because the protests continue to be well a disciplined and deliberately non-violent response.

Rallies are taking place in town squares throughout the region and not just in the capital.

The conservative Rajoy government is being supported by  the other leg of the old two-party system, the Socialist Party and together, they have been working hard to mobilise their remaining political support bases as a counter force.

In contrast the anti-austerity Podemos’ leader Pablo Iglesias, has called on the Socialist leader to join with it, not only in giving the Catalans the right to decide their own future, but to use the opportunity to once and for all, put an end to Popular Party minority government.

To date the Socialists have protected the government by abstaining form votes that might bring it down.

Polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of Catalans support the vote going ahead.

Many commentator have suggested that Rahoy’s strategy, is only in part about preventing the breakaway of Catalonia and allowing an example that could influence other regions wanting to break. Of course, this is important. But it is also the response of an embattled and deeply unpopular government, embroiled in a nest of corruption scandals and the associated list of upcoming trials. In many ways, this is a paralysed administration, a dead man walking, just waiting to topple over, desperately seeking a way to recast itself as the savior of the nation and regain a measure of political legitimacy.

Its weapons are fear and the existence of an official opposition that has gone missing in action and finds itself in its own crisis as its support base begins to turn its back. For its leadership, the devil you know is preferable to allowing political change that might challenge the two-party system.

Rather than hold it back, the government’s action is much more likely to strengthen the cause for independence, even if it succeeds on ruining the 1 October referendum.  The Catalans will not be stopped and the more that is imposed on them without their consent, the more decisive the break will be when it comes.

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