Tensions are running high in Catalonia, with riot police out in force and protesters advocating their right to vote being shot with rubber bullets. At the time of writing, more than 300 people have been injured and at least one person is currently undergoing surgery as a result of clashes between police and protesters.
Police repression, the arresting of politicians and the intransigence of the Spanish government (“there will be no referendum” has been Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s favourite refrain over the last few weeks) make the temptation to simplify this into a simple left-right or good-bad discourse tantalising. But this issue is far from simple.
Both sides in this debate are using the referendum to further their own political agendas. Spain’s governing party, the Partido Popular (PP), is a right-wing party housing a spectrum of thought from neoliberalists to the hard-line right. The ruling party in Catalonia, PDeCAT, is a centre right party of the Catalan bourgeois which has historically been the natural ally of PP and not a traditional supporter of independence. Interestingly, their move to advocate a referendum has stopped their support from dropping in recent months.
Alongside this, neither the national government nor the Catalan parliament are strangers to corruption in politics. PDeCAT has been plagued with allegations of corruption, debate around which has receded significantly as demands for independence have increased. PP, for its part, has often sought conflict as a means of garnering public support. Positioning this referendum and the spectre of independence as a threat to Spanish citizens and their economic future – as well as tugging on the strings of nationalist patriotism in demanding the continued unity of Spain – PP has engaged widespread support. In recent days, Spanish flags have poured from windows and balconies, and in towns throughout Spain people have cheered the Civil Guard – Spain’s law enforcement agency which operates on military lines – with football chants advocating the defeat of the opposition.
Against this political background, Spain is beginning to emerge from the crisis of which it has been in the grasp of since 2008. However, unemployment, particularly among young people, is still extremely high, with poverty and homelessness rates continuing to rise. Both Catalan and Spanish politicians have invoked nationalism as the banner beneath which popular support can be raised, allowing the referendum and its surrounding debates to create a vacuum in which these pressing social issues are demoted.
Even with both sides politicking for their own ends, it can’t be overlooked that self-determination is a right to which the Catalan people must have recourse. It is hard to understand the actions of the Spanish government as anything other than an affront to democracy. These actions are likely to have had an adverse impact, strengthening the calls for a referendum on independence. This is despite the relative absence of vision for the model the future state might take.
Whilst the majority of Catalans are pro-referendum, within Catalonia there are numerous currents of thought of which independence is only one. All of these voices have the right to make themselves heard in a referendum on their future. But any referendum in the future must be supported by the Spanish government as part of a constitutional agreement, must paint a clear picture for the Catalan public on what a proposed independent state would look like, and must not be used to deny other significant debates. However, as clashes on the streets show no signs of abating and emotions run high, the solution to this situation looks increasingly elusive.
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