By Melissa Aguilar
Last year brought a wave of political movements previously thought unlikely: the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency. Both were seen as an acceptance of nationalism and a rejection of an increasingly globalized world.
Kurds in Iraq also seemed to vote overwhelmingly for independence this year. Another regionalist movement that has been brewing for years (maybe centuries) that has gained international attention is Catalonia’s desire for independence from Spain.
The region is set to have elections later this week, after months of political uncertainty. Here is a quick guide on the background and events leading up to the elections.
Where is Catalonia?
Catalonia is one of 17 “autonomous communities” in Spain, similar to a U.S. state. Two Spanish autonomous cities, Melilla and Ceuta, are in Africa. Catalonia is one of three autonomous communities that have their own language and culture in addition to the Spanish way of life.
The other two are Galicia, in the northwestern part of the country above Portugal, and the Basque Country, bordering France. A Basque terrorist group called ETA (which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or “Basque Homeland and Freedom” in their language Euskera) killed over 800 people since it was active in the 1960s to 2010. In 2011, the group declared a ceasefire but refused to give up its weapons. It finally disarmed in April 2017.
The current regional problems in Catalonia are just part of a longer history of cultural clashes within Spain.
What has been happening in Catalonia?
On Oct. 1, 2017 the regional government held a vote for independence, which the Spanish government said was in violation of the Constitution. Of eligible voters, there was a 43 percent turnout with 92 percent of those in favor of independence.
Following the results, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asked Catalonia to clarify whether it officially declared independence or not, so Madrid could react accordingly.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence but did not implement it, saying they would prefer to hold discussions with Madrid before their official declaration.
Weeks later, on Oct. 27, the Catalan parliament voted 70 to 10 in favor of officially pronouncing the declaration. That move finally allowed Madrid to invoke article 155 of the Constitution, stripping the region of its autonomy and dissolving its government. Madrid also set new elections for the Catalan parliament in December.
Didn’t they already have a referendum?
Yes, back on Nov. 9, 2014, the region held a symbolic vote, in which over 80 percent of those who voted were in favor of independence. Of 5.4 million eligible voters, about two million turned up to the polls.
That ballot asked voters if they wanted Catalonia to be a state and whether that state should be independent. They saw that referendum as a consultation process that would pave the way for a more official vote and declaration later, namely, the one that happened in October 2017.
A sign in Catalan reading “We vote to be free.” Wikimedia Commons
Why do they want independence?
Catalonia is the richest region in Spain, and many feel they are paying more for other regions who have been struggling during the economic crisis. The Great Recession hit Spain particularly hard, with youth unemployment (those under 25) peaking at 56.1 percent in 2013. Even though the unemployment rate among the population has gone down to 18 percent, wages have remained low. Some Catalans think they would fare better economically as an independent country. They voted in 2006 to gain more autonomy for themselves and its parliament, but the move was struck down by the central government.
Why do some Catalans not want independence?
Some Catalans strongly connect with both their Spanish and Catalan identities and would not want to choose between the two. They also fear that a separate Catalonia would be less stable on its own and it would not enjoy EU membership. Since the referendum, many companies with headquarters in Catalonia such as banks and infrastructure companies have moved their offices to other cities across Spain.
What do other regions in Spain think about Catalan independence?
According to a poll by Spanish radio Cadena SER, 63 percent of the Spanish population outside Catalonia were against the referendum prior to the vote. Their research also showed more people would be open to the idea of an independence vote if all Spanish states had a say in the vote, not just Catalonia.
Poorer regions like Extremadura also saw a lot of its inhabitants move to Catalonia for jobs in factories Franco built. Some of them believe they have helped make Catalonia the prosperous region it is today.
How would the European Union respond to an independent Catalonia?
So far, EU leaders have said they would not intervene, with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte calling it an “internal Spanish matter.” Other leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron said they believe the Spanish government could handle the problem. The U.S. State Department also said they would support efforts for a “strong and united” Spain.
What is the link to Russia?
Spanish officials say groups in Russia and Venezuela used fake social media accounts to republish posts in favor of Catalan independence. Catalan leaders denied that such interference helped them in the referendum. Russia also denied that they had any part in swaying the vote, saying the claims were just “a continuation of the same hysteria that is now happening in the United States and a number of other countries.”
What can we expect before the December 21st vote?
The central government has jailed several Catalan government officials since the vote, and Puigdemont fled to Belgium to avoid sedition charges for his involvement in the independence vote. Puigdemont’s former vice-president Oriol Junqueras is now campaigning against him from jail near Madrid.
A poll conducted by El Pais shows the race between so called “Constitutional” party Ciudadanos and pro-independence party Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) to be close. Puigdemont’s pro-independence party, Junts Per Cataluña, is in third place. Whether a constitutional or pro-independence party wins the majority of the seats will be an indication of whether the region wants to continue pursuing independence.
Officials are predicting a record turnout of around 80 percent, higher than the 2015 election’s nearly 75 percent. The Spanish Civil Guard is expected to increase their presence in Catalonia in the days leading up to the vote. They were widely criticized for their use of force during the referendum.
Melissa Aguilar is a newswriter for XRAY in the Morning currently living in Madrid, Spain. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.