In Spain, some forty thousand people gathered at a Barcelona courthouse Monday in support of former Catalonia regional leader Artur Mas and two other politicians, as they went on trial for organising an independence referendum in November 2014. Underlying the trial is a sense of frustration with Madrid’s position on Catalonian independence as the region’s government promises another referendum for this year.
Mas and two other regional politicians disobeyed Spain’s constitutional court by holding a non-binding vote in November 2014, which saw 80 percent of the 2.3 million people who cast ballots – about a third of the population – votes in favour of Catalan independence.
The Court had ruled the vote to be illegal five days before it happened, so now the politicians are facing charges of serious civil disobedience and misconduct, with prosecutors asking them to be barred from holding public office for up to 10 years.
“It’s unprecedented by European standards, because he’s not judged for corruption or for doing something criminally wrong, but for allowing people to vote,” says Aleix Sarri Camargo, advisor to Catalan MEP MP Ramon Tremosa. “If it was happening in Hungary or Poland, there would be an outrage, but it’s happening in Spain and many people are silent.”
For other demonstrators who gathered at the courthouse, the trial underlines what they perceive as Madrid’s unwillingness to have any kind of dialogue on the question of independence.
“Spain seems incapable of dealing with this question in a political way,” says author Liz Castro. “They don’t want to open any dialogue about what 80 percent of the people want here, which is to be able to vote on the question of independence, so instead of opening up a dialogue, instead of negotiating, they are criminalising any formal activity about being able to vote.”
Politics versus the law
With the government in Madrid sticking to the view expressed by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that votes without court approval are unconstitutional, such a trial has easily aggravated tensions between the two camps.
“It keeps the sense of grievance of Catalan society very visible, they see some of their most important political leaders being put on trial for holding, from the point of view of Catalans, a democratic exercise,” says Andrew Dowling, senior lecturer in Hispanic studies specialising in Catalan history and politics at the University of Cardiff.
“What’s happening is that the Catalans feel they have the moral high ground of democracy, whereas Madrid feels it has the moral high ground of the law and the legal system, so both sides are using this to support and consolidate their own position.”
Madrid’s insistence on legal aspects of Catalonian questions tends to exasperate but also puzzle many in Catalonia, where most people favour holding an official referendum but are far less certain whether they would actually vote for independence: polls show that both the Yes or No sides could only be sure of roughly 45 percent of the vote, meaning 10 percent could lean either way, leaving many wondering what Madrid has to gain from a position they see as being alienating to Catalans.
“In five years, since the independence movement started to be very strong, they [the Spanish government] have never offered anything to Catalonia in terms of self-government,” Sarri Camargo says. “People from Yes and also people from No want to vote on this, and the only thing they have done is to bring more and more people to court to face political trials, like today with Artur Mas.”
“There’s this whole list of things that encourage people to say, ‘if we can’t figure out a better way to have a relationship with the state, we want our own state to make sure we are protecting our culture, identity and people,’” says Liz Castro.
Another referendum planned for 2017
With the pro-independence regional government elected in 2015 promising to organise a new referendum in September or even earlier – with or without the consent of Madrid – no clear resolution appears possible.
“Because the situation is so polarised between both sides, somebody has to back down, and there are no indications as of yet that anybody will,” says Andrew Dowling, recalling that about a third of the population of Catalonia voted in November 2014, despite the referendum being declared illegal.
“Both sides are trapped by their own rhetoric: one of them says we’re not going to allow it to happen, and the other says we are going to allow it to happen, and there’s no intermediate position between those two. So essentially what will happen will be decided by reactions at the time, and it’s very hard to predict what those will be.”