Catalonia referendum: Resisting the Spanish government siege


In 1713-14, it took the troops of Spain’s Borbon monarchy 14 months of siege before taking Barcelona and ending Catalan self-rule. In September 2017, Catalonia is again under siege, this time from the central Spanish People’s Party (PP) government.

Under prime minister Mariano Rajoy the Spanish state is concentrating all its firepower on stopping the Catalan government’s October 1 independence referendum. On that day, if this siege is successfully resisted, Catalan citizens will vote on whether “Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic”.

Since September 6, the day its parliament adopted its referendum law, Catalonia has experienced a “shock and awe” offensive aimed at forcing the pro-independence government of premier Carles Puigdemont to submit to the central Spanish administration. The adoption of the law by the parliamentary majority of 62 Together For The Yes (JxSí) and 10 People’s Unity List (CUP) MPs was the culmination of an eight-year process that has seen over one million people mobilise every Catalan National Day since 2012.

The stakes could not be higher. If the referendum takes place, the PP minority government in Madrid will suffer a lethal blow to its credibility, opening the way to a change of government in the Spanish state. It would also bring into view the prospect of finally overturning the sub-democratic regime that has been in place in Spain since the late 1970s, when the heirs of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco negotiated a flawed “transition to democracy” with the anti-dictatorship resistance.

By the same token, if the Rajoy government manages to stop October 1, it will be a setback not only for Catalan aspirations to sovereignty but also for all forces in Spain fighting for democratic rights and against austerity. The partial weakening of the “1978 regime” represented by the rise of anti-austerity party Podemos and its allies would be contained: the “constitutionalist” parties—the PP, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the hipster neoliberal outfit Citizens—would be strengthened.

Understanding of the stakes of the fight is increasingly reaching across the whole Spanish state, with left forces like Podemos and the older United Left, which had originally rejected October 1 as “not the referendum Catalonia needs”, now allying with pro-independence forces in the face of a legal and police offensive that amounts to a state of emergency in all but name.

The fear campaign

These stark possible outcomes to the conflict explain the ferocity of the Spanish government’s offensive. The Spanish Constitutional Court’s immediate decisions to suspend both the referendum law and the Law of Jurisdictional Transition (to apply in the case on a Yes win) have allowed Spanish prosecutor-general José Manuel Maza to unleash a judicial firestorm via regional Catalan prosecutors’ offices and the High Court of Justice of Catalonia. To date the main thrusts of the offensive have been to:

• Charge those members of the Catalan parliament’s speakers’ panel who enables debate on the laws with disobeying a lawful instruction and perverting the course of justice;

• Open proceedings against the 712 Catalan mayors (out of 948) who have indicated that their councils will make premises available—as per normal—for the referendum. The mayors are to be summoned to regional prosecutor’s offices, where they will face charges of disobeying a lawful instruction, perversion of the course of justice and misuse of public funds (which carries a jail sentence). The Catalan police have been ordered to arrest any mayor who fails his or her appointment with the prosecutor.

Most seriously of all, in the face of a Catalan government refusal to continue to supply the central Spanish government with a weekly report of its expenditures, the Spanish Council of Ministers (cabinet) decided on September 15 to take direct control of all payments to Catalonia’s creditors, effectively ending its financial autonomy.

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