You know, if the Spanish government ever had a chance to try and put the Catalan issue to rest once and for all, if there had ever been a golden opportunity to hush the tide of independence enthusiasm, the period right after the 2014 illegal referendum, slyly renamed “Consulta”, was the perfect time. But before I get to that point, let me enlighten you on how the vote came to being, because it really is quite comical.
The Catalan separatists had petitioned the Spanish government the right to hold a referendum on self-determination. The national parliament rejected the proposal on the grounds the constitution did not allow for it. As a consequence, a playful battle of terms and nuances invaded the process. Instead of calling it a “referendum”, Catalan leader Artur Mas, a man who seems bent on becoming the founding father of his own country, decided to refer to the plebiscite as a “consultation”. In other words, they were just asking the people what they thought, on a Sunday, in the hope they could circumvent the prohibition. However, since the whole idea was being promoted by the regional government (which seemed wholley bent on being its own nation), Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, appealed to the Spanish Constituional Court to impose a determination, and the judicial body, in foreseeable fashion, concluded the plan was illegal. Totally bogus.
Mas, who, in addition to being bent of become the first president of a new nation, was almost equally bent on outwitting the rest of Spain, immediately called off the “consultation” but suggested that an “alternative consultation” be celebrated which could only be organized by non-official groups and associations. From the nationalists point-of-view, the scheme was pure genius; from a centralist’s perspective, it was painfully frustrating and a touch childish. For the Rajoy administration, it was a first-class conundrum. Tension continued to rise as the date approached, but short of intervening directly through the use of force, a measure which would have spelled disaster for the national government no matter how you sliced it and was both strategically and historically unthinkable, there was little for the pro-Spain supporters to do but let it take place.
From a pro-Catalan standpoint, this pretty much amounted to a win-win situation. The faction based its actions on the ground they were defending their constitutional right to freedom of speech, and there is certainly something to be said for that. As much as it irritates the rest of Spain, the Catalans do have a right to express their opinions and feelings. And, no matter what happened, they knew that was going to be their sole argument.
They also knew beforehand that the results were going to be in their favor by a landslide because the majority of the voters were going to be pro-independence. Wouldn’t this be an ideal opportunity for the opposition to voice its, well, opposition? Indeed, but that would also mean legitimizing a vote which had been rendered unconstitutional by the country’s highest court, so that option was pointless.
What happened in the end?
Approximately 6,300,000 people had the right to vote. The pro-Catalan goups had extended suffrage to 16- and 17-year-olds, possibly figuring that the younger generations owned a deeper sense of independence since they had been born and educated in a highly pro-Catalan climate. Of that number, 2,305,290 individuals exercised that right, of which 1,861,753 voters said “yes” to independence. That constituted 81%. A walloping 81%.
The nationalists jumped for joy as they championed a victory for freedom of speech and their cause. The central government cried foul, dismissed the consultation and its results as a non-factor, and vowed to take everyone and their grandmother to court for civil disobedience.
Now, what I like about this information survey is that it brings together so many elements of this major national affair, and explains why the Catalans want to leave, why the Spanish are making it easy for them to leave, how the Catalans manage to capitalize on what is in reality terrible news, and how the central government bumbles flubs every time they actually have victory at hand.
First of all, let’s look at the numbers. That 81% which appeared to represent a resounding triumph (even the BBC plastered the number as the number that “backed independence” in a bizarre showing of shoddy journalism) is based on the percentage of those who voted, which was little more than 37%. While there is no, nor should there be, a minimum voter turnout to make a referendum valid, considering the separatists were working hard to prove to Spain and the world that the people of Catalonia were sick and tired of being run by Madrid, they certainly didn’t show it. In fact, 81% of that number, means a paltry 29% of the potential voting population actually favored leaving Spain. Those aren’t just discreet numbers, they are outright pathetic when pitted against other great movements of the world, like Scotland and Ireland. If we were to sense that the nationalists were really as numerous as their proponents claimed, you’d expect something like at least 40% pushing to say “adios!”. Instead, they could even get that percentage to the polls in the first place.
Did the political pundits and members of government point this out and throw it in the Catalans face? Nope. They just went on about the vote being illegal, illegal, illegal. And the pro-Catalans kept shouting, “80%! 80%! 80%!” And that’s what reporters from international channels like the BBC sent over the waves. Essentially, the Catalans got their butts kicked all over the field, but still won the game. Often that’s all that counts.
And that’s what I meant when I said all the way up top about 900 words ago, remember there was a point to this, that the Spanish government had a golden opportunity to say, “OK. Let’s go for it. We’ll hold a referendum in a month.” Those in favor of remaining with Spain probably would have won hands down. Or at least by a margin larger than the slim advantages that kept Quebec in Canada and Scotland in the United Kingdom. While it’s not totally impossible, it certainly seems very unlikely that there is a hidden 21% of pro-independence supporters lurking that simply didn’t bother to voice their opinion.
But who cares? The Catalans still won, and in so many ways. They did so by stealing hours of national and international TV coverage, which is just the kind of free publicity they like. They also got a great deal of sympathy from the world for defending their right to exercise their freedom of speech. Moreover, the civil disobedience lawsuits that followed did little more than fuel the movement even more. People thrive on these actions and foster more ways frustrate. They thrive on their opponents’ frustration.
The event also made the separatists look like underdogs (which they are anything but intheir region), and everyone likes to root for the underdog.