Catalonia’s vote for independence and the power of symbols

Martin SCHULZ - EP President meets with Artur MAS - President of the Catalan Government. Mr Mas would wish he had the  blessings of Mr Schulz for his illegal vote of last Sunday (EP Audiovisual Services, 21/03/2012)

Martin SCHULZ – EP President meets with Artur MAS – President of the Catalan Government. Mr Mas would wish he had the blessings of Mr Schulz for his illegal vote of last Sunday (EP Audiovisual Services, 21/03/2012)

Although the polling has no legal force, the officers were all volunteers, and the election might be illegal, Catalans voted on 9 November. And the outcome was quite clear-cut. As expected the vote resulted in an overwhelming secessionist victory, with 80.7 percent of 2.25 million Catalans who participated in the referendum voting in favor of independence.

Voters were asked two questions – whether they wanted Catalonia to be a state and whether they wanted that state to be independent. Nearly 81% had answered yes to both questions, a 10% voted yes to the first question and no to the second, and about 4.5% voted no to both questions.

“We have earned the right to a referendum,” Artur Mas, President of Catalonia’s Regional Government, told supporters after the vote. Mr. Mas is the man who gathered pro-vote desires together in the past months, riding the wave of a fast growing separatist sentiment in the North-East region, and will now handle a result which has enormous symbolic power, more than a political one.

As said, the polling had no legal force, with Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, insisting for long that any regional vote would be illegal. He also called on the region’s leaders for a “return to sanity” in a speech given on Saturday. This way, November 9 vote could be seen as a provocative act with no democratic validity, or a mass democratic act that will have some kind of political and social echo. And this is exactly what independence backers were hoping for.

Turnout was not so high, with just 37% of an estimated 5.4 million eligible voters casting ballots, in a region of 7.5 million people. This is a fact, and it might be that the result won’t receive any international recognition, but at the same time 1,317 polling stations, 40,900 volunteers and all the newspapers in the world commenting the outcome will speak loud anyway.

The outcome itself should be analysed carefully though. Many analysts say that a vote which has no real political value and that will not result in a change or new solutions should not be considered as an actual one. Also the big 81 percent should be put under the light. The poll basically did not contain the electoral guarantees of a true referendum, and it must be considered that it was organized and promoted completely by pro-sovereignty groups. In a few words, those who oppose to Catalan independence did not vote.

The result however strengthens Mas’ position anyway, because the vote’s echo speaks for itself as a success and will open a new political era in Spain. Pro-secession politicians hoped a clear pro-independence outcome would prompt central government to sit down to negotiate more autonomy on political and fiscal issues. It might happen that this symbolic result will take someway Madrid to sit down with independence backers, something that Scotland’s 18th September vote basically did, with UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron promising to devolve more power to Scotland right after the ‘Yes’ front loss. But Catalonia’s 9 November will do this with an informal act, with no real political consequences.

This is basically what Mas was hoping for in the first place. He prepared the field for future negotiations with Madrid, where will hold in his hand high a result that can put pressure on prime minister Rajoy. Times will play in favour of the Catalan president’s plans as well, with pro-independence sentiments on escalation in the wealthy region.

Until a few years ago, there was support for Catalan independence from Spain. In 2005 the estimated “Yes” front share was around 13%, but then the economic crisis fuelled nationalism. In 2009 it was around 21%, 28.2% in 2011 and 44.3% in 2012*. The Catalan leader perfectly knows that the time is now, and that November 9 symbolic vote, the symbol itself, could work even better than an actual referendum, which would probably throw Spain into constitutional crisis.

That’s what symbols do indeed: they let their echo speak.

 

 

*Source: Centre d’Estudis d’Opiniò and the Guardian

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