1-O: Three Years On – Notes from Spain | Edward Anderson
As part of a Catalan double header, Edward gives us a first-hand account of the October 1st Catalan Referendum 2017 and the chaotic aftermath that remains unresolved to this day…
They are all gathered in a mass huddle, a wave of bodies sitting in front of the school steps. The reason: hushed whispers that turn to worried panic on hearing the Spanish Police are on their way. The videos of Rajoy’s enforcers have spread like wildfire and they are shocking; scenes of Spanish Police smashing in school windows, throwing women down stairs and brutally clubbing anyone who gets in their way. Suddenly, a roar goes up … mercifully for us it isn’t the Spanish Police but a frail, white haired lady being helped through the crowd to vote and she gets a thunderous applause.
I’ve been between this voting station and the one situated a minute down the road (Escola dels Encants) for several hours now and the atmosphere has been constantly changing. Excitement, defiance, glee and fear are all experienced within minutes of each other. It all depends on the rumours that swirl around us. Has Puigdemont been taken? Do the Police know where the votes will be counted? The cat and mouse game between Catalonia and the Spanish state is being played out for a global audience. As the polling closes and the final stragglers vote, the staff are exhausted but relived, as the only Police we have had here are the two Mossos who simply observed and nothing more. Other polling stations weren’t so lucky…
We’ve gotten ahead of ourselves so let me take you back. On 27th September 2015, Arthur Mas led a big tent independence grouping who all ran together and treated the election, which they openly stated at the time, as a true plebiscite after their previous 2014 non sanctioned referendum was ignored.
JxSi would lose seats but with the record performance of the far-left CUP they would get a majority, as the parties that wanted a referendum had 72 seats (a majority needing 68) and 48% of the popular vote. However, after several corruption scandals in the past and a general distrust of him, CUP would block Mas for being the President of Catalonia. With Rajoy sensing a chance to get new elections to quash the separatists, Artur would fall on his sword to make way for Carles Puigdemont.
All the parties involved had pledged to hold a referendum and from the moment they formed a Government they were locked in. If they backtracked, they would electorally be done and so would the Independence movement for a generation.
Unfortunately for them, so was Rajoy. The Spanish Constitution is pretty clear: Referendums such as the one proposed are illegal as Spain is indivisible, unless there was a majority at a national level to then vote to change the constitution to allow referendums. It is, to all intents and purposes, impossible for Catalonia to ever hold a referendum that is legal and it is impossible to legislate to change this fact. So, by the time 1-O rolled around, no side could afford to lose face.
Back on October 1st as the night rolled in, the atmosphere in Plaça de Catalunya was electric. Thousands had crammed in to the square and I was there with a particularly separatist friend. The crowd filled the night air with cheers as the results were announced. It was much the same story as 2014, an overwhelming majority voted yes but a minority of the population turned out (hats off to the 177,545 people who voted No). However, the media balconies surrounding the square had their story: the fact that the vote had taken place was an embarrassment to the National Government and Rajoy, whilst the images of Spanish Police twatting everyone in sight were beamed around the world.
The next day, everyone paused for breath. Predictably, the National Government ignored the result but faced significant international pressure for the actions of the Police. Sensing the tide, a strike was called by separatists on Tuesday 3rd October and all transport and most places of work (including mine) were shut as hundreds of thousands poured onto the streets across Catalonia. I myself headed in the see the surreal sight of the Mossos being forced to build a line between the Catalan protestors and the Spanish Police headquarters on Via Liaetana.
Despite this, the protest itself was good natured and peaceful (and no, I don’t mean the mostly peaceful of CNN’s imagination). The closest it came to aggression was from the deranged women who had come waving a tiny Spanish flag in the world’s most obvious attempt to try to get bad publicity for the opposition. She was ignored and eventually moved on.
However, determined not to be outdone, the anti-Separatists weren’t to miss out on the fun as on Sunday the 8th, Catalans against independence (and a significant contingent of people who had come by train and bus from other parts of Spain) would hold their own counter demonstration. This one was decidedly less jovial. It had an aggressive tone from the start, further baiting on by calling for politicians to be sent to prison (the logical extension we can see today, with Abascal calling for political parties who are in favour of separatism to be outlawed). It would get worse as some genius had left the small gate to Parc de la Ciutadella open but had placed two Mossos police vans in front of the (closed) main gate.
Predictably, the crowd chose not to walk to the main protest square but surround the now-handful of marooned Mossos (no Spanish police to defend them). Before long, they were penned in on all sides by an increasingly hostile and aggressive crowd, who sensed weakness. It would only take one person to do something incredible stupid… Eventually, the police pulled back into the vans and retreated but not before the main gate had been broken open and a crowd had tried to smash their way into the back of the retreating van. I’ll guess we’ll have to call it “largely peaceful”.
All this would come to a head when on 27th October 2017 the Separatists were back on the streets, gathered in the same spot where a few weeks earlier people had been calling for the people they had voted for to be arrested. Amidst celebrating crowds, cracking open bottles of cava as the (incredibly short-lived) UDI was declared, the camera pans to a couple jumping up and down with one miserable bloke in front, who doesn’t think this will end well. That miserable bloke was me (here, start 30 seconds in and just look for the miserable git with his arms folded).
There would be no happy ending for the separatists of course. Puigdemont would be on the run before the year was out, another Catalan regional election would solve nothing and Vox would ride the wave of discontent to a breakthrough in the 2018 Andulucian regional election, booting out PSOE for the first time in history. A shell-shocked Susana Diaz would be left fighting for her political life and Vox have only grown in stature across Spain since.
What strikes me looking back, is that although the actors may change, the story remains the same. The great white hype of Albert Rivera is no more after his career rose and then was destroyed in 2019. The great survivor Rajoy has gone, Sanchez is in. No change, as the Spanish Court sent the organisers to prison last October (fuelling the riots that burned their way through Barcelona). Mas gives way to Puigdemont, who flees to give way to the teddy bear of Oriol Junqueras as the most high-profile public figure (he received a 13-year prison sentence). After him, we now have a new bunch of martyrs waiting in the wings. The only real winner in all this has been Abascal.
Regardless of what side they are on, everyone involved is trapped in the same lie. That lie being Spain’s current political settlement and constitution can put this question to bed one way or another. It cannot… and as Catalonia moves towards yet another election, I don’t think it will be long until the fires start burning again.
All photos were taken by and remain the property of Edward Anderson.