The elusive path to Ithaca
Beyond the boundaries of Barcelona and the metropolitan area, between the mountains and the far west plains, in those stone and brick villages where the ancient traditions are still visible behind the veil of modernity, is where one can find the core sentiment of Catalan nationalism.
Villages where the industrial revolution seems to have forgotten about their existence long time ago and their economies depend mainly of traditional farming. Villages which, not so long ago, started to embrace city refugees, whom, with their new perspectives, at times have created a symbiotic relationship between the old order and a new one which is pushing hard. A world of tractors and cellphones, cows and laptops, sinuous roads and Internet, is also the home of a nationalism that has switched from a comfortable traditionalism to a somewhat more revolutionary political thought.
Situated on the north-east of the Iberian peninsula, Catalonia occupies a territory similar to Holland and has a bit more than 7.5 million inhabitants. Close to 70% of its territory is considered rural and agricultural, but following the XX century migrations to the large cities where industry and commerce thrived, these regions only account for about the 30% of the total population today.
But this demographic balance is key to understand what has happened after that former Catalan President, Artur Mas, whom as a captain of a ship that was about to start a long and uncertain voyage, would pronounce in 2012 the words: “We have put route to Ithaca”, as a clear allusion to Homer's epic poem and the hard-shifts that the Catalans would have to face for independence, an independence which still seems hidden behind the horizon and where no one seems capable to tell if even the prow is pointing in the right direction.
On October 1st the Catalans were called for the first time to the polls in a short lived attempt to vote for the independence of Catalonia in a referendum which seemed to violate the constitutional laws that look out for the unity of Spain. Responding to such a defiance, the Spanish Government declared illegal the referendum and started a judicial crackdown which would start with the attempt of the police to cease ballots and polling boxes, culminating in the rough images of anti-riot police forces forcing their entrance in the polling schools which where seen around the globe.
The referendum of October 1st was long prepared before the voting. According to people that were involved in the organization, all was done in a strict secrecy, as a spy story, no one knew the full dimension of the operation to avoid that someone could alert the police. Some days before the voting, and always according to the fonts, several vehicles crossed the border of France into Spain transporting the ballots and boxes which where hidden in a warehouse close to Perpignan and trying to avoid the confiscation by part of the Spanish police. From there on, at an undisclosed location, one person responsible of each polling school was alerted to pick up the box and ballots and urged to keep it in a hidden location until the election day.
Though the civil society was already mobilized through the campaign carried out by ANC (National Catalan Assembly), on September 29th, and following the order of the Spanish court to seal all the polling schools, people started to gather hoping to avoid their closure. In some schools there was a massive response as in the village of Riudaura where locals kept guard day and night until the voting journey. But this call was responded in an irregular manner and some schools which were not watched for, were found sealed on the voting day.
October 1st started with excitement and uncertainty. From 8 AM on, little by little people gathered at the front door of the school to vote and to protect the school from a possible police action. There was a great feeling of solidarity, it was evident that there was one aim, one goal, that tightened the ties of social coexistence.
The morning was tense, the computer program that had to register the voters started failing minutes after the schools opened while harsh images of the police charging in different schools started flooding the cellphones of the participants. Some false alarms happened triggering nervousness and a clear resistance spirit but in the afternoon things calmed down a bit.
With the closure of the polling schools it became evident that, for the people there, they had achieved an historical milestone, suddenly all the restrained pressure transformed in to laughter cheers and celebration with a deep patriotic feeling before the accumulated tension would overcome the spirit of the assistants and would guide them home.
Despite the dramatic images of the police charging against some schools and fighting, at times viciously, against the people who were using passive resistance to avoid the cease of the polling boxes, in most locations the voting unfolded with no remarkable incidences.
That same night, the regional TV showed a clear victory of pro-separatism after the vote recount. But it also showed a reality that was a bit more dim. Only 43% of the electorate participated in the polls, and despite the Catalan parties blamed the police actions as the cause of such a low participation, it was evident that the results did not even represent the 50% of the population. The numbers also gave a second lecture though: in the city of Barcelona and it's metropolitan area there was a low participation, around 30-35%, while in the countryside and province cities the participation moved between the 60% and 80%. These figures gave an impression that there was an important division of opinion depending on the territories.
The following days became days of speculation and uncertainty. While in all the villages and cities there were demonstrations of solidarity for those who where injured by the police charges, the life continued as normal while in bars and on the streets everyone speculated with what would be the next move.
On October 10th all seemed prepared for the independence declaration. Many people from all over Catalonia gathered at the surroundings of the parliament, those who could not move to the capital, filled the bars from their villages and cities hoping to hear the proclamation of the Catalan Republic. The parliament session was scheduled for 5 PM, but in a last apparent attempt to achieve consensus with other political parties, the session started two hours late. At 7:40 PM sharp, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont announces the independence of Catalonia, suddenly the joy exploded between the spectators. Hugs, tears and screams filled the air for scarcely a few seconds, the few seconds that took the President to announce the temporary suspension of independence, moment in which a thick veil of confusion shaded the joy of many. But hope is strong, and most still believed that is was an astute tactic from the Catalan Government, after all, the incapacity of the Spanish executive to spoil the referendum gave a certain feeling of confidence and superiority towards the pro-separatist political parties. Few wanted to imagine that they were facing a cornered Government that was between the legal machinery of the Spanish state and the demands of their own voters bringing them to take an ambiguous decision.
It would not take long before the consequences of defying the Spanish state would become evident. Only a few days after the independence attempt, Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, presidents of the Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural, would be ordered to serve preventive prison under the charge of sedition following their involvement with the referendum campaign. Others like the Catalan Police Major, Josep Lluis Trapero, who was considered by separatists almost a hero for not using the police forces against them during the referendum, also had to face justice.
Following this outcome of the Spanish judiciary establishment, the Catalan society mobilized once more. The movements of the Spanish Government seemed to tare up the veil of confusion giving the separatists a glimpse of the ruthlessness from their adversary. Massive demonstrations in Barcelona followed, as well as other smaller ones in any other city or village of Catalonia. The separatist society demanded action and the end of the suspension that held the proclamation of the Catalan Republic. But it would not be until after ten days from the detention of the “Jordis” and the imminent application of the Article 155 by the Spanish Government, which would suspend the autonomous Government of Catalonia, that a dubious Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, would appear on a press conference to announce the necessary voting in the Parliament to lift the suspension of the Catalan Republic.
On the 27th of October, in an ordinary session, and with the unionist party seats empty, the Catalan Parliament voted in favor of lifting the ban on the independence declaration, only a few hours before the Senate in Madrid would approve the application of the 155.
The enthusiasm of the people was not that of October 1st or 10th though. Everybody knew that the Article 155 would shut for good any Independence attempts, and despite the people celebrated it that evening, it was obvious to some that it was another move of the Goverment to contempt their voters. The independence declaration was never published in the official bulletin of the Catalan Government, and even the Spanish flag continued to wave above the official buildings, evidencing that it never became official.
The game of independence reached a dead end, and now it would have to play according to the Spanish laws when, only three days after, Prime minister Mariano Rajoy announced new elections in Catalonia to constitute a new Government.
It was the last chance for separatism to show their social and political power hoping to force the international opinion in their favor. Using this context, and knowing that he could be indicted for sedition or rebellion, President Carles Puigdemont flees to Belgium while other politicians like Oriol Junqueras are arrested and incarcerated. Due to these last actions, the indignation grows in the separatist side which appeals to the authoritarian manners of the Spanish Government and the political campaign for the Catalan elections quickly transforms into an undercover referendum where very polarized positions stand hard on either side of the balance.
As it happened during the referendum, the election campaign had two different realities. In Barcelona and surroundings it was a harsh battle between the separatists and the unionists, while in the countryside the unionist parties hardly had any representation and all the attention fell on the separatist parties. But everyone knew that Barcelona was the key that could topple the balance to one side or other.
On December 20th, once more the poll boxes opened and people fled to cast their vote, it was not only a new parliament that had to be voted, it was, above all, the approval or disapproval of the separatist policies.
With a participation of 81.94%, the highest in Catalan history, the final results did not show any clear victory from either sides. In fact, the percentages were very similar to those of 2015 where the separatist parties would gain less than 50% of the votes but enough seats as to create a Government thanks to the d'Hondt method of proportionality.
Despite the tight victory of the separatist block on seats, the elections have evidenced that there is still much to be done to gain enough social support to do such a political move as to declare independence with major social support. But the scares that the process has opened since 2012 will be difficult to close in certain parts of Catalonia. Not even animadversion to Prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who many considered a separatist creator due to his harsh policies, managed to increase efficiently the separatist vote. Perhaps the fact that several well established companies moved out of Catalonia deterred many to follow the initial path to independence. Whatever the case, while still living the last shakes of the process, little by little, life will en up following the path of normality until a new “Messiah” of separatism appears in the horizon to guide his nation to a next defiance against the Spanish state.
By Xabier Mikel Laburu