Re­main­ing silent has left the ma­jor­ity hang­ing in Cat­alo­nia

The Woolwich Observer - - COMMENT - GWYNNE DYER

IT’S BEEN GO­ING ON for a while. “Re­cently in Cat­alo­nia we have been liv­ing through a kind of ‘soft’ to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism … the il­lu­sion of una­nim­ity cre­ated by the fear of ex­press­ing dis­sent,” wrote best-sell­ing Cata­lan au­thor Javier Cer­cas in the Span­ish news­pa­per El Pais in 2014. Those who didn’t want in­de­pen­dence kept their heads down and their mouths shut, in other words.

Three years later, it has just got worse. Last July, lead­ing Cata­lan film­maker Is­abel Coixet told The Ob­server that “Madrid is deaf and mute and the gov­ern­ment here (in Cat­alo­nia) is re­ally happy about that. They never re­ally look for di­a­logue at all.” She added that Cata­lans are afraid of speak­ing out “for fear of be­ing called fas­cists.”

That about sums it up. Opinion polls con­sis­tently show that a ma­jor­ity of the peo­ple who live in Cat­alo­nia want it to re­main part of Spain. The lat­est, pub­lished in El Pais on Satur­day, showed that 55 per cent of those polled op­posed the dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence in the Cata­lan par­lia­ment last week, with only 41 per cent in favour.

That’s an even more de­ci­sive re­jec­tion of sep­a­ra­tion from Spain than a poll com­mis­sioned by the Cata­lan gov­ern­ment and pub­lished just be­fore the dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence, which came out 49-41 per cent in favour of re­main­ing in Spain. Yet the news cov­er­age was all about flag­wav­ing na­tion­al­ist crowds de­mand­ing in­de­pen­dence, be­cause the silent ma­jor­ity was stay­ing low.

Fi­nally, on Sun­day, a big pro-Span­ish crowd came out in the streets of Barcelona: 300,000 peo­ple ac­cord­ing to the po­lice, more than a mil­lion ac­cord­ing to the or­ga­niz­ers. About the same size as the pro-in­de­pen­dence crowds, there­fore, but they left it rather late. The sep­a­ratist strat­egy has worked well, and by now the fat is re­ally in the fire.

The sep­a­ratists’ prob­lem was this: no opinion poll has ever shown a ma­jor­ity for in­de­pen­dence since the cur­rent up­surge in Cata­lan na­tion­al­ism be­gan about eight years ago. For the past few years the ‘yes’ vote has been stuck at around 40 per cent. You can hardly de­clare in­de­pen­dence for the re­gion with­out a vote of some kind, so what do you do?

A ref­er­en­dum is bet­ter than an elec­tion, be­cause it’s a sin­gle-is­sue vote that will re­ally get the faith­ful out. But how do you pre­vent the more nu­mer­ous scep­tics from vot­ing too? Well, the Span­ish con­sti­tu­tion is a great help there, be­cause it says that a ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence for any of Spain’s re­gions would be il­le­gal. So if you hold one, maybe the true na­tion­al­ists will vote de­spite the law, while the rest obey the law and stay away.

They road-tested this model three years ago with an ‘ad­vi­sory’ ref­er­en­dum that the Madrid gov­ern­ment sort of tol­er­ated (though it said it was il­le­gal), and it worked just fine. Only 37 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion voted, but 80 per cent of those who did show up voted ‘yes’ to in­de­pen­dence

That’s the kind of num­ber you could re­ally use to jus­tify declar­ing in­de­pen­dence, even if it’s a bit of a cheat. If any­body com­plains, just shrug your shoul­ders, say you wish the turnout had been higher, and carry on do­ing what you want to do: declar­ing in­de­pen­dence. And so it came to pass.

The in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum on Oc­to­ber 1 was the real thing, not ‘ad­vi­sory’ at all. Rather late in the day Span­ish Prime Min­is­ter Maria Ra­joy re­al­ized that the in­de­pen­den­tis­tas in­tended to use the re­sult as a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for a dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence, so he got a court judge­ment con­firm­ing that the ref­er­en­dum was il­le­gal and sent the po­lice in to shut it down.

The Cata­lan na­tion­al­ists had fore­seen this, and wel­comed it. Noth­ing could be bet­ter for the cause than im­ages of Span­ish po­lice drag­ging women out of polling booths, and the up­roar would keep even the hardi­est ‘no’ vot­ers away. The turnout this time was a bit higher, at 43 per cent, and so was the ‘yes’ vote: 90

per cent. Very grat­i­fy­ing.

With that ma­nip­u­lated re­sult in hand, the pres­i­dent of Cat­alo­nia’s re­gional gov­ern­ment, na­tion­al­ist leader Car­les Puigde­mont, de­clared in­de­pen­dence last week. The Span­ish cen­tral gov­ern­ment im­me­di­ately dis­solved the re­gional par­lia­ment, re­moved Puigede­mont and his cab­i­net from of­fice, and an­nounced a fresh re­gional elec­tion for De­cem­ber 21.

It’s all strictly in ac­cord with Ar­ti­cle 155 of the Span­ish con­sti­tu­tion, and Puigde­mont prob­a­bly fore- saw this too. He has al­ways been three moves ahead of Madrid. Mean­while, Spain’s Deputy Prime Min­is­ter So­raya Saenz de San­ta­maria now has the job of run­ning Cat­alo­nia un­til the elec­tion, and she will prob­a­bly have a very dif­fi­cult time.

Puigde­mont is now of­fi­cially a mar­tyr in the eyes of his fel­low sep­a­ratists, and Spain says that he will be al­lowed to run in the De­cem­ber elec­tion, so he has lost noth­ing. Un­less the silent ma­jor­ity find their voices, he may yet be the first pres­i­dent of the Cata­lan Repub­lic.

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