Clash in Catalonia: Explaining the background of the October protests

Picture from the Barcelona protests of October 18th / On Flickr by Masha Gladkova

About a week has passed since Catalonian independence leaders were sentenced for sedition (inciting people to rebel against state authority) by the Supreme Court of Spain. Since then massive protests have followed, and every day people have taken to the streets of Barcelona, with Friday 18th reaching numbers of over half a million protesters. While the vast majority of protesters are peaceful, some more militant protest groups clashed with police in the city centre. This escalated into a riot with rock throwing and burning of garbage containers by protesters. Police retaliated using teargas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. The situation tenses further as Civil Guard reinforcements are called in and a protestor website shuts down. So how did we get here?

Before answering that question, we need to understand the pro-independence Catalonians motives for wanting to secede from Spain and becoming an autonomous state. There are two main reasons, the first being culture. Catalonia has its own distinct culture and traditions and, as many other parts of Spain, prides itself on its own regional identity and history. This cultural identity was heavily oppressed by the centralized state during the reign of Franco but  since his death the Catalonian culture has regained a more prominent role in (open) society.  

The second reason is economical. Catalonia is economically a strong region,while only constituting 16 percent of the countries population it produces 19 percent of the country’s GDP, produces 25.6 percent of Spain’s exports and is receiving 20.7 percent of all foreign investments. The region is thus an economic powerhouse of the country, but many Catalonians feel that this is not reflected in the returns they get from the Spanish government. Catalonians get taxed a lot but these taxes are being funneled into poorer regions of the country and not back to Catalonia.

With this context cleared up, a brief summary of the chain of events that lead to where we are now follows, starting from the first day of protesting and tracing back to the days of Franco and the Spanish Civil War.

Photo of the Catalonian flag / On Flicker by Fredrik Rubensson

The court ruling of October the 14th saw nine Catalonian politicians sentenced to between nine and thirteen years in prison for crimes of sedition as they had attempted to claim regional independence in 2017. Pro-independence groups had already promised to launch a civil disobedience campaign if the politicians were to be imprisoned and as the court verdict fell, they and many other protesters followed through on this promise. It could therefore be argued that the current protests are simply a continuation of the events that took place 2 years prior.

In 2017 the Catalonian government organised a referendum for independence from Spain. The central government responded by declaring the vote illegal as secession is forbidden in Spain’s constitution. The referendum was very controversial and had three major legitimacy problems, 1) there were no foreign observers and 2) a majority of “remain-supporters” decided to boycott the process and 3) Spain’s Central Government interfered. 

The Central Government’s response to the announcement of the referendum was to send the Spanish Civil Guard to stop the vote by raiding government headquarters, arresting politicians that were deemed responsible, blocking off voting locales, and physically hindering peoples’ movement. There was a large escalation of violence, as well as an internet shut down, as Civil Guard moved in with great amounts of force, this resulted in 844 people being injured, of those 19 were national police officers and 14 civil guard officers. The Civil Guard’s use of violence saw broad condemnation from many across the country, and it was also condemned by the EU. The referendum, according to its organizers, saw a landslide victory for the independence side with 90 percent to 10. However, voter turnout was merely at 43 percent, and the previously mentioned problems with the legitimacy makes this outcome hard to verify. At the time of the referendum the regional governments opinion polls only showed a 48 percent support for secession from Spain.   

Quim Torra – Regional president of Catalonia in November 14th 2018 / On Flickr by Gure Esku.

The current protests have thankfully not reached the same level of violence as in 2017. However, there are current worries of increased violence as the minister of internal affairs on Friday 18th elected to call in Civil Guard reinforcements. To add to the worries, a judge declared one of the separatist websites, Democratic Tsunami, illegal. Still, there is a different government today than during the events of 2017, and prior to the events this October the relations between the Central Government and Catalonia had improved considerably. 

But 2017 was not the first referendum, albeit the first full one. A symbolic referendum was held as early as 2014. This referendum was also ruled illegal by the Spanish government. Although The 2014 referendum had no judicial implications, shortly afterwards a separatist government did win the 2015 election. It was this government that organised the independence referendum of October 1st 2017.  

Catalonia’s level of self-governance has not been a linear process but has instead been a road with many turns and great uncertainty. These referendums are not the first attempts at increased independence in Catalonia, as a 2006 central state statute had previously increased their powers of self determination and had  given the region the official nomenclature of a “nation”. This was however reversed again in 2010. 

This was already the case when Catalonia gained its strengthened territorial rights as a result of the post Franco Statute of 1978, which was intended to reverse the dictator’s old centralisation policies. 

Historically the region enjoyed a high level of autonomy until the Civil War of 1936 between the Republicans and Nationalists. One of the main issues fought about in the Civil War was the question of regional autonomy. After the nationalists won the war general Francisco Franco, who was also the leader of the Falange party, was declared dictator. Franco took a firm centralisation stance and cracked down hard on any opposition using both police and military violence to crush dissidence, putting many of his political rivals in concentration camps. The memory of the dictator’s harsh policy has weighed heavily on the region, and the violence of 2017 brought back memories of Falange rule in the minds of many. The same fear of a return to violence lingers even today and only time will tell how the situation unfolds. 

So far, even though violent escalations have been comparatively tame, there are still no signals of negotiations between the Catalonian and Spanish governments. The Catalonian president, Quim Torra, has expressed a wish to have a new referendum, and is willing to engage in talks with Spain. He has also condemns the more aggressive protestors’ use of violence and wants a more peaceful approach. The central government however, wants to hold off on negotiations  stating that the violence of protesters has not been properly condemned. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez asked Torra to unequivocally condemn unrest and to build bridges with the population that wants to remain. Sanchez adds that independence is unconstitutional and won’t be the answer to their problems, instead pushing for coexistence


Daniel Bergdal

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