The Catalan people are voting today on whether their region should become independent from Spain. Here’s what you need to know.

What is the Catalan referendum about?

Catalonia will hold a binding referendum this Sunday, 1 October. Residents in the region will be able to vote on the question, “do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” The referendum law was passed by the two main separatist parties (Junts Pel Sí and Esquerra Republica Catalana) in the Catalan Parliament on 6 September, with regional president Carles Puigdemont as the de facto leader of the independence movement.

Why do some Catalans want independence?

For years the independence movement was supported by a small number of Catalans, gaining momentum only when the region’s revised statute of autonomy failed to gain approval in 2010. Economic problems played a big role in the movement’s ascent: many complain that Catalonia contributes a disproportionate amount of taxes to central authorities in Madrid, while not receiving enough funding for basic needs in the region.

Underlying the economic argument is a strong sense of nationalism and a struggle for autonomy. Throughout the Middle Ages, Catalonia had maintained its own laws and institutions, only to lose them in 1714 when the Bourbon king, Philip V, abolished autonomy and suppressed the Catalan language and culture. During the 19th century, the region’s rise as an industrial powerhouse fueled a wave of nationalism and a call for autonomy. Catalan autonomy was brief during the 20th century, and Francisco Franco’s regime (1939 – 1975) saw further repression of Catalan identity.

The experiences of the past three hundred years instilled a strong sense of nationalism and autonomy in Catalans. No longer satisfied with present relations with Madrid, many Catalans believe that their region should run its own affairs.

What is Madrid’s position?

The referendum law was declared illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain, while authorities in Madrid, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the minority governing People’s Party (Partido Popular, or PP) vowed to prevent the referendum taking place. Rajoy has repeatedly said that there will not be a referendum.

In response, the Attorney General’s office in Madrid identified more than 700 municipal mayors in Catalonia who could face charges of disobedience, perversion of justice, and misuse of public funds in support of the referendum. Under orders from the government, national police have raided printing offices in search of voting ballots and materials, shut down Catalan websites connected to the referendum, and detained key members of the Catalan government.

catalan independence t-shirts saying vote yes si junts pel si
“Vote Yes” t-shirts were widely available during celebrations of La Diada, 11 September 2017. Photo credit: John Bartlett/Jericho.

What are the polls saying?

Polls are decidedly mixed. One recent poll conducted by the Institute of Opinion Review and published by the Catalan newspaper from July 22 showed that 41.1% of voters would vote in favour of independence, 37.8% against and the rest undecided. As the referendum approached, according to a poll published by the Financial Times the intention to vote ‘No’ surged as potential ‘Yes’ voters were dissuaded. Many have already decided to boycott the vote.

How have tensions arisen?

Relations between Catalonia and Madrid have worsened over the past few weeks. Following the arrest of the 14 cabinet members in Barcelona, thousands took to the streets to protest. In turn, the central government has deployed thousands of police officers for fear of violence, while the Attorney General, José Manuel Maza, suggested that Puigdemont could be arrested for holding the referendum.

Police forces had been ordered to prevent voting stations from opening on Sunday morning, while organisers have called on citizens to occupy voting stations from Friday night until Sunday to guarantee the referendum will take place. Despite increased pressure from Madrid, Puigdemont insisted that there will be a vote.

What is the international response to the Catalan referendum?

Although largely viewed as an internal affair, the referendum has elicited international responses as tensions continue to rise. The United Nations Office of the High Commission issued a statement on 28 September urging Spanish authorities to not “interfere with the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association, and public participation”.

President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said in a live interview earlier this month that the commission “will respect a Catalan vote”, while noting that an independent Catalonia would have to apply to join the EU.

What will happen if the majority of Catalans vote ‘yes’?

The referendum law stated that the region will declare independence within 48 hours if a majority votes for yes. Afterwards, what would happen is hard to predict. However, Madrid has promised to do everything it can to prevent a secession.


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