Catalonia Prepares for Referendum That Spanish Government Vows to Stop

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Getting ready for Sunday. Photo: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Catalonia, a region of northeast Spain with a population of 7.5 million, is moving ahead with a hugely contentious independence referendum to be held on Sunday as Spain’s central government pledges to prevent it from taking place.

The Spanish government has confiscated ballot boxes, detained Catalan officials, blocked electoral websites, and threatened sedition charges for anyone who helps facilitate the vote. Thousands of Spanish police officers have been deployed to Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, and other towns, leading to the potential for confrontation or even violence. Catalans have begun to occupy polling places, challenging security forces to kick them out.

“The government will have big difficulties stopping the referendum in the territory, the state simply cannot control the whole region, but they will try to prevent it taking place in key areas such as Barcelona,” Lluis Orriols Galve, a professor of politics at the Carlos III University of Madrid, told Al Jazeera.

Polls have shown that support for independence has hovered below 50 percent, with the vast majority of people approving of the chance to put the issue to a vote.

In 2010, Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down a law that would have given Catalonia “nation status” within Spain. The court also blocked a 2014 attempt at a referendum, which evolved into a nonbinding poll in which 80 percent of voters favored independence — but with less than half of the electorate participating. The leader who orchestrated that vote, Artur Mas, was banned from holding public office for two years.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who fiercely opposes the referendum, has much to lose politically. If Catalonia votes for independence, or the vote turns into a fiasco, he could be pushed out of power.

Catalonia, where residents speak Catalan as opposed to the Castilian Spanish spoken almost everywhere else in the country, has maintained a strong regional identity for hundreds of years, and its history has been punctuated with bouts of separatist fervor dating back to the 17th century. “We have been waiting for this moment for 300 years,” one enthusiastic teenager told the New York Times.

Catalonia briefly became its own republic within the Iberian Federation in the early 1930s, and Barcelona was at the vanguard of resistance to General Francisco Franco. But after Franco triumphed in the country’s traumatic civil war, he repressed Catalan culture during his decades in power. After Franco died and Spain transitioned to democracy in the mid-1970s, Barcelona was granted semi-autonomous status, and the region developed into an economically thriving tourist magnet, boosted by Barcelona’s successful 1992 Olympics. Catalonia is the country’s most prosperous region.

Spain was left economically devastated by the global recession that began in 2008, with unemployment rates rivaling the United States during the Great Depression. Many Catalans resented the central government’s role in the country’s crisis and felt that Catalonia, as an economic powerhouse, was being shortchanged by Madrid. Such economic grievances fueled the thirst for true independence in the region, which had never really gone away.

If Catalonia does vote for independence and manages to break away from Spain, both sides are likely take a hit. Whether Catalonia could prosper as an independent nation is an open question — as is what will happen on Sunday.

Catalonia Prepares for Highly Contentious Referendum