Independence vote 5 years on: impact, legacy, why movement is now drifting

Experts say referendum was 'most important challenge' to Spain in decades but leaders did not think about 'what to do after'

Politics experts Dani Cetrà and Toni Rodon taking part in the Catalan News podcast
Politics experts Dani Cetrà and Toni Rodon taking part in the Catalan News podcast / Alicia Egorov
Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | @enGuifre | Barcelona

October 1, 2022 12:53 PM

October 1, 2022 01:02 PM

People sleeping in schools across Catalonia for a whole weekend to make sure they were not cordoned off, volunteers showing up in the early morning of October 1, 2017 with ballot boxes and ballots, hundreds of thousands of voters queuing outside polling stations… and all of a sudden, thousands of Spanish police officers trying to stop the vote using batons in dozens of locations.

The referendum on independence organized by the Catalan government despite the Spanish Constitutional Court's ban, ended up taking place, also due to the collaboration of a discreet network of volunteers, took place five years ago and meant the peak of tension the Spanish and Catalan administrations have witnessed since the dictator Francisco Franco's dictatorship.

The build-up of this situation had been a sharp surge of the independence sentiment at the beginning of the 2010s following a judicial decision partly ruling unconstitutional the newly approved basic law on Catalonia's self-rule within Spain.

Years of demonstrations, an unofficial consultation on independence in 2014, years-long legal batlle and no interest of Madrid in agreeing on a vote like Britain did with Scotland in 2012 ended up in a clash 5 years ago that also included a declaration of independence on October 27 in Catalonia.

In Madrid, the Spanish government sacked the Catalan cabinet, imposed direct rule and the judiciary jailed nine referendum leaders that would end up convicted to decade-long sentences (and in 2021 pardoned) while six others exiled to avoid trial.

Five years on, Catalan News looks back at what happened with a podcast, reflecting on the impact and legacy of the referendum and how much of a game-changer for the independence campaign it was – to the extent that a full unity of the movement that was key to hold the referendum has now vanished and the pro-independence cooperation to govern Catalonia is on the brink of bursting after a decade.

We have spoken two political science experts: Toni Rodon, an assistant professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), in Barcelona, and also fellow at the LSE in London; and Dani Cetrà, currently a Beatriu de Pinós post-doctoral researcher at the University of Barcelona and former research fellow at the University of Edinburgh for a decade.

How could we describe what happened on October 1, 2017?

Toni Rodon (TR): It was an act of civil disobedience and a sovereignty act for many people, but also for a small portion of Catalans and an important portion of the Spanish population, also an act of disobedience and an illegal act. The referendum sort of took place, it was normal in some polling stations and 117 other polling stations they received visits from the police and, in many occasions, even with violence.

Dani Cetrà (DC): The [Spanish police] violence [to stop the vote] turned what was going to be another failed attempt by the Catalan independence movement to obtain a clear mandate for independence into a symbol of collective resistance.

TR: To me, the October 1, 2017 referendum is probably the most important challenge to the Constitution, the constitutional architecture of Spain, since the coup d'état in 1981.

Some 2.3 million people participated in the vote, 90% of which voting for independence, but just above 40% of the turnout. How did the police crackdown impact on turnout?

TR: Police interventions had a negative impact where they took place, the turnout was lower there. Yet, violence triggered a spatial spillover effect: in places nearby, people participated a little bit more. Not only due to people travelling from the towns where officers intervened, but also because people that did not want to vote in first place turned up, people that have dual identity, that is, feeling both Spaniard and Catalan.

What was the international impact of the vote, marred by the Spanish police violence trying to stop it?

DC: In the short-term, there was a degree of damage to Spain's international reputation, and then in the medium-term, Spain managed to do some damage control and there was a reactive element to it. Indeed, in 2018, the Spanish government set up a secretary of state of Global Spain in order to improve their image abroad. It no longer exists now.

Experts have their say on the independence referendum 5 years on: meaning, legacy, way forward / Guifré Jordan / Alicia Egorov

TR: One of the big implications we observed is that, as reported by many indicators compiled by international organizations, the quality of democracy in Spain has gone down. In Spain, the erosion of the democratic quality essentially comes from the Spanish government not wanting to find a way, either through a referendum or another, to fix the territorial problem.

The referendum led to a declaration of independence a few weeks later. Yet, five years on, not only is Catalonia not independent, but the movement to achieve this goal is drifting.

DC: In the short-term, it was political success for the [independence] movement. It was a major grievance against Spain, it delegitimized Spain. But on another level, in the medium-term, that political capital was lost. Perhaps so much emphasis was placed on the logistics of the referendum and making it possible despite the judiciary and political activity going on, that less thinking was placed on what to do after the referendum. The vote was organized in the assumption that a unilateral referendum would force the Spanish government to negotiate, but they did not change their position.

Speaking of the future, if we focus on the deadlock that we have now, one important element is party politics: in Catalonia we have two pro-independence parties of roughly the same size who disagree on strategy and leadership. That's very different from the Scottish case, where the SNP dominates the timing and the case of independence very comfortably. So one thing that could help internally would be for one of these two parties to become clearly dominant within the pro-independence camp.

TR: The vote was absolutely crucial, it led to a crisis within the independence camp on what to do next. The question that has not been asnwered yet. Also, the breach between one bloc and the other (the unionists) is wider than ever. Positions are entrenched and will be for a while.

Does the independence sentiment remain strong?

TR: There is something that has not changed: there is an important portion of Catalans who still today favor a change in the status quo. So, if we count pro-independence supporters and those who favor a federal solution, we would be talking about 60% to 70% of the population. Pro-independence supporters make up around 40%.

How does the 2017 referendum in Catalonia differ from Scotland's campaign?

DC: In Scotland we had a negotiated referendum, with the 2012 agreement between David Cameron and Alex Salmond, to establish the conditions to sit temporarily the competence to hold referendums to the Scottish parliament. They agreed on a question, an electoral commission, a campaign, etc. In fact the campaign was all about pensions, pound v euro, whether they would remain in EU… It was a very rational debate on what was best for Scots.

Now Scotland is behaving like Catalonia in 2014 or 2015. Maybe the state tolerates the referendum, or agrees to, but if there's a clear cut opposition, what will they do? It is a tricky situation, that's why we see both movements are stuck.

TR: To me this touches upon the minority v majority problem. What would happen if 100% of Catalans were pro-independence? Would Spain block it? We do not know it! How could a minority change the status quo?