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A Catalan View of the Self-Determination Referendum

Since 2012, more than 75% of Catalan citizens, together with the parliamentary majority that supports the Catalan government, have demanded a self-determination referendum–namely, a referendum of the same sort as those allowed in the past in the United States (Puerto Rico), Canada (Quebec), and the United Kingdom (Scotland). This demand received parliamentary expression in two referendum bills passed by the Catalan Parliament and one legislative proposal to the lower chamber of the Spanish Parliament. It has also had a social expression in large demonstrations organized by civil-society associations in Barcelona and other Catalan localities. Several scholars maintain that a self-determination referendum can be held legally under Spain’s Constitution. The Spanish Government and the main state-wide parties (PP, PSOE, and Ciudadanos), using their qualified majority in the Spanish Parliament, have rejected this possibility since 2012. These parties have equally refused to include a referendum of this sort in the Constitution.

In September 2017, after several failed attempts by the Catalan government and political forces to reach an agreement with the Spanish government, the Catalan Parliament passed the “Law on a referendum of self-determination.” This law was initially suspended by Spain’s Constitutional Court. Nonetheless, appealing to the political legitimacy of the suspended law, the Catalan government decided to implement it by organizing the referendum of October 1, 2017, on the independence of Catalonia.

The Spanish Government used a range of judicial and repressive measures to stop the referendum while seizing materials used to organize the vote (e.g., ballots and ballot boxes). These measures included, among others: several arrests; the deployment of more than 10,000 extra police agents from the rest of Spain; the filing of criminal charges against Catalan MPs, government officials, and 700 majors; searches in several Catalan ministries and units (including IEA) and private enterprises; the censoring of 140 websites, including official sites and apps; and bans of public events on the referendum.

The Spanish government’s actions have affected fundamental rights, such as the right not to be treated in a cruel, inhuman, or degrading way; right to liberty and freedom from arbitrary arrest; right to inviolability of correspondence and one’s home; right to freedom of ideology, expression, and assembly; right to a fair trial and not to be charged with a criminal offense on account of any act or omission that did not constitute a criminal offense under national or international law. On October 1, Spanish police forces in Catalonia used violence against citizens at polling stations, injuring more than 800 hundred people in an attempt to stop the referendum. However, 2.3 million Catalans (42% of the census) voted and 2 million (90%) voted for independence. These repressive actions, which will be investigated, were denounced by Human Rights Watch, the Council of Europe’s human rights chief, and the top United Nations’ human rights official. Last week, a judge denied bail to two pro-independence leaders who are being investigated for alleged sedition, charges that are similar to those facing several Catalan MPs and government officials.

At the moment of this writing, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, announced that he will remove Catalonia’s leaders and initiate direct rule of the region under Article 155 of the Constitution, thus suspending Catalonia’s self-government institutions.

by Carles Viver i Pi-Suner, Director, Institut d’Estudis Autonòmics (IEA)