I arrived in Barcelona today in the afternoon. From the El Prat Airport, I took a bus into the city that dropped me off at the Plaza Catalunya. My first impression is that of a city gripped by an overwhelming sense of normalcy. One reason is that Barcelona’s city center has more foreigners than Catalans on any given day and today is a beautiful, sunny autumn day. Yet on the day before Catalans are finally going to have their chance to participate in a consultation-of-sorts on their relationship with Spain, it was difficult even to see very many outward signs of this imminent event. Not even the senyera, Catalonia’s red, yellow and blue flag of independence, was in much evidence; but I hadn’t seen it much in my last trip to the city in October either.
I began to walk to the headquarters of Ómnium where I had been invited to a press conference for foreign journalists. Ómnium is one of the two principal pro-independence civic organizations in the region along with the Catalan National Assembly (ANC). Once out of the plaza and onto some of the side streets, more signs appeared: a few more flags and many posters stuck on bus stops, on walls, on light posts. The posters all bore the #9N2014 hashtag and all included information of where to find more information on how to vote, where to vote and what the requirements were. Lots of posters everywhere.
At the press conference, an American reporter for the Huffington Post inquired about difficulties and barriers to organizing the 9N event. Ricard Gené, one of the panel members and International Commission Director for the ANC, said that there had been some cyberattacks on websites related to voting instructions (www.participa2014.cat) and to websites related to the ANC, Ómnium and to the Generalitat itself (www.assemblea.cat , www.araeslhora.cat , web.gencat.cat ). These “denial of service” attacks had sporadically overloaded servers and prevented the websites from loading on browsers. Mr. Gené also mentioned that similar “denial of service” attacks had been launched at cellphones of leading members of the ANC and Ómnium, with several calls per minute being received, plus the resulting “missed call” messages. That had been going on all day.
I have been unable to independently verify the service denial claims on the websites, as they have all been working since I began checking. The www.assemblea.cat website appears to be down, but the alternate site at www.catalanassembly.org is working. I will continue to check tomorrow throughout the day. Mr. Gené and two other ANC members did allow me to look at their cellphone call logs and I did see between 2 and 4 calls per minute starting at approximately 8 a.m. and running through 1850, which is when I looked. That’s 1,950 calls, plus an approximately equal number of missed call messages.
These attacks had occurred before, during the organization of Catalonia’s national day, La Diada, on September 11th. At the time, the affected organizations had decided not to go public; they felt that it would serve no good purpose, would distract from the organization of the celebration, and would only encourage mocking cries of “Catalan victimization” from those elements in Spain that oppose the consultation process. This time, however, it appears that several people intend to make a formal police complaint.
At around 10 p.m., the city woke up. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people went out on their balconies or simply opened their windows and began beating on pots and pans. It reminded me of the “cacerolazos” in Buenos Aires during the protests against the de la Rúa government. Soon the motorists joined in by beeping their horns and pedestrians could be seen clapping in time to the banging pots. The whole area that I walked through, the neighborhood known as Eixample, was in pandemonium for about 30 minutes. Perhaps it was because FC Barcelona had come from behind to beat Almería 2-1 in the Spanish league match that day; but the game had been played at 4 p.m. The neighborhoods south of the Avenida Diagonal are known to be more supportive of independence than those to the north of that thoroughfare, and this seemed to be simply one more manifestation of their desire to have their voices, and their pots, heard.
I’ll be visiting voting stations tomorrow and seeing how the process unfolds. If I can, I plan to get out of Barcelona and visit one of the satellite towns, like Terrassa, where pro-independence feeling tends to be higher than in the capital. I’ll try to interview some volunteers and some voters as well. I don’t anticipate anything untoward: the Spanish Interior Minister and the Mossos d’Escuadra have issued statements saying that they will only respond to disturbances in a normal manner. Since the Catalans have been insisting for years that theirs is a totally peaceful and democratic movement, it is unlikely that there will be any need for police intervention.
An Exercise in Futility?
The Spanish government realizes that a heavy hand now would be counterproductive. After all, the “consultation” lacks all legal legitimacy: the legal consultation is still suspended in the Constitutional Court, where it may languish for years or decades given the infamous slowness of the Spanish legal system – especially when there are interests in having the case drag out. The current 9N is there really nothing more than a mass rally, from a legal point of view, and the Catalans have had plenty of those.
The Partido Popular would love to see the “consultation” fall flat on its face: a miniscule voter turnout, for example, would take much wind out of the sails of the pro-independence movement. The counter-argument that people aren’t bothering because the event has been stripped of all significance – while possibly true – will not play as well internationally. After all, this event has the full backing of Catalan civil organizations, political parties and even the tacit backing of the Govern. Almost better to have cancelled the whole thing rather than have a few hundred thousand people turnout.
On the other hand, the Spanish government ought to be worried that a few million people turn up to cast their votes. Even if they are all pro-independence, and none of the “No-No” or “Si-No” voters show up, if the turnout is sufficiently large, it has to be taken as a confirmation that Catalan independence is truly a mass movement, not one directed by a few schemers and malcontents at the ANC, nor the personal megalomania of Mr. Artur Mas. In the 2012 regional elections, there were 5.4 million eligible voters in Catalonia: if 2.4 million votes are cast tomorrow, it would mean that 50% of the enfranchised Catalan population favors independence and 90% of them turned out. That would be a tremendously powerful statement and add a great deal of political legitimacy to “the process”, though no legal legitimacy.
Such a turnout could have a number of important impacts:
- It might begin to seriously spook markets. JP Morgan and Moodys have already issued warnings against purchasing Spanish bonds because of political risks stemming from Catalonia and Podemos. A large “Si-Si” vote tomorrow would confirm that risk, and bond investors may begin to favor Irish or even Portuguese debt over Spanish. The Spanish risk premium doesn’t have to increase all that much for negative impacts to begin to be felt: especially since corporate bonds will track that sovereign and Spain really doesn’t need an economic slowdown right now. Or perhaps I should say more of an economic slowdown; there are already signs that Spain’s growth may be cooling off;
- It will add to the growing list of foreign civic and political leaders who are calling on the Spanish government to let the Catalans vote and then negotiate a settlement with them. A peaceful and large turnout will confirm that this is a democratic and legitimate process, whatever the Spanish Constitutional Court may say. Spain does not have a particularly good historical record on this account: it offered Cuba an association status after the Spanish-American War had already started and the Cubans obviously told Madrid off as “the yanquis are already coming.” There is every indication that the Partido Popular will repeat this pattern; it will only accept negotiation once presented with a fait accompli and once negotiation is no longer possible;
- It would bring greater pressure on the Constitutional Court to consider the expressed demands of a significant fraction of Catalonia; it is not likely to change their opinion, since the Spanish Constitution is crystal clear on this point. But it may cause them to insert into their verdict conciliatory language that the Spanish government may not want or like. The government wants a plain “no”: but the Court may go further and give an opinion on the political legitimacy of Catalan demands for a consultation, even if there is no constitutional A subtle point perhaps, but the Spanish government doesn’t want subtle: it wants an end to the matter;
- It will boost both Mr. Mas and also Esquerra Republicana. Mr. Mas will now be able to say that he lived up to his promise to have Catalans vote – in a fashion – on the 9th of November. Esquerra Republicana will nevertheless counter that it was Mr. Mas’ flim-flamming in early October that prevented the Catalans from have an official, state-sponsored consultation. Whenever the next elections in Catalonia are held, I think it unlikely that Mr. Mas will be able to recover the ground lost to ERC. They are too firmly entrenched as the pro-independence party.
Tomorrow is the voting. On Monday we’ll learn the results. Nothing else will happen: it will be the pause before the storm. The lead up to 9N must have been incredibly draining to all the organizers: they are going to need some time off to recharge their batteries.
On the one hand, the Catalans are going to have to decide how long they are willing to wait for the Constitutional Court to make up its mind. The precautionary suspension of organizing activities expires in March 2015, so the Generalitat could theoretically organize a new, formal consultation at that time even without a Court verdict. If pro-independence parties become exasperated enough, though, they will call a snap election and use it as a de facto referendum on independence. Esquerra Republicana has said more than once that they will declare unilateral independence the day after forming a government.
The Spanish Government will continue to conduct a legal holding action. The Attorney General has said that it will open investigations on any public authority that violates the Court-ordered suspension and allows voting to take place on public property. And the Constitutional Court will continue to drag on in its deliberations. There are arguments both for and against a quick decision; but the verdict is unlikely to settle the matter, only to precipitate a Catalan snap election. In the end, only negotiation can convince the Catalans that they are better off in Spain, but so far the government’s approach is convincing more and more citizens of the opposite.
Time is running out for Mariano Rajoy: in 2015, there will be both municipal and general elections and the latest polls have Podemos running a close second to the Partido Popular. A few more corruption scandals – and there are sure to be at least a few more given the rotten state of the Spanish political system – and Podemos may be in a position to form a government. Mr. Rajoy has said, with echoes of Mario Draghi, that “no one will break the unity of Spain as long as he is in charge. No one.” Yet Mr. Rajoy may not be in charge anymore in January 2016.
Then all bets are off.