Catalonia Adamant for Secessionism


Photo source: Fortune
By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Since 2011, Catalonia has turned their bank holiday of September 2011 into a day of national movement against Spain. For them, the September 11 holiday also memorialises the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish War of Succession in 1714.

In the momentous year of 2011, some twenty thousand, mainly young, middle-class Spaniards, occupied the Puerta del Sol, in the heart of Madrid, angry at austerity among the politicians and bankers. Organised through social media and calling themselves los indignados (‘the indignant ones’), it was a new kind of protest movement, that would be imitated elsewhere, notably the Wall Street and Occupy London. Enjoying broad public support, the indignados shook Spain to the core. Within three years, they helped to spawn two new national political parties, Podemos on the Left, and Ciudadanos on the centre-right, further polarising and fragmenting the vote share. That’s why, since the 2015, no four general elections have had a clearer mandate.

The crises had further flared up in October 2017. It was Spain’s biggest political crises, since democracy was restored in 1975, after the death of military dictator General Francisco Franco.
When Franco died, the region was granted autonomy again under the 1978 constitution and prospered as part of the new, democratic Spain. A 2006 statute granted even greater powers, boosting Catalonia's financial clout and describing it as a ‘nation’, but Spain's Constitutional Court reversed much of this in 2010. The 2008 financial crash and Spanish public spending cuts also fuelled local resentment and separatism. There is a widespread feeling that the central government takes much more in taxes than it gives back.
 
Following a symbolic referendum in November 2014, outlawed by Spain, separatists won the 2015 regional election. Catalonia's pro-independence leaders then went ahead with a full referendum on 1 October 2017, which was also declared illegal by Spain's constitutional court. Organisers said ninety percent of voters backed a split. But, turnout was only forty three percent amidst a boycott by unionists. Although, there was police violence recorded against voters.
 
In a febrile atmosphere the separatist majority in the Catalan parliament had declared independence on 27 October 2017. In suppressing this move, the Spanish government used Article 155 emergency powers, by dissolving its parliament, sacking its leaders and called a snap election for 21 December 2017. Separatists had won that election with a slim majority, and eventually in May 2018, Catalonia’s parliament swore in Quim Torra as their new president, after Madrid blocked several other candidates. Mr Torra vowed to continue fighting for independence.
 
In 2017, the Economist Intelligence Unit, which compiles an influential annual democracy ranking, had revealed that Spain risked being downgraded from a ‘full democracy’ to a ‘flawed one’ over its handling of the situation.
 
The sight of Spanish national police beating voters, and politicians being jailed, had actually revived disturbing memories, for some, of the Franco dictatorship. In retaliation, demonstrators had taken to the streets in fury, and repeatedly clashed with police in some of the worst street violence to hit Spain in decades. At this point in time, many regarded Catalonia's sacked President Carles Puigdemont as the man who wanted to break up Spain. Regarded as charismatic, friendly, with a wider appeal, he had realised that idea of social media campaigns early which helped the region in attaining international recognition. But, for Spanish unionists, he is someone who burnt bridges. Puigdemont and a number of his associates had fled to Belgium in October 2017, after they were summoned to court over his involvement in the independence referendum.
 
In one of the interviews with BBC he had commented: ‘I think we've won the right to be heard, but what I find harder to understand is this indifference - or absolute lack of interest - in understanding what is happening here. They've never wanted to listen to us. How can we explain to the world that Europe is a paradise of democracy if we hit old women and people who've done nothing wrong? This is not acceptable. We haven't seen such a disproportionate and brutal use of force since the death of the dictator Franco.’
 
As secessionism brewed with time, many more protests came ahead as a natural reaction. Around two hundred thousand protestors had marched through Barcelona in February 2019 against the trial of twelve jailed Catalan separatist leaders, calling them to be released immediately. The charges on which they were indicted included sedition, misappropriation of government funds, and civil disobedience. The march was led by a line of protesters holding a long banner that read, "Self-determination is not a crime." Other banners described the Catalan leaders on trial as "political prisoners." About forty five thousand people joined the rally in Colón square alone to vent their fury at what they saw as the overly conciliatory stance adopted by the Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and to demand a snap general election.
 
There were more protests in 2019, especially in June and October with attendance of upto three hundred fifty thousand Catalans recorded. Mayors of eight hundred fourteen out of the region's nine hundred forty-seven local authorities gathered at the regional government's headquarters to meet Catalan President Quim Torra. In San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, around forty-two thousand people gathered to demand a political solution to Spain’s territorial question.  A demonstration in Madrid calling for amnesty that drew four thousand protesters had ended in violent clashes with riot police. The newspaper Público reported that, once again, the police targeted journalists trying to cover their actions. During the protests, rioters threw paving stones and petrol bombs while police fired baton rounds and used truncheons. Cars and other property were damaged as fires were lit in the streets of Barcelona and other towns. In 2020, decentralised Diada were proposed by Catalan National all across Catalonia, as well as abroad, in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Several peaceful protests also had happened to denounce the imprisonment of Spanish rap artist Pablo Hasel in February 2021. 
 
Several of the Catalan protestors regarded the political trial of their leaders full of manipulations, by sentencing them for something which was not a crime. Although, many Spaniards backed the trial, due to their nationalist aspirations. That’s why Madrid even saw right wing protests, against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, of the Socialist Party, over his negotiations with Catalan separatists. Sanchez had called for early elections after Catalan parties whose backing he needed to pass a budget withdrew their support. The regional parties had demanded that Sanchez give them a way forward for a legally binding independence referendum.  
 
Meanwhile, many common Spaniards and journalists have criticised the mainstream Spanish media coverage of the protests. According to the journalist Miquel Ramos, the media has developed a taste for “riot porn.” He also denounced the national media’s tendency to downplay the role of radical-right Spanish nationalists in oppressing Catalans, whose actions have been legitimised by the rise of the far right party Vox.  For the right, which continues to be haunted by corruption scandals, this escalation in Catalonia is a welcome opportunity for them to shore up votes.
 
In the magazine Contexto, Joaquín Urías, a professor of constitutional law, also pointed out that Spanish Supreme Court had deliberately introduced a skewed definition for sedition, and it points to a political motivation. The crushing of the separatist sentiment also goes back to the widely condemned ley mordaza (gag law), a criminal law reform made in 2015, that gives the government the power to issue hefty fines, for everything from unauthorised protests to photographing the police. Thus, the Spanish Supreme Court has broken with international legal precedent, for example in Canada and the United Kingdom, where the courts have mostly seen questions of regional sovereignty as a political rather than a legal matter.
 
In an article in The Nation by Sebastiaan Faber and Becquer Seguin : ‘the ruling revives anxieties over recent cases involving puppet shows, tweets, and song lyrics construed as extolling terrorism, a remarkably fuzzy legal category that has given prosecutors a green light to pursue heavy sentences.
 
In this tumultuous time, Prime Minister Sanchez’s strategy, according to his party leaders, has been to seek moderation in the face of extreme demands by conservative parties that he apply the National Security Law and invoke, as Rajoy did in 2017, Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which would place the government of Catalonia in the hands of the government in Madrid.
 
The Catalan ‘threat’ to unionists, according to journalist Guillem Martínez is similar to that of ETA, the armed Basque pro-independence group, whose presence helped justify restrictions on constitutional rights for much of Spain’s democracy.
 
When it comes to EU, it has treated the crisis as an internal matter for Spain, deaf to the separatists' pleas for support, but there have been warnings that the issue is damaging Spain's democratic credentials. In March 2021, the European parliament had voted to waive the immunity of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, and two other Catalan separatist MEPs.  Mr Puigdemont had described it as "a clear case of political persecution". Due to a seemingly increasing pressure, there were calls by Spanish authorities in June 2021 to pardon the jailed Catalan leaders.

 

 

 

 


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