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Monday, November 10, 2014

Catalonia's symbolic independence referendum: What it means and why it would be wrong to ignore it

UPDATE (1:00pm) - As promised, here's an update on the results of Catalonia's symbolic independence referendum now that all votes have been counted.

Turnout: 2,305,290 people (around 37% of those eligible to vote)
Votes in favour of independence: 1,861,753 (80.76%)



Catalonia's symbolic independence referendum eventually went ahead yesterday. With 88.4% of votes counted, the Catalan government puts turnout at over two million people. Nearly 1.7 million of them (80.7%) voted in favour of Catalonia's independence from Spain. We will update the blog with the final results as soon as they come in.

This infographic from El País compares yesterday's turnout (far right column) with the 2012 Catalan regional elections and the 2006 (binding) referendum on the amended Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia:

In other words, less than a third (32.8%) of those eligible to vote cast their ballot yesterday. However, this is still quite impressive considering that Catalan voters knew yesterday's vote was purely symbolic. Furthermore, the percentage is calculated on a broader electoral base - since young Catalans aged 16 were allowed to vote in yesterday's referendum, unlike in regional elections where the voting age is 18.

On the other hand, the outcome of yesterday's vote is probably not a great indication of where the majority of Catalans stand on independence. Due to the non-binding nature of the referendum, there is likely to be a significant amount of self-selection bias. Many Catalans who felt strongly about independence thought it was worth queuing at polling stations to cast a non-binding vote and show defiance of the Spanish government, while many of those who would vote against independence in a real referendum, or were undecided, stayed home since they knew the result would have no legal validity. 

This certainly helped push up the pro-independence vote to nearly 81%. As a reference, the four pro-independence parties currently holding seats in the Catalan parliament won a total 2,093,709 votes in the 2012 regional elections

Recent opinion polls clearly show that the split is much more even than that. For example, a Metroscopia poll published by El País two weeks ago found that 44% of Catalans would vote for independence in a referendum and 42% would vote against. Interestingly, when offered a third option involving "new and bulletproof exclusive competences" for Catalonia, 46% of respondents said they would choose this option, while 29% would vote for independence and 17% would opt for the status quo.

So where does yesterday's vote leave the debate on Catalan independence?  

Pep Guardiola was one of over 2m Catalans who cast their vote
As we argued in our previous blog posts (see here, here and here), the situation in Catalonia has got to a point where the status quo is looking increasingly untenable. The issue has so far been handled quite poorly by both the Spanish and the Catalan governments, who have failed to engage in any meaningful negotiations.

Unsurprisingly, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has talked down the significance of yesterday's vote and stressed that, if anything, it makes future talks between him and Catalan President Artur Mas more difficult. However, Rajoy's unwillingness to engage in any real discussions with Mas so far makes this position look somewhat strange.

Furthermore, this approach sort of misses the point. The Spanish government continues to use a legal argument (the Spanish Constitution forbids regions from organising binding referenda without the authorisation of Madrid) to address a political problem. In this regard, the fact that the next Spanish general election is due next year is clearly an incentive for Rajoy to show even more inflexibility vis-à-vis Catalan demands.

That said, Madrid and Barcelona can't just keep talking past each other indefinitely. Constitutional reform giving Catalonia (and, why not, other Spanish regions) more powers to set and collect taxes, for instance, would probably go a long way to address Catalan voters' concerns that the wealthy region is paying too much towards the national coffers and getting too little out of it - although it would be simplistic to boil the Catalan question down to money only.

Incidentally, constitutional reform is being openly backed by the new Spanish Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez, the Matteo Renzi of Spain. Going forward, as we already argued no less than two years ago, a reform of the Spanish Constitution envisaging further devolution of powers may well impose itself as the most sensible solution for everyone.


Anonymous said...

After 2 years of intensive propaganda from the catalonian government in all media (8 catalonian TV public channels, newspapers, radio stations, volunteers knocking door by door and massive phone calling, quite democratic) only 2.2 millions of 6.3 possible came to vote. Before this fake referendum the nationalist said that over 80% of catalonian people wanted to vote, that the important number will be participation, and so it was: 71% of catalan people are simply not interested on catalan gov. adventures or clearly say NO, so...is this enough to continue damaging catalonian image, separating them from the rest of Spain and leaving the important things unresolved? Yesterday ALL nationalist voted, no one stayed at home, and now we know the real power of them, that is very few.
Freedom is letting catalan people being catalan and spanish, not pushing them to be only catalan and forbidding them from being spanish.

Rik said...

The rise of populism is basically the alienation of traditional politics from the electorate.
This is another group of voters that likely will be alienated (at least a lot of them), while the sustainable voter base as such of the traditionals in Spain is simply already way too small.
Plus it creates a more confrontational atmosphere in the country which makes solutions of several big problems considerably more difficult.

Looks clear that Rajoy (and the Socialist as well) are absolutely unable to manage the rise of populist parties. What they do is make those look increasingly attractive for an increasingly larger number of people.
The 2 main parties simply need a serious rebranding if they want to survive and that is not going to happen. At least in not the way that is required to make it work.

Unknown said...

Like in the UK, Rajoy and his cabinet won't descend to actually talking to ordinary voters in Catalonia and listening to their concerns. So they resent more and more the distant Spanish government which uses the constitution to suppress democratic self-expression. This could still be turned into a victory for democracy if a legitimate referendum is permitted and Spanish politicians make their case for union to the Catalan people.