Catalonia’s Paradox


October 1 has passed, closing a period of the shared history between Catalonia and the Spanish state and beginning an uncertain future. It was a day when all the tension building over the five-year independence process came to a head.

The numbers speak volumes. 2,262,424 votes cast. With an electoral roll of approximately 5.3 million people, that represents 42.5 percent turnout. We would have to include the votes seized by the police and from citizens who could not vote to calculate a final number. Of those votes counted, 2,020,144 (90 percent) were in favor of independence, 176,566 (7.8 percent) against, and 45,586 (2 percent) left their ballots blank.

Next to these tallies, we must list another figure: the 890 officially registered injuries. The images say even more than the numbers — unprecedented police violence met historic popular mobilization.

The independence movement has emerged victorious, and, while the vote doesn’t mean that pro-independence forces will reach their goals immediately, they did gain momentum by demonstrating their determination and capacity for mobilization despite state repression and their opponent’s decision to boycott. The post-Franco Spanish state is more discredited than ever in Catalonia.

The immediate consequences are clear. The Law of Transiency, which Catalonia’s parliament passed on September 8, stipulates that, if the referendum results in a “yes” victory, the Catalan government would move to proclaim an independent republic.

However, it is not clear how the government will proceed. Its decisions will determine the fate of the independence movement as well as the broader democratic bloc that supported the vote. How to keep that democratic bloc — which goes beyond the pro-independence forces — united is a decisive strategic question in this context. Catalonia’s independence hangs in the balance, and in the short term, the institutional and political struggle between the Catalan and Spanish states will only intensify the current crisis. Though the official independentist narrative claims that the main work for achieving independence is already done, October 1 marked the start of the most critical phase.

We should therefore see the October 3 general strike as October 1’s second act. Initially driven by small unions, the planned work stoppage eventually won partial support from the Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) and Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT), Catalonia’s two major unions. These organizations did not call for a full strike but for partial work stoppages, to which both workers and employers agreed. Eventually the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural — the mainstream independence movement’s leading organs — as well as the Catalan government threw their support behind the protest, though the ANC did so only reluctantly.

This “official” bloc rebranded the event as a cross-class “nation stoppage” that mixed a traditional strike with mass demonstrations and the voluntary closure of enterprises and public administration. Overall, the day turned into another impressive collective action in the midst of an exceptional political situation.

What will happen now in Catalonia depends not only on local actions but also on the impact that the independence movement, referendum, and mass protests have on Spanish politics in general. The situation’s complexity makes it dangerous to draw any hasty conclusions.

On the one hand, the People’s Party (PP), which rules Spain, will continue to use Catalan independence to mobilize its conservative base. On the other hand, a section of the Spanish public, including Podemos and its base, has rejected the state’s repression and now favors a legal referendum.

Further, in those parts of Spain that, like Catalonia, have longstanding national — or regional — conflicts, the independence process may polarize pro-Spanish centralists and the respective nationalist movements.

All these factors create a complicated scenario for the Left, which will lose more ground in the long term if it gives up the defense of democracy in the short term. Behind these rapidly unfolding events sits an important paradox: Catalan independence poses the greatest threat to the continuity of the political and institutional scaffolding created in 1978, but it may also temporarily strengthen some of the state’s pillars, producing a framework that pushes Spanish politics to the right.

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