Catalonia voted on Sunday, 9 November: Sí, Catalonia should be a state. Sí, that state should be independent. Over 80% voted Sí-Sí, an additional 10% voted Sí-No for federalism, and around 4.5% voted No for unity.
They voted, but not in a legal referendum.
As expected, the central Spanish government, led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, blocked every attempt by Catalans to have an official vote—whether by referendum or by public consultation. Artur Mas, president of the Catalan regional Parliament and leader of the pro-independence Convergence and Unity (CiU) party, and Oriol Junqueras, leader of the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), could not agree to dissolve the parliament and thus trigger a plebiscite centered on the independence issue. With the constitutional court’s decision on their last legal challenge coming the Tuesday before the proposed vote and a long campaign centered around a symbolic date, Mas could not squander the political value of 9 November for the referendum. So, he turned to a pro-independence civic organization, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), and its president, Carme Forcadell, for help.
Forcadell, who supports a unilateral declaration of independence for Catalonia, and the ANC rallied 40,000 volunteers in a massive show of civil disobedience. Barred from using traditional polling stations and with under a week to notify voters, Catalan politicians joined thousands of volunteers in a get-out-the-vote phonathon. Additional volunteers shipped ballot boxes and posted signs at schools and other civic buildings that were being used as substitute polling stations despite letters from Madrid prohibiting government employees from being involved in the vote.
Mas publicly reminded Catalonia—and for that matter Madrid—that this was not a referendum, but a participatory process conducted by civil organizations (even if politicians were manning tables as private citizens). Still, he recognized the risk taken by the volunteers and claimed personal responsibility. Organizers predicted a turnout of about 1.5 million Catalans. 2.3 million came.
There are roughly 5.4 million registered voters in Catalonia. Lowering the voting age to 16 and allowing expatriates to vote raised the eligible population to close to 6 million, but because court decisions have suspended several iterations of the vote, the Catalan government did not have time to establish comprehensive voter rolls, as the Scottish government did in the 18 months prior to its independence referendum. The 2.3 million voters who participated represent between one third and one half of the Catalan electorate. In the most generous interpretation, 42.6% of the electorate voted; even with an impressive 80% voting Sí-Sí, only 34.3% of the electorate definitively cast a ballot for independence.
With no potential political repercussions—such as the messy details of divorcing Spain—there was an incentive to take the strongest possible protest stance by voting for independence. Critics of the effort note that turnout in Catalonia was higher for the EU Parliament elections in May 2014, the regional elections in 2012, and the general parliamentary elections in 2011, and that independence referendums unsanctioned by the parent state, as in Kosovo, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, usually have turnouts of over 80%. To them, the low turnout indicates a high proportion of pro-unity voters. It is likely that many of the pro-unity voters simply stayed home – especially considering that August polls showed only 58.8% of the Catalan population in favor of independence.
Indeed, anecdotal evidence suggests that there was not a strong “No” camp, just a strong “This is Illegal” camp. Madrid moved the Spanish military into the region late last week, presumably in case of violent reactions, and issued statements condemning the process as meaningless. They are right; the numbers cannot be considered perfectly representative of Catalan opinion, much less a legal mandate. However, Mas, Junqueras, and Forcadell insist that it still had political value, and they too are right.
Despite the vote’s unofficial nature, there were international observers present, including a cross-party delegation from the European Parliament, who assessed everything they observed as in keeping with international standards. The spokesman, Ian Duncan of the U.K. Conservative Party, added the editorial comment, “we would hope that in the future Catalans would be able to participate in the process without the challenges we have witnessed today.”
International media covered the “participatory process”—though coverage varied significantly. France’s Le Monde devoted significant space to analysis both before and after the vote, while Scots complained on Twitter that the BBC was ignoring the vote entirely. The New York Times and Washington Post generally kept the story tucked away in the World section, and, in the case of the Times, framed it as a human interest story. Nonetheless, in a late-night press conference, Mas thanked the media for their presence and asked them to continue to convey the Catalan struggle.
Finally, the ANC ran a petition drive concurrently with the vote, requesting that the UN, OSCE, and other international organizations recognize how Catalan self-determination is being stifled by the Spanish government and asking for assistance in creating a democratic path forward. It is still unclear how many citizens signed the petition, though wire photographs indicate the tables were often crowded. However, nearly 200 Catalan politicians signed the same petition last week, and Nobel peace laureates Desmond Tutu and Adolfo Pérez Esquivel signed a separate petition to the Spanish government to let Catalans vote. Spain can ignore internal petitions, but it will have a harder time ignoring external pressure, pressure which is likely to grow in coming months. For that reason alone, the Catalan vote of 9 November was no straw poll.
Elizabeth Burnham is an MA candidate in the European and Eurasian Studies program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She is writing a thesis on regional secessionist movements and serves as the editor-in-chief of the IAR print journal.