State-sanctioned police violence has broken out in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia in recent days after the devolved government there held a referendum on independence. Both the national police and the Guardia Civil forcefully removed voters from polling stations on the orders of the Spanish government, which has declared the vote to be illegal along with the Constitutional Court. Videos have emerged of police dressed in riot gear using rubber bullets – banned in Catalonia – as well as disproportionate violence against peaceful citizens and firefighters. Medical officials have said that 844 people were injured in the attacks.
Catalan authorities have declared the result of the vote as a victory for the independence side with 90% support and 42.3% turnout. However, the attempts from police to shut down the vote resulted in 750,000 votes going uncounted as ballot boxes were seized, and parties loyal to Spain boycotted the vote. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has claimed that the region has “won the right to an independent state”, a position which is unlikely to lessen the tension between his administration and the national government in Madrid. The Spanish constitution states that Spain cannot be broken up, rendering any vote on the matter illegal without an amendment. The European Commission has declined to take action on the grounds that the referendum was illegal, and have declared it an “internal matter”.
Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, with a long history of national identity and its own language and culture. Under General Franco’s authoritarian rule from 1939 to 1975, Catalonia’s autonomy was stripped away, the language officially banned and the culture repressed. After the dictator’s death, a political consensus was reached to follow the Pact of Forgetting (el pacto del olvido), which granted amnesty to perpetrators of abuses on all sides under the Franco regime and previous civil war, and discouraged national soul-searching in the name of reconciliation. This decision has been criticised in recent years and is still the source of controversy. More recent points of grievance focus on the apparent disparity between the taxes Catalonia contributes to the central government and the amount they receive back in services.
How this situation will be resolved is far from clear as the Catalan government is essentially breaking ground, but at the moment neither side seem ready to give way. Despite the hangover from its authoritarian past, modern Spain IS a democracy, and so should seek to move forward in a democratic and peaceful way.
[Louise Wylie – @WomanPendulum]
Illustration by Kirstie English