'A Game of Chicken': Thumbing Nose at Spain, Catalonia Presses Ahead with Independence Vote

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'A Game of Chicken': Thumbing Nose at Spain, Catalonia Presses Ahead with Independence Vote

Madrid has readied thousands of Civil Guard police officers to travel to the region in advance of Sunday's secession poll

Polls suggest that a majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents want the chance to vote on independence, and about half would vote to break away from Spain.

Polls suggest that a majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents want the chance to vote on independence, and about half would vote to break away from Spain. (Photo: Liz Castro/flickr/cc)

Catalonia will hold a symbolic vote on independence on Sunday, in defiance of both court orders and the central government in Madrid.

At the ballot boxes, Catalans aged 16 and older will be asked two questions: whether Catalonia should be a state, and if so, whether it should be an independent state. The straw poll will be organized and staffed by 40,000 trained volunteers, and voters will register on the spot, in the absence of a formal electoral roll.

While the poll's outcome will be relatively meaningless from a legal perspective, it could send a strong message to Madrid, the seat of Spanish government, which separatists charge doesn’t respect the region’s language or culture, or give it a fair return on the taxes it pays. Catalonia, a semi-autonomous region in northeast Spain, accounts for 19 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

"Many in Catalonia expect that the process of drafting a new constitution will elicit a political debate from the bottom up that could radically rethink our economic system, so that in the new Catalonia people and their basic needs cannot be treated as commodities."
—Teresa Forcades

Polls suggest that a majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents want the chance to vote on independence, and about half would vote to break away from Spain. Hundreds of thousands attended pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona earlier this year and more than two million have indicated that they plan to participate in the weekend's poll. 

Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has repeatedly said any vote would be illegal because Spain’s constitution prevents any region from unilaterally taking decisions that affect all Spaniards. Catalan leaders plan to challenge that stance in court, charging that it violates "the right to participation and the freedom of expression."

In September, at Rajoy's behest, Spain's constitutional court suspended an official planned referendum in Catalonia, halting all preparations for the vote on secession just two days after it was formally called by the Catalan leader, Artur Mas. In response, Mas vowed to push ahead with the vote, albeit in a modified way to get around legal restrictions.

Earlier this week, the high court agreed to hear the central government’s challenge of that watered-down vote, effectively suspending it, too.

But Catalan leaders, cognizant of their people's desire for a say on the issue, are moving forward with the unofficial poll.

"Everything is all set for November 9," Francesc Homs, a spokesman for the Catalan regional government, said at a news conference on Tuesday. "We are maintaining our participatory process. We couldn’t say this any clearer—and we’re doing so regardless of the consequences."

While the Spanish government has not specified what ramifications Catalan leaders, poll workers or voters might face when they go to vote, Madrid has reportedly readied thousands of Civil Guard police officers to travel to the region this weekend.

"It is a game of chicken" between Rajoy and Mas, Autonomous University of Barcelona political scientist Joan Botella told the Wall Street Journal.

At the Guardian this week, Catalan physician and social activist Teresa Forcades wrote that "an independent Catalonia will enjoy a better democracy." Spain's government suffers from corruption, lack of transparency, and misplaced priorities, she said.

"Independence for Catalonia is no guarantee that these issues will be resolved, but having to write and approve a new constitution would be a unique opportunity to work towards solutions to these problems in a much more comprehensive and radical way than is possible in an already constituted state," she argued. "Many in Catalonia expect that the process of drafting a new constitution will elicit a political debate from the bottom up that could radically rethink our economic system, so that in the new Catalonia people and their basic needs cannot be treated as commodities. Many also expect a radical rethinking of our political system, so that institutions empower the people instead of stifling them with bureaucracy."

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