Tens of thousands march in Catalonia to defend November 9 referendum

Regional premier caught in balancing act between sounding defiant and adhering to law

Marchers call for independence for Catalonia in Barcelona.Photo: atlas

Tens of thousands of pro-independence activists marched across Catalonia on Tuesday to protest the Constitutional Court’s decision to suspend the November 9 referendum on self-rule until it decides on an appeal lodged by the central government.

Heavy rain across much of the region did not stop protestors from coming out in force around 7pm, heeding the call of the two main separatist associations, Asamblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural.

Wearing yellow shirts that symbolize the independence drive, demonstrators cried out “Votarem, votaremos” (We will vote) and waved estelades, an alternative and unofficial Catalan flag used by separatists.

One of the biggest marches took place in Barcelona’s Sant Jaume square, home to City Hall and the regional government, where around 5,000 people gathered, according to municipal police.

Rajoy fears the Socialists are just talking about constitutional reform to “keep the nationalists happy”

Several political leaders joined the marches, including Oriol Junqueras, head of the small but influential Catalan Republican Left (ERC), who recently advocated civil disobedience if the Madrid central government succeeded in getting the referendum legally struck down.

A spokesman for ANC read out a statement lamenting that the Constitutional Court was “trying to silence” Catalans and asserting that “this is not a legal problem, it’s a political issue.”

ANC President Carme Forcadell proclaimed that “we will not be stopped by rain, by snow or by any Constitutional Court.”

Mas’ strategy causes internal tension

The Catalan government, meanwhile, has designed a long-term resistance plan to avoid completely shelving the sovereignty drive while stopping short of outrightly defying the courts.

While the official message is that nothing has changed and that the executive will continue with its bid to hold the vote on November 9, there has been intense internal debate among members of the Convergència i Unió (CiU) nationalist bloc that rules the region.

Deputy premier Joana Ortega, of Unió, said it was unfair to ask civil servants to risk their jobs by preparing the vote if it is ultimately to be ruled illegal.

Catalan premier Artur Mas.
Catalan premier Artur Mas.David Ramos (GETTY IMAGES)

And while Mas says everything is business as usual, his government has already pulled the ad campaign for the referendum, illustrating the difficulties of appearing to stand firm while still respecting the law.

The Catalan government is also hoping that the Constitutional Court will not take more than a few weeks to reach its decision.

But pro-independence leftist parties are unhappy about the decision to stop campaigning for the referendum. “This is not the right attitude,” said Quim Arrufat, a deputy for Candidatura de Unidad Popular (CUP). “People have to be disobedient, but so does the Catalan executive.”

What constitutional reform?

In Madrid, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the center-right Popular Party (PP) said on Tuesday that reforming the Constitution as a way of getting over the impasse was not a priority for his government.

The main opposition Socialists have posited the need for a new federal structure to replace the current “España de las autonomías,” or Spain of autonomous communities, a system that already grants significant devolved powers to the regions. Creating such a federal model would require constitutional reform.

Rajoy asked the Socialists to explain exactly what they mean to change and how. “What is the federal state and how is it different from the Spain of the autonomous communities?” he said. “Does it mean that all regions have the same powers? What powers would fall to the state?”

Rajoy said he feared that the Socialists were just talking about constitutional reform to “keep the Catalan nationalists happy” and that these days there was no chance of reaching the kind of cross-party consensus that made the 1978 Constitution possible.

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