Two days after Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont announced the date of the independence referendum he plans to hold in the region, despite opposition from the central government in Madrid, pro-sovereignty groups raised the tone of their challenge with a march on Sunday that attracted thousands of Catalans to demand that there be no negotiations of any kind with Madrid between now and October 1.
But the central government warned that this is deliberate provocation by pro-independence activists, and that Madrid will not fall into that trap. It also expressed hope that the next regional election will produce a bigger anti-independence majority that would enable “a path of rational dialogue” with Catalan officials.
March organizers asserted that the referendum will be held “even if the state does not want it,” according to a manifesto read out by Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola, who supports the sovereignty process in his home region.
We need to prepare for a strategy of tension
Spanish Deputy Premier Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría
Former Barça coach Guardiola, who is the pro-independence camp’s most internationally well-known supporter, read out a manifesto in Catalan, Spanish and English claiming that “Catalans today are the victims of a State that has launched a political persecution unbefitting a democracy in 21st-century Europe.”
“The only possible answer is to vote,” he added.
The march was organized by several pro-independence associations, including the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural, which claimed an attendance of “tens of thousands of people.” The local police force estimated that the crowd was more than 30,000 strong.
Catalan government officials were in attendance, as was former premier Artur Mas, who was recently convicted in court for his role in organizing a previous, non-binding consultation on independence in November 2014.
That vote was widely dismissed by outside observers as non-determining, partly because it allowed people to vote that would not be eligible under Spanish law, such as non-citizens and minors aged 16 and 17.
Now, the Catalan government wants to organize a proper, binding referendum despite continuing opposition from Madrid, where the conservative Popular Party (PP) administration says that Puigdemont must come to Spanish Congress to discuss an idea – the potential breakup of Spain – that affects all Spaniards, not just Catalans.
On Sunday, pro-independence activists called on regional authorities to ignore “the threats” coming from Madrid, and to dismiss Spanish government spokesman Iñigo Méndez de Vigo’s assertion last Friday that “you are increasingly alone.”
They also asked Puigdemont to take no steps back between now and October 1, when Catalans will be asked the question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?”
Catalans today are the victims of a state that has launched a political persecution
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola
“The ballot boxes are never negotiated. We know that Spain will want to negotiate in the remaining time, but we ask you not to,” said Jordi Sánchez, president of ANC.
In increasingly dramatic rhetoric, the head of Òmnium Cultural, Jordi Cuixart, forecast that “you will not have enough jails to imprison the people of Catalonia.”
Meanwhile, the Association of Pro-Independence Municipalities (AMI), which encompasses 787 out of Catalonia’s 948 cities, towns and villages, offered help to organize the referendum at the local level.
The manifesto asked the international community for help. “We call on all democrats in Europe and the world to support us in defense of the rights which are currently under threat in Catalonia.”
Back in Madrid, the central government warned on Monday that separatists are deliberately entering a new level of provocation in order to prompt a response from the Spanish state.
Speaking on state broadcaster RTVE on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría said that “we need to prepare for a strategy of tension” that “seeks to provoke a reaction from the State” for its own electoral gain.
The Catalan government, she said, has entered a phase of “lots of posturing and events aimed at attracting media attention” in order to get out the pro-independence vote, which she described as lagging.
Santamaría also underscored that any expenses incurred by the referendum preparations “will not be funded by Catalans, but by those in charge” of organizing the vote.
She said that the Spanish government will not fall into the provocation trap, yet will not stand by while an illegal vote is held, either. “The state, without getting ruffled, will not allow that referendum to take place.”
Santamaría estimated that 60% of Catalans do not support independence, and that these voters who are routinely “ignored and concealed” by the Catalan government are getting tired, which could result in a different political scenario at the next regional election.
Surveys show a majority of Catalans do not describe themselves as pro-independence or support a self-rule referendum. Santamaría said that the way these voters are treated is “shameful,” and that pro-independence parties appear to be the only ones in a position to “hand out ‘true democrat’ membership cards.”
A clearer non-separatist majority would allow “a path of rational dialogue with the new Catalan government, as has already been the case in other parts of Spain,” she said, alluding to recent economic talks with officials in the Basque Country. The last Catalan election was held in September 2015.
In response to Santamaría’s analysis, Puigdemont said that “she has no clue what’s going on.”
English version by Susana Urra.