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A Series of Outrageous Events Fuels Catalans’ Distrust Before Historic Election on Independence

Picture of the last pro-referendum demonstration in Barcelona, Catalonia, on September 11, 2015. Image from Twitter.

Picture of the last pro-referendum demonstration in Barcelona, Catalonia, on September 11, 2015. Image from Twitter.

A series of unfortunate public faux-pas have further increased the Catalan people's distrust in the Spanish government in the weeks prior to Catalonia's regional elections on Sunday.

On Sunday, September 27th, Catalonia will see the big day many citizens have been waiting for: they will vote in a historic election that has been billed as a direct vote on independence from Spain. The central government has refused to allow a legal referendum on independence from Spain. The coming regional elections will finally give a democratic mandate to either proceed with the independence process or put it aside and find ways to manage the current status of Catalonia as a Spanish region.

While the Spanish government continues to dismiss what has been historically known as “the Catalan problem,” there has been an increasing demand for a democratic election to determine if the Catalan people want to maintain or break the bond with the State of Spain. The stalling of the central government, which objects to a legally binding self-determination referendum because it is “unconstitutional,” has prevented a robust public debate about the pros and cons of independence. Instead, a series of recent events have further fueled discomfort and mistrust towards the Spanish government.

On Twitter, journalist Jaume Clotet (@jaumeclotet) shared the general impression of those following the elections:

A foreign correspondent just told me: “Looking at what the Spanish government is doing it seems they want to lose Catalonia.”

The curious case of the EC letter

The move that has caused the most outrage one is probably the alleged manipulation of a statement by the European Commission (EC). On July 21, Santiago Fisas, a European Parliament deputy for the anti-independence and anti-referendum Popular Party sent a written question to the European Commission asking whether the Commission would recognise an independent Catalan state. The response, signed by EC president Jean Claude Juncker, arrived back on September 21, in both English and Spanish. Surprisingly, the two versions were different, as Alberto Nardelli, data editor at the British newspaper The Guardian, pointed out:

The English text simply stated that “it is not for the Commission to express a position on questions of internal organisation related to the constitutional arrangements of a particular member state.” In the Spanish version, however, a long paragraph was added that ends with what could be interpreted as a reference to the impossibility of an independent Catalan state within the European Union:

La determinación del territorio de un Estado miembro está únicamente establecida por el Derecho constitucional nacional, y no por una decisión de un Parlamento autonómico contraria a la constitución de dicho Estado.

The determination of the territory of a member state is established only by the national constitutional law, and not by the decision of an autonomous parliament against the constitution of that state.

After the news hit the social networks and the media, the spokesperson for the EC, Mina Andreeva, clarified that the authentic version was the English one, and that the extra paragraph in the Spanish translation was the result of a “mistake” or “human error.” Days before the elections, Catalans are still demanding a better explanation. Some, like Wikimedia Programme Manager Àlex Hinojo (@Kippelboy), addressed their tweets directly to Juncker:

Never a dull moment before Catalonia's big election

Other scandals compounding the Catalans’ unease include reports about the Bank of Spain bringing cash to Catalonia from other parts of Spain for fear of massive withdrawals after the elections. Shortly after publicly warning of this risk, the governor of the Bank of Spain retracted his statement and said that the scenario of a massive cash withdrawal was “almost impossible.”

Politically active Internet users were also alarmed by the report titled “Elections to the Catalan Parliament: Who is cheating on Twitter,” compiled by the group Twitter Bots, which aims to uncover political networks of fake profiles. Their research revealed two big networks of political spam accounts, both of them catering to anti-independence positions.

Social media users confront Spanish PM

Yet another episode of political distress was caused by the interview of Spanish Primer Minister Mariano Rajoy on Onda Cero radio on September 22. The fumbling and incoherent responses that Rajoy gave when the radio host asked him to explain his former claims that independence would cost Catalans their Spanish and European citizenship immediately went viral, causing a mix of surprise, embarrassment, rage, and mockery. This inevitably generated an outburst of online memes, like the ones below:

Rajoy on Onda Cero, by JR Mora

Most of the Spanish press tried to conceal Rajoy making a fool of himself yesterday at Onda Cero, but we have the Internet!

“Shit, shit, shit.”

The odds in favor of independence

In the previous election in 2012, the parties supporting a self-determination referendum—Convergence and Union (CiU), Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), Initiative for Catalonia Greens-United, Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) and the Popular Unity Candidature (CUP)—got the most votes. The mandate was clear, but far from easy to accomplish. As in the case of the referendum in Scotland, the Spanish law states that in order to hold a legally binding referendum, the central government needs to transfer authority to the region. But unlike the British, the Spanish government has made it very clear that it will not allow the vote.

Two years of political and legal pirouettes by the Catalan government have not changed the position of the Spanish government, which maintains that any attempt to hold a referendum would be illegal. The Catalan government, in an attempt to move forward, held an informal consultation on 9 November 2014, despite the Constitutional Court of Spain ruling suspending all calls for a vote. The non-binding participatory experiment, held in spite of all the legal obstacles to promote a public debate, had an ambiguous result: more than 80 percent of the participants voted in favour of independence, but unofficial estimates pointed to a low (36 percent) turnout.

The Sunday elections are set to finally provide some official data on the popular support for Catalonia's independence from Spain. It should give a clear democratic mandate to both the Catalan and the Spanish governments to negotiate a hopefully friendly solution convenient for both Spanish and Catalan citizens.

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