Beyond the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ of Catalonia’s Independence Referendum

A woman rebukes the National Police during the Catalan referendum, on October 1st 2017. Photo by Vicens Forner Puig, with with permission.

With hashtags like #votarem (“we will vote”), citizens with the right to vote in Catalonia, a region in northeast Spain, published their photos and stories on social media while they participated in a controversial referendum on independence. The vote on 1 October was deemed illegal by the central government in Madrid, which considers it unconstitutional.

Catalonia's current independence process started in 2012, when the Catalan Parliament resolved to request authorisation from the government in Madrid to hold a referendum on self-determination. Despite Madrid's continuous rejection, supported by the country's Constitutional Court, the Catalan government unilaterally decided to call a non-binding consultation in 2014, and, finally, the referendum on 1 October.

While public TV channels and other mass media outlets were criticised for their coverage of events, every minute of election day could be followed on social media, which was filled with excited testimonies, people who spent the night outside the polling booths to prevent them being shut down, or videos of long queues and people waiting for hours to vote.

Images of elderly people entering or leaving the voting booths amid applause from their neighbours were particularly popular. Their key role throughout the process led to slogans such as “sense les àvies no hi ha revolució” (“without grandmothers there is no revolution”) or “nuestros abuelos no se tocan” (“hands off our grandparents”).

In moments of so much repression, determination like this is a relief.

The violent actions of the state's security forces were without a doubt one of the most debated subjects, from videos of buses full of police leaving from Cordoba, on the other side of the country, to images of Basque firemen who traveled to join Catalan firemen in defending the polls. The debate over if the repression was justified, and whether the referendum was illegal, was a fiery one.

Catalans were not the only people reacting to violence with indignation. For example, in a viral tweet, Patricia Horrillo, an activist and journalist in Madrid, argued that criticism of police repression should be independent of personal political views:

You may not agree with the independence movement, but if you see today's images of police repression and are not outraged, look again.

This reaction to the brutality could also be seen on the streets, where protests were called in solidarity with the Catalan people in different parts of the country, such as Madrid, Seville or Granada.

The rally in support of #Catalonia at the Puerta del Sol is starting.

Beyond the referendum results and the tension around the country's fate, social media circulated some conciliatory anecdotes, like the viral photos and videos of people going to vote dressed in the Spanish flag, the flag of the Second Spanish Republic (which came to an end in 1939; Spain is currently a constitutional monarchy), or the shirt of the national football team. These moments of solidarity across political divides were repeated during the strike called two days later to protest police repression.

This is how we do revolution here. Don't let the media fool you.

Many citizens decided not to participate in the vote, as they considered it illegitimate or pointless. However, after witnessing the images of repression, many others who had not intended to vote expressed their determination to do so as a gesture of protest and joined the strike in solidarity.

Image text: I don't want independence, but I can't stay home while my people are beaten!

Tweet: This gesture needs no explanation. This is the way.

Thus, some of the voters who said “no” to independence explained on social media their decision to participate in the referendum as an exercise in defending what they still consider a democratic right. For example, in the video below by Euronews, a protester who voted “NO” explains his reasons for going to the strike:

Protester: I think that in a democracy we all have to vote, and no matter what our opinion is we must show it. I'm also here to protest against the violence inflicted on my people, the Catalan people. It's completely disproportionate, for people who only wanted to voice their opinion.
Videographer: Where are you from?
Protester: I'm from Esplugues. Esplugues in Llobregat.
Videographer: Are you pro-independence?
Protester: No.
Videographer: What have you got there? Which flag is that you've got there?
Protester: Ah, this is the Spanish republican flag.
Videographer: Did you vote in the referendum?
Protester: I voted.
Videographer: What did you vote?
Protester: I voted “no”. I voted “no”. I stayed until the poll closed to stop them from taking the ballots.

The referendum also brought to light certain contradictions for some citizens who did not feel included in the process from the start, or who did not have the privilege of participating in it. In an article in the newspaper El Salto, feminist activist Ana Burgos, who is from the region of Andalusia but lives in Catalonia, wondered, “What is an Andalusian doing defending anything here, with all the Andalusphobic rubbish that I put up with every day”:

Durante el inicio y desarrollo del procés nunca me sentí interpelada: un liderazgo convergente que poco tenía que ver conmigo en una sociedad –como tantas otras– profundamente clasista, racista y patriarcal cuyo proyecto político nacional, poco autocrítico, no me representaba. (…)

Entonces, las ofensas al pueblo por parte de Rajoy [el presidente] y sus secuaces nos hicieron salir a defender un proceso del que desconfiábamos y unas instituciones en las que no creíamos, o al menos problematizábamos, muchas de nosotras. (…) Y es que más bien nos estábamos echando a las calles a defender a nuestras hermanas y vecinas, a un pueblo al que le está cayendo la del pulpo.

From the start of the process and throughout its development, I never felt included: a convergent leadership that had little to do with me in a society that is – like so many others – profoundly classist, racist and patriarchal, and whose national political project, with very little self-criticism, did not represent me. […]

So, the offenses against the people committed by [Spanish President Mariano] Rajoy and his followers drove us to take to the streets to defend a process that we did not trust and institutions that we did not believe in, or at least that many of us saw as problematic. […] And the thing is we were really taking to the streets to defend our sisters and neighbours, a people who were getting a beating.

Another of the criticisms and contradictions that was highlighted made reference to the hundreds of thousands of migrants residing in Catalonia, but who do not have citizenship, and therefore were excluded from participating in the referendum. One activist commented in a Facebook post that has since become unavailable:

Ella: ¿Iras a votar el domingo?
Yo : No, no tengo el derecho a voto
Ella: Y si lo tienes, irías a votar?
Yo : No Tengo el derecho a voto
Ella: Si, Si, entiendo. Pero en el caso que tengas, irías a votar?
Yo : No tengo el derecho a voto
Ella: Enserio… ¿Irías a votar?
Yo : Iré a vomitar porque votar no puedo.

Her: Will you vote on Sunday?
Me: I don't have the right to vote.
Her: And if you had it, would you vote?
Me: I don't have the right to vote.
Her: Yes, yes, I understand. But if you had it, would you go and vote?
Me: I don't have the right to vote.
Her: Seriously… would you go and vote?
Me: I'll go and vomit because I can't vote.

Fàtima Aatar, an anthropologist and activist, reflected on the non-inclusion of foreign residents in the vote for the magazine La Directa:

…com és possible que en un exercici de desobediència política, jurídica i social no s’hagi desobeït en aquesta qüestió concreta? Per què s’ha escollit heretar la Llei d’estrangeria espanyola tenint en compte que és de les qüestions més característiques del règim? Desobediència? Quan i per a qui?

…how is it possible that in an act of political, legal and social disobedience, there was no disobedience on this specific issue? Why did they choose to inherit Spain's immigration law considering that it is one of the most characteristic issues of the regime? Disobedience? When and for whom?

Drawing parallels between the physical and administrative violence exercised by the Spanish state against migrants and the repression during the referendum, Moha Gereou, a journalist and activist based in Madrid, commented:

If you are not from Spain but you want to be part of it you are met with violence.

If you are from Spain but you do not want to be part of it you are met with violence.

A lot is yet to come in the next weeks and months. It is difficult to predict what might happen, but it is clear that Spain and Catalonia are facing one of the most complex and decisive processes of their recent democratic history, and the way in which the institutions respond will mark the future of the state, of the peoples who make it up, and above all, of ordinary citizens.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.

Receive great stories from around the world directly in your inbox.

Stay up to date about Global Voices and our mission. See our Privacy Policy for details. Newsletter powered by Mailchimp (Privacy Policy and Terms).

* = required field
Email Frequency

No thanks, show me the site