On Sunday, November 9, more than two million citizens in Catalonia went to the polls in a “participatory process on the future of their region.” The result was 81 per cent support for independence of this relatively wealthy region in the northeast of Spain, most of whose 7.5 million people speak Catalan, a language different from Spanish. Given the informality of the process, it is hard to be precise on the proportion of potential voters who took part, but it was less than 50 per cent (68 per cent voted in the last Catalan election).

After failing to get the Spanish government to a agree to a full-blown referendum, the Catalan government decided to hold a “non-referendum consultation,” which the central government referred to the Constitutional Court, thus automatically suspending it for five months. In response, the Catalan government decided to ask citizens to vote instead in an informal process run mostly by volunteers. The central government similarly got this process suspended by the top court. Nevertheless, the Catalan government went ahead with the vote. As a result, the debate in Catalonia focused essentially on Catalans’ right to decide their future and not on independence per se.

The proportional electoral system used in Catalonia has produced a very divided party system (see table 1), with various parties with varying proposals for the future of Catalonia competing for the nationalist vote. Only the ERC and CUP have long supported independence, while the CDC recently shifted from support for autonomy within Spain to support for outright independence. Two others, the UDC (the CDC’s partner in government) and the ICV, are divided on the issue, but their leaders have declared their support for increased autonomy for Catalonia within Spain, not independence.

14_table 1

All five of these parties, with 87 of the 135 members of the Catalan Parliament, supported the vote, though only three support independence. Moreover, one of these three, the CDC, has generally avoided voicing direct support for independence, but like the ICV and UDC has mostly focused on Catalans’ right to vote on their future. The CDC’s leader has called for a Catalan state, which does not necessary entail independence (see ballot). What unites these five parties is support for Catalans’ right to decide their future. By contrast, the two main non-nationalist parties, the Spanish conservative People’s Party and to a lesser extent the Catalan Socialist Party, dismissed the entire process as illegitimate.

14_catalonia ballotNEW2Because of these divergences, the five parties could agree only on a two-stage question. In answering the first question, Catalans voted on whether Catalonia should become a state. Those choosing Yes went on to answer whether the Catalan state should be independent. This unusual and potentially confusing question reflected the fact that only some want independence, but all want to be able to decide their future and not have it imposed from Madrid.

Indeed, Madrid’s court-supported intransigence has been pushing Catalan nationalism toward independence. This dynamic goes back to 2010 when an effort by the Catalan Parliament to amend Catalonia’s statute of autonomy, backed in a referendum in the region, was referred to the Spanish Constitutional Court, which declared it unconstitutional.

This time, by rejecting the possibility of allowing Catalans to vote, even informally, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in fact fostered a superficial unity among the Catalan parties that supported the vote. The divisions among the parties came to the surface at times, but overall, opposition to Madrid’s refusal to accept Catalan self-determination masked their disagreement over independence. In this way, Rajoy may have done Catalan parties a huge favour, facilitating their uniting around a demand they all share, the right of Catalans to vote on the future status of their region.

We are left to wonder what would have happened if Madrid had allowed a real vote. If Catalonia were able to hold a real referendum limited to a single straight question on independence, the position the British government took in the Scottish case, would Catalan parties remain united? Given how different the various parties’ positions really are, I doubt that this would happen. It is unclear how the population would vote in such a referendum, since there has never been a true debate on independence in the region, but it would be surprising if support for independence were as high as it was on November 9. What is clear, however, is that the result will encourage pro-independence forces to press on. Judging by the reaction of the Spanish government, Madrid is unlikely to allow the Catalan government to hold a referendum any time soon, thus keeping the supporters of Catalans’ right to decide united and energized.