Catalonia Votes for Statehood in Informal Referendum

The vast majority of Catalans who voted want to break away from Spain.

Catalans demonstrate for independence in Barcelona, Spain, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence in Barcelona, Spain, July 10, 2010 (Rob Shenk)

More than 80 percent of Catalans voted for statehood in an informal referendum on Sunday that was denounced by the central government in Madrid.

More than two out of an estimated 5.4 million eligible voters took part in what was dubbed a “citizens’ consultation” after Spain’s highest court struck down a planned referendum on independence as unconstitutional.

Voters were asked whether they wanted a Catalan state and whether that state should be independent from Spain. Only 10 percent of those who agreed with the first statement voted against independence.

The outcome likely overrepresented those in favor of secession. Given the nonbinding nature of the consultation, opponents had less incentive to turn out. Opinion polls have put Catalan support for independence closer to 45 percent — although that is up from 13 percent in 2005.

Separatist sentiment has surged as a result of Spain’s economic crisis. Many of Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants feel they are bearing the brunt of the recession. The region has 16 percent of the country’s population but produces more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.

The central government’s intransigence also plays a role. It has diluted Catalan autonomy and consistently blocked the region’s attempts to organize a referendum.

Monday’s editorial in El Mundo, Spain’s second largest newspaper, probably reflected the consensus in Madrid. It dismissed the consultation as an “act of propaganda” and argued that it lacked not only legal but political legitimacy, given that the parties in favor of independence failed to turn out more voters on Sunday that they did in the 2012 regional election.

However, La Vanguardia, the largest newspaper in Catalonia, pointed out that Sunday was the fifth time in four years that a substantial part of Catalan society mobilized to protest against the status quo. In both the summer of 2010 and September 2012, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Barcelona to demand a say in their future. The following year, over a million formed a human chain, called the “Catalan Way,” along the region’s coast to express their support for independence. And most recently, well over a million Catalans again demonstrated for independence during the National Day celebrations in the regional capital.

“European democracy hasn’t witnessed a civic mobilization of this magnitude and such persistence in its recent history,” argued La Vanguardia. “It would be a grave error to ignore or downplay this reality.”

El País seemed to agree. Even if it said the consultation “was useless from the point of view of measuring the true wishes of the Catalans,” Spain’s most popular newspaper recognized that “never in our democracy has a movement been sustained for so long and been ignored.”