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Spain and Catalonia — 'Out with them all!'

Gemma Casadevall
Gemma Casadevall
October 2, 2017

The images of violence from Catalonia's referendum are shocking. If politicians in Madrid and Barcelona keep stubbornly catering to their clientele, the next catastrophe will soon follow, says DW's Gemma Casadevall.

A crowd of people keeps a distance from a member of the Guardia Civil in Barcelona on October 1
Image: picture alliance/AP/M. Fernandez

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has the pictures he needs to strengthen the independence movement: Senior citizens being dragged out of polling stations by the authorities, overpowering police forces taking action against unarmed, unmasked citizens, and ballot boxes torn out of the hands of people who want to take advantage of their "right to decide."

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had repeatedly insisted that the Supreme Court had declared the referendum invalid, and so it could not take place. He got the backing of his most important European allies for his pledge to "defend the rule of law." It could be that the dire images from Catalonia, which are hardly consistent with a European democracy, transform this support into horror and rejection.

Mutual blame

As expected, the two sides are blaming each other for the violence. According to the Spanish judiciary, this referendum was illegal. The supporters of Catalonian independence decided nevertheless to hold the referendum, although it clearly wasn't going to uphold international standards, such as the existence of a recognized election authority and a verifiable electoral register. A deeply divided society was called on to cast a vote in a manner never imagined possible in Spain.

Gemma Casadevall
Gemma Casadevall is an editor in DW's Spanish department

Puigdemont's team reacted to the police confiscating millions of ballot papers with creativity, a marked presence in social media and by speedily mirroring websites blocked by Madrid. Catalonia reacted to the deployment of tens of thousands of members of the Guardia Civil and national police, who were sent to stop the vote, with the night-time occupation of schools — even by parents and children — to ensure that the polling places could open their doors on Sunday.

Indescribable images from Barcelona

That's how October 1 began. The vote started with a WhatsApp message from Catalans wishing each other well on the "festival of democracy." The first images of the police operations destroyed the illusion.

And they also destroyed the belief held by some that they belonged to a silent majority that could keep itself out of the conflict. Many Spaniards and many Catalans view the occurrences as a confrontation between two nationalisms, the Spanish and the Catalan, which they want nothing to do with. Many others had wished for an amicable and binding referendum with a clear message and a clear result. Then these people watched on television as teenagers, who could have been their sons or nephews, were kicked to the ground by police, as older women, who could be their mothers, were dragged out of polling stations. These people weren't rioters in hoodies, but rather people who wanted to express their opinions in a referendum, even if it was illegal, unsystematic and non-binding.

Pointless to ignore anymore

How could this situation have come about? That's the question many are asking in view of scenes no one could have imagined from a democracy — which Spain undoubtedly is. There will be no reliable outcome to this referendum. We don't know how the people would have voted, had the referendum been legal and amicable. One thing alone seems apparent: To ignore the force of Catalonian aspirations for independence would be like wanting to cover up the sun with one's finger.

The art of successful politics is to find a path where things appear to be hopelessly blocked. Puigdemont and Rajoy have both satisfied their respective supporters. If either of them see Sunday as providing legitimation for their previous policies, the next political catastrophe will soon follow. A mobilization of the masses — not only in Catalonia — could borrow its slogan from the 2001 Argentine protest marches against the entire political class: "Out with them all!"