The second round of the Catalan non-official referendum on independence is over. As of now, it appears that there are three more to come; two small ones in February and April, respecitively, and then a larger one. The last one is to include Barcelona and it seem that the date has been postponed for organization purposes. During the past week we have seen very different conclusions from what happened here on 13/12. The only thing they have in common is that they all affect what will happen next.
That there would be conflicts after the referendum could be felt in advance, but at least I was surprised by how quickly and intensely they bubbled up. When, on Monday evening December 14, some of its leaders reached Agora - a debate program on Catalan TV3 - they had already begun to asserting their own positions and to accuse each other of trying to use the event for personal benefit.
No matter how right these people might have been in their allegations, they should not have been spread to the media; that was an insult to the thousands of volunteers who had been crucial to the process. These leaders have subsequently realized that their infighting jeopardized the whole movement, but by then some damage had already been done.
The problem with the outcome is that it was so unclear: It is true that 94.9% voted in favour of a sovereign Catalonia but the voter turnout was only 27.4%. While the coordinating group for the referendum stubbornly maintains that this was a success, the Madrid based press has called it all a failure.
To claim that the figures reveal that Catalonia wants to be independent, as some have done, is not honest. What the yes side would be more right in celebrating is the fact that, in the municipalities which have voted, the share of independentistas in the population extends far beyond the voters of ERC – the so far the only party in the Catalan parliament which advocates an independent state.
Even more important to remember is how we humans evaluate performance based on our expectations and that the hope for a high turnout increased substantially during the last few days before the referendum. From having been a matter covered in detail only by the openly Catalan nationalist press like Avui and El Punt, the initiative suddenly made it to the front page of LaVanguardia – Barcelona based but written in Spanish – and at the same time international media intensified their coverage. Partly this was because Joan Laporta - who is likely to enter into politics when his term as the president of FC Barcelona is over – made a tour from Tarrega to Vic, calling on his fellow countrymen to vote yes. It was in this late boost of attention the coordinating group revealed that they hoped for a voter turnout of 40%. They were probably fooled by the hype.
On the local level in Vilanova i la Geltrú the same thing happened. As late as Thursday December 10, the public notice boards of the town were dominated by VNG Decideix's neutral reminders about the referendum while CUP was the only party which had put up posters for a yes. Then, on the Friday, our local newspaper Diari de Vilanova dedicated its first three pages to VNG Decideix and at the same time the JNC (CDC's youth organisation), ERC, Reagrupament (the new party for an independent Catalonia which Joan Laporta might possibly lead) and some smaller groups started to encourage people to vote yes. At least I was mislead and interpreted the explosion of activity as a sign of a growing interest. Having said that, let me stress that the no-side was never tempted to campaign but kept with their strategy not to legitimize the referendum.
To evaluate the local platforms in a fair way, I would turn back the expectations to the levels we saw a few weeks earlier. If I remember it correctly, one representative of VNG Decideix once said that anything above 7.000 voters was an acceptable result for a non-official referendum. In the end, 8.515 Vilanova inhabitants went to the polling stations. Even more successful was the platform of Sant Cugat del Vallès which estimated that 10% of the population would vote, but reached an actual turnout of 25.5%.
All in all, my conclusion is that those Catalans who had hoped for a majority for independence, now have to admit to themselves that most of their neighbours did not see this referendum as a historic opportunity.
Nor did this day become a serious warning to the Catalan political class from citizens fed up with corruption scandals; a historic reaction which I – naïve as I am – was hoping for.
Having said that, December 13 was undeniably a day when the world had its eyes on Catalonia and followed an independence movement which, in a peaceful manner, challenged the state. No matter how democratic the process was when the Spanish constitution came about, in a modern open society the Catalans can, at least, count on international media support if, one day, they would agree to go their own way. To me that is a historical experience, not only for Catalonia but for geographically based minorities all around the globe.
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As a detail, I would like to add that I am convinced that the discrepancies now exposed among the leaders of the referendum movement do not depend on the outcome – a higher or a lower turnout could have lead to the same or even stronger reactions. From a perspective of organization dynamics you can - if you want to generalize – say that Swedes and Catalans are each other’s opposites: Swedes prefer to reconcile and reach consensus, while Catalans rather split into factions than compromise with their principles.
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