Tuesday, 22 December 2009

What went wrong in Vilanova?

Monday December 14, the program Agora on Catalan TV3 organized a debate on the outcome of the unofficial referendum on independence. Many figures and percentages were analyzed but not the 15.7% voter turnout here in Vilanova i la Geltrú, although we were the second largest town of this round.

One of the most active participants of the discussion was Alfons López Tenadirector of referendum organisation in the comarca Osona, where almost all municipalities took part and an entire 41.7% of the inhabitants cast their votes. As I understand it, many considered him the uncrowned winner of the debate. His message, in short, was that the Catalan average turnout at 27.4% was not good enough, but that this can be corrected if of the referendum platforms do things the right way and make sure to remain neutral in order to get the no-side involved.

I have no doubt that López Tena has played a crucial role for the outcome in Osona, but I would still want to contrast his claims with my observations from Vilanova and the local platform VNG Decideix.

Personally, I have the feeling that VNG Decideix surprised most of us in a very positive way. Already the week before the referendum they were praised by the Diari de Vilanova for their organizational skills. They were highly committed to giving this town the opportunity to vote and, therefore, difficult to miss. During weeks did they man an information kiosk in the middle of our Rambla, but they also filled the centre with posters and the local media with press releases. In addition, they sent out an information letter - 28,000 copies in total - which reached all mailboxes of Vilanova well in time for the referendum.

The only essential detail where I think they could have acted differently was the choice of language. Since the intention was to invite the entire population to participate, the message should not have been presented only in Catalan. I do not agree with the practice, but it is a fact that many people who live in Catalonia avoid reading texts which are not written in Spanish.

Coming back to how VNG Decideix was working, I consider that they - with a few exceptions – maintained a neutral profile and tried to encourage the no-side to run a campaign. However, that that did not happen, is not surprising. Sant Cugat del Vallès, Vilafranca del Penedès and Vic - the other major towns which took part in this round – all have local governments led by the Catalan nationalists CiU who supported and promoted the referendum. In Vilanova the unionist parties, through their majority in the city council, could focus on limiting the attention around the event. They had everything to win by ignoring the matter and making VNG Decideix look like extremists. On top of that, intellectually it is easy to defend their position bearing in mind that neither had they been allowed to influence the wording of the question nor the timing of the referendum. Having said that, to avoid that anyone of their local members got carried away in the atmosphere, the socialists (PSC) in written reminded them that the party considered it inappropriate to vote, or that is at least what an evil rumour now says.

If VNG Decideix, as I would claim, did what they could, then why was the voter turnout here so low? Probably because that is how Vilanova is, I would answer. To keep myself busy, I have taken the four biggest towns which held referenda on independence and looked at the proportion of voters who (in the municipal elections of 2007) voted for the recognized unionist parties, i.e. PSC, ICV-EUiA and PP, and plotted that against the participation in the referendum on independence. What emerges is a clear X. A real statistician could easily create a function based on all December 13 municipalities, which could then be used to approximate the turnout for each town of the future rounds. That is, if there is an interest in such a prediction.

It is, in fact, quite possible that the movement of Catalans fighting for independence will feel more motivated by sticking to López Tena’s message that everything is possible as long as you do things right. They will need that hope because they have much tougher challenges ahead. When we look at party preferences, socialist-led Vilanova i la Geltrú was the big exception on December 13, but if we look to Catalonia as a whole, and in particular the populous metropolitan area of Barcelona, it is the other way around.

It might not be what you want to hear, but I honestly think that VNG Decideix reached as far as they could and that nothing went wrong here in Vilanova.

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One of the initiatives taken by VNG Decideix was to visit people who for medical reason needed to vote in advance. Marcel·ilí Garriga - author of the book "Un vilanoví a Buchenwald" ('A vilanova inhabitant in Buchenwald') about his experiences as a prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp - took the opportunity to do so, and then passed away before the date of the referendum. I can not help but seeing this as an extra last glimmer of joy for a man who had seen too much of the dark side of life.

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In the curves I present in my diagram, the turnout in Vic is a bit higher than what can be predicted from the unionist parties' weak position. I would propose that this little jump can be explained by all attention caused by the visits of FC Barcelona's Joan Laporta and Joan Puigcercós (ERC) plus the presence of the international press.

The function of party preferences would be even more simple if it were based on the correlation between the strength of the Catalan nationalist parties and participation. However, the Plataforma per Catalunya – an extreme right wing and xenophobe group which I know very little about – is the second biggest party in Vic and I did not feel comfortable grouping them together with democratic bodies like CiU, ERC and CUP.

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The opinion presented in this post is my own. VNG Decideix has not been given the opportunity to in advance comment on this text.

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Technorati tags: Catalonia, Independence, Spain, Vilanova

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