Catalonia’s tumultuous independence referendum reached its climax on Sunday, when voters attempted to take to the polls amidst clashes between protestors and riot police. Having declared the vote illegal, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sent huge numbers of Guardia Civil officers into the contested region in order to blockade polling booths, seize ballot boxes and hold back crowds of would-be voters. With Madrid intent on deploying such heavy-handed tactics, it was not long before Catalan President Carles Puigdemont issued a stark warning against ‘a return to times past’. There was little ambiguity in Mr Puigdemont’s statement. As any Spanish viewer would have realised, he was referring to life under Francisco Franco.
Franco - who, in the spirit of Mussolini and Hitler, went by the self-styled title of Caudillo (roughly ‘leader’) – ruled Spain as an absolute dictator from his victory in the Spanish Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975. In his attempts to unite Spain under his fascist leadership, he set about purging any hints of localised government, language or culture. The Catalans had fought for the anti-fascist Republicans in large numbers during the war (Barcelona had been a major Republican stronghold), so naturally they became a particular target for Franco once he began to consolidate his power.
Within the first few years of his reign, Franco and his Falangist Party went to extremes in order to stamp out Catalan culture. Parents were unable to give their children Catalan names and people already christened with them were forced to adopt a Castilian Spanish alternative. School lessons and church services ceased to be conducted in Catalan. Books and newspapers were published nearly exclusively in Spanish. Catalan festivals, dances and other cultural events were banned. Even the street names were changed. Indeed it is testament to the societal strength of the Catalans that their culture was able to survive until 1975, after which it gradually returned to daily life.
Though a million miles away from the fascist oppression of the Franco regime, the current government in Madrid seems willing to pursue a watered-down version of the same idea. Mr Rajoy wants to keep Spain undivided, in line with the 1978 Constitution’s insistence on the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation’, regardless of the fact that the post-Franco Spain of the 1970s was a wildly different place to that of today, where Catalonia is not only the wealthiest region but also boasts a flourishing local identity.
A difference of constitutional opinion between Madrid and Barcelona could have been dealt with politically, but the national government’s suppressive tactics dashed any hope of such a deal being made. Over the referendum weekend the world’s media was treated to the sight of bloodied protestors, fights between police and firefighters and, in one particularly grim episode, a crowd of people in Madrid raising their right arms in salute and singing the old Falangist tune, Cara al Sol (‘Facing the Sun’).
When the results of the referendum were announced, it transpired that 90% had voted ‘Yes’ out of a total turnout of only 42.3%. It was an unsanctioned vote with mass police violence, polling station closures and the seizure of ballot papers. In a situation like this there can never be an accurate or legally-binding result, something of which Mr Puigdemont is no doubt aware. Perhaps it is because of the doomed nature of the referendum that he chose to proclaim that the Catalan people had ‘earned their right to freedom’ through the brutality they had suffered at the hands of the Spanish state. He knows the power the images of this weekend will have around the world.
Despite the ‘Yes’ vote, it currently remains unclear as to whether or not Catalonia will be able to achieve independence. A badly organised and chaotically suppressed referendum has meant that any attempt to now declare unilateral independence will be condemned as illegal by Mr Rajoy, who may then set about suspending autonomy in the region as an emergency measure. But the weekend’s main success is not the vote itself, but rather the fact that the referendum has forced the Spanish government to show its cruel streak. The intensity of the debate has forced Madrid to engage in acts of violence that have horrified other democratic nations and have dredged up memories of Franco’s regime at home. Mr Puigdemont and his allies know that the careless brutality of the Spanish government has earnt the Catalan cause friends in both Spain and abroad. By contrast it would appear, somewhat ironically, as though the adoption of the Caudillo’s tactics has done irreperable damage to Madrid's reputation.