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CATALONIA

Why Catalan separatists are in crisis five years after independence vote

The ill-fated referendum of October 1st 2017 unleashed a political crisis from which the separatists have never recovered, and on the eve of the anniversary, Catalonia's pro-independence coalition is at the point of collapse.

Why Catalan separatists are in crisis five years after independence vote
A photo taken on October 1st 2017 shows people sat in Plaza Catalunya square in Barcelona as they wait for the results of a referendum on independence for Catalonia, a vote that was banned by the Spanish government. ON October 1st 2022, Catalonia marks the fifth anniversary of self-determination referendum organised by separatists despite being banned by the courts. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

Josep Lluis Rodríguez has not given up hope of an independent Catalonia. But five years after a banned referendum, he no longer expects anything from the deeply divided separatist leaders in Barcelona.

“Of course there is frustration and anger, because they didn’t do what they should have done,” the 62-year-old former company boss told AFP of the leaders who failed to make good on their separatist promises.

“It’s clear they are no longer openly interested in independence,” he said, standing outside the church in Arenys de Munt just north of Barcelona.

Many Catalan independence flags can be seen fluttering from balconies along the main street in Arenys de Munt, a town of of 9,000 residents which was the first place to hold a symbolic referendum on independence in 2009.

Hundreds of municipalities followed suit, driving a groundswell of pro-independence activism which would reach its climax in the events of October 2017 under the regional government of Carles Puigdemont.

Despite being banned by the Spanish courts, the 2017 referendum organised by the separatist government went ahead but descended into chaos as police moved in to stop it, sparking confrontations marred by violence.

“October 1st was when civil society really came out en masse,” catching the separatist parties by surprise who had not expected such a huge mobilisation in response to their moves towards independence, Rodríguez said.

“It was only later that we realised that they didn’t have a concrete plan, nor structures in place (for achieving independence),” said Rodriguez, an activist with the ANC, the region’s biggest grassroots separatist movement.

Despite the police crackdown, the fact the referendum took place at all was “a great victory for the Catalans”, he said.

And to mark the anniversary this Saturday, he will attend a demonstration in Barcelona bent on securing a new referendum.

“We’re organised and when the time comes, we will mobilise.”

Divided and squabbling

The results of the October 2017 referendum were never independently corroborated, and weeks of confusion followed, culminating in a short-lived symbolic declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament.

That proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with Madrid sacking the Catalan government, suspending the region’s autonomy and putting its leaders on trial as it struggled to handle Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

Despite passions running high over independence, the region itself remains divided, with only 41 percent in favour of separation while 52 percent want to remain in Spain, the latest survey suggested.

But it’s a far cry from the 49 percent who wanted to break away in the October 2017 poll.

Last year, the separatists again won a majority in the regional elections and managed to cobble together a fragile coalition grouping the left-wing ERC and hardline JxC.

But they are sharply at odds over how to achieve independence, with ERC backing a negotiated strategy via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC prefers a confrontational approach given that Spain has ruled out any new referendum.

“The political deadlock is ongoing, the Catalan government is divided and every day they attack each other in the press over a thousand things,” said Joan Botella, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University.

“Nobody is suggesting a way forward or how to resolve the conflict.”

Demonstrators hold a banner reading “52%, why the hell did we vote for you ?” and wave Catalan pro-independence “Estelada” flags during a protest marking the “Diada”, the national day of Catalonia, in Barcelona on September 11th 2022. The protest coincides with Catalonia’s national day, or “Diada”, which commemorates the 1714 fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession and the region’s subsequent loss of institutions. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

‘Won’t happen in my lifetime’

Fed up with the impasse, the ANC called people onto the streets for the annual “Diada” march on September 11th with a rallying cry denouncing the politicians and insisting “only the people and civil society can achieve independence”.

The powerful movement has been openly critical of the Catalan government’s dialogue with Madrid, and this year its leader Pere Aragones did not attend the rally.

Police said 150,000 people turned out for the event, the lowest figure in a decade — without counting the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People feel cheated and frustrated but it doesn’t mean they will stop backing independence,” said Josep Sánchez, mayor of Arenys de Munt, standing next to a small monument by the town hall marking the 2017 referendum.

But shopkeeper Magda Artigas has lost any hope of seeing the emergence of an independent Catalan republic, despite voting for one in successive referendums in 2009, 2014 and 2017.

“I’m already 64, it won’t happen in my lifetime,” she said with a sad smile.

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SPANISH LAW

Why Spain’s right is vehemently opposed to changes to sedition law

Spain's right-wing opposition is infuriated over government plans to abolish sedition, the charge used against Catalan separatist leaders, decrying the move as a gift to pro-independence parties in exchange for parliamentary support.

Why Spain's right is vehemently opposed to changes to sedition law

Parliament on Thursday approved a bill to reform the criminal code to drop what Spain’s left-wing coalition government sees as an antiquated offence, replacing it with one better aligned with modern European norms.

And the change should be in place before the year’s end, Spanish media reports say.

In response, the far-right Vox party has called a protest in Madrid on Sunday, while the right-wing opposition Popular Party (PP) has convened rallies across the country to express its opposition.

Right-wing parties say eliminating sedition — the charge used to convict and jail nine Catalan separatists over their involvement with a failed 2017 independence bid — will pave the way for another attempt to separate from Spain.

Initially condemned to between nine and 13 years behind bars, the separatists were pardoned last year by the leftist government, drawing fury from the Spanish right.

“Great for those in Catalonia who want to stage another coup!” PP lawmaker Edurne Uriarte told a parliamentary debate over the planned law changes.

Like European democracies

The failed independence bid sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, with then-Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and several others fleeing abroad to escape prosecution.

Spain says its efforts to have them extradited have failed because many European countries simply don’t recognise sedition as a crime, with the bill seeking to reframe the offence as an “aggravated public disorder”.

The bill aims “to reform the crime of sedition and replace it with an offence comparable to what they have in other European democracies,” Sánchez said earlier this month.

“The crimes committed in 2017 will continue to be present in our penal code, although no longer as crimes of sedition… but as a new type of crime called an aggravated public disorder,” he said.

But even Puigdemont has expressed misgivings about the legal change, saying those separatists celebrating the move “have learned nothing from the last five years”.

The new offence would carry a maximum penalty of five years behind bars, compared with 15 years for the crime of sedition.

Opposition leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo asked Sánchez to “clarify whether he is actually reforming the crime of sedition to protect Spanish democracy or whether he is just trying to politically survive” — implying the bill was payback for pro-independence party support in parliament.

“The PP’s stance is clear: we will increase the penalties for sedition and rebellion, we will make them criminal offences and will make the holding of an illegal referendum a crime,” he said of his party’s position, with a general election on the horizon.

Some reluctance on the left

The PP managed to ensure Thursday’s vote was vocal, a rare procedure in Spain in which lawmakers verbally declare their support or opposition for a bill, in a move forcing the more reluctant Socialists to lay their cards clearly on the table.

Spain’s criminal code currently defines sedition as “publicly rising up and using mass disorder to prevent the implementation of laws, by force or through means outside the law”.

More succinctly, the Royal Academy of Spanish Language defines it as a “collective and violent uprising against authority, against public order or military discipline without reaching the gravity of rebellion”.

The crime has survived various reforms of the legal code, the last of which was in 1995, but its critics say it dates back to the 19th century.

“We are revising a crime that was enacted in 1822 in Spain, dating back 200 years to when there were still military uprisings,” Sanchez said earlier this month, pointing to Germany, where sedition was abolished in 1970.

But reclassifying it as an aggravated public disorder hasn’t satisfied some on the left who fear it could be used against demonstrators.

“It concerns us… (that the new offence) could have some limiting effect on the right to peaceful protest,” argued Pablo Echenique, spokesman for the hard-left Podemos, the Socialists’ junior coalition partner which was behind the moves to abolish sedition.

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