No, what happened yesterday in Catalonia was not a referendum. It was a representation of one, in any case: chaotic in its organization and deceitful in its execution. It was also worrisome in many aspects, particularly concerning the protection of the data of millions of Catalans. However, one thing is certain: It is the greatest success ever achieved by the pro-independence cause.
This is fundamentally because hundreds of thousands of Catalans made the vote their own: They organized themselves and worked together to make it a reality, despite the judicial prohibition. They occupied schools from Friday onwards, hid ballot boxes and/or ballot papers at home, shared information to circumvent legal obstacles, got up early to reach the schools before the police and then, in the rain, waited hours to vote or so that others could vote. Even many of those who opposed the referendum two weeks ago took part. Some confronted the police and were beaten for it. And those images―bloodied grandmothers, youths being dragged along on the ground, frightened teens―have been seen all over the world, a world that until now had utterly ignored the Catalan desire for independence.
Now, a horrified Europe is asking what is going on in Spain, that conservative and stable country that has recovered from the crisis and is growing at a steady rate. What has happened is unprecedented: a legitimate government leading a full-blown insurrection, and another government launching the forces of law and order against peaceful citizens. It has never been seen before.
Both Puigdemont and Rajoy, and their governments, are directly responsible for yesterday’s images of violence, which have opened a deep wound in our co-existence: Puigdemont, for disregarding the rule of law that he is obliged to defend, and upholding the fiction of a legal referendum against all odds, even though he himself was unable to vote in his polling place; and Rajoy, for his short-sightedness in entrusting the containment of the independence tsunami not to politics, but to the police and the judiciary. Bringing in the National Police and the Civil Guard to close the polling places―the dirty work that the Catalan police would not do―and knowing the civil resistance that they would find, was reckless. More than 700 civilians and a dozen officers were injured.
Rajoy kept his word: There has been no referendum. But there have been ballot boxes and ballot papers, queues in schools, many young people and a great many older people genuinely excited about casting their vote. It was a climate of civil disobedience and festive resistance, and this should have been the summation of the day: citizens expressing their will, in a vote as symbolically powerful as it was legally invalid. Sunday morning, when the Catalan government had to replace the voting process with a democratically bankrupt “universal census,” controlled by apps, the referendum could well have been over and we could have been spared the police violence. But the Catalan government’s stubbornness in forcing the appearance of legality cornered the central government, who showed as much strength as they did an absolute lack of political skill.
Yesterday, the pro-independence cause gained international visibility, sympathizers and possibly new followers in Catalonia. If Puigdemont calls regional elections now―and there is no other way out―he can increase his support in votes for the secessionist project. Make no mistake, this too was part of his calculations. But the price to pay is very high, both in coexistence and in institutions discredited. The dialogue between Spain and Catalonia that will be essential to move forward, together or not, seems impossible so long as the current political leaders remain in power. After being twisted so much to shield one or the other, today democracy has suffered a monumental beating.
Update: And the beating continues. Carles Puigdemont, convinced that what has happened today is a triumph, has just taken a step from which there is no going back: He will transmit the result of the vote to the Catalan parliament so that Catalonia can be declared independent this very week. A frantic week awaits. Things can only get worse.