The Impossible Referendum that Happened in Catalonia

by Enrique Saiz

The last few years have been witness to a true earthquake in Spanish politics. The bleeding wound left on the economy of Spain by the Great Recession was perhaps the spark that lit the fuse on a series of far-reaching changes, ones that have attracted the interest of commentators around the world. From the decay of the classical bipartisan system of the PSOE (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Spanish Socialist Workers Party; social-democrats turned third-way social-liberals) and the PP (Partido Popular, People’s Party; conservatives), to the bank bailout. From the indignados to the birth of Podemos, the grassroots protests and direct actions to stop evictions of the PAH (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, Mortgage Victim’s Platform). One could say the deep shock that the country experienced when its property bubble collapsed ignited latent social and economic conflicts that had been dormant for some time, or made them take on new forms.

So is the case with the Catalan question. There is no space to explain the historical origins or even the recent surge in sentiment and activism for Catalan independence, as there are good biographies of both. Suffice it to say that in just eight years, what had been a significant but minority position within Catalan politics has totally transformed the landscape. And on Sunday, Oct. 1, it made a quantum leap, with a referendum on the independence of Catalonia that went ahead despite opposition by the central Government, kickstarting a national crisis that threatens to engulf the whole of Spain. Spanish police descended on Catalonia intent on stopping the referendum, by force if necessary, and they beat people who tried to vote, but could not stop the referendum, in which nearly the entire vote was for independence from Spain.

Referendum Defense Committees had formed throughout Catalonia (which is an “autonomous community” or administrative division of Spain), in order to protect voting locations, coordinate volunteers, and overall, to make the referendum possible. It went ahead, but not without the police acting. The images of bloodied old ladies and battered pensioners were splattered on the front pages of major media outlets. Cops throwing flying kicks against peaceful protesters or shoving people who wanted to vote against the ground were, unfortunately, the presentation card of Spain in many newspapers across the world.

Two days later, on Oct. 3, a general strike took place throughout Catalonia. The strike had been called by several unions with a presence in Catalonia such as CGT, Intersindical and COS. It paralyzed the autonomous community with huge protests, picket lines and roadblocks, mobilizing workers to protest both social issues and state repression. Several Catalan universities and organizations also joined the strike, and it received the support or sympathy of other unions in Spain, while it was opposed by the Spanish employers’ association CEOE. Meanwhile, the Spanish Government and people who supported police actions during the referendum explained that they had used only proportional force, that they were reacting against taunts or provocations, and in the end, that they were just upholding the law. But what law is that?

Spanish Constitution: law of the land

On September 6, the Catalan Parliament passed a law summoning Catalan people to vote in a referendum on independence on October 1. The following day, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the law. Among other arguments, the Court based its ruling in the direct words of the Spanish Constitution, specifically, article 1.2 which declares that “national sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people, from whom all State powers emanate” and of article 2, which reads, “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible motherland of all Spaniards …”.

Therefore, the Catalan Referendum Law clashed against basic principles of the Spanish Constitution which, based on Spanish nationalism, declares national unity as a non-negotiable issue. Several scholars, such as Capella and Pisarello (himself First Deputy Mayor of Barcelona and a member of Ada Colau’s Barcelona en Comú), have highlighted the role of the military in the introduction of such strongly worded statements in the Constitution. The idea behind it would be that in the context of late Francoism, the Spanish regime had come to terms with the fact that the country was to evolve into a Western-style liberal democracy. But liberalisation would be controlled, and under no conditions would certain red lines drawn by the military be crossed, one of them being that national unity was to be enshrined in the Constitution. It is no coincidence that Article 8 declares one of the tasks of the armed forces to be “to defend [Spanish] territorial integrity”.

Still, some of the observers have asked whether the Constitution could not be reformed in order to change those articles and make a Catalan independence referendum legal and valid. Podemos, for example, while not supporting the referendum as a binding vote, did criticize the Spanish Government and PP, the ruling party, and defended the idea of a “negotiated referendum”. Pablo Iglesias, General Secretary of Podemos, has stated that, while he does not favour Catalonia becoming independent from Spain, the only way out from the current situation is for a valid and legal referendum to be held.

It is not clear if the proposal by Unidos Podemos includes a Constitutional reform, but it certainly would be a necessary step in order to remove or change the articles quoted above so that the decision to become independent or not would fall upon Catalans and not be a matter of (Spanish) “national sovereignty”. The problem is that such a reform is simply not feasible.

Reform or referendum

Title X of the Spanish Constitution establishes the process required to reform it. There are two processes, in fact, a regular one and an “aggravated” one. In the former, three fifths of both Congress and Senate are needed, and a referendum can be proposed (but is not necessary) in order to ratify it. The latter, however, is much stricter: two thirds of both Congress and Senate are needed in order to pass the reform. Once it goes through, parliament is dissolved and elections are called. The newly formed Congress and Senate must then vote the reform, with, again, two thirds needed for it to pass. And lastly, a referendum on the reform would have to be conducted in all of Spain. The “aggravated” process applies to reforms aimed at changing a core part of the Constitution. Can you guess where articles 1.2 and 2 cited above are located? Yes, in the Preliminary Title, which is included in that core part.

Reforming those articles is thus an almost impossible endeavour. Never mind the majority needed in Congress or the referendum. The brick wall is the Senate, because in Spain, it is a territorial representation chamber. That means that senators are nominated through a mixed method combining a number elected by popular vote in each constituency (4 for each provincia in peninsular Spain, while islands and Ceuta and Melilla have between one and three senators each) and some more appointed by the legislative chamber of each autonomous community (a minimum of one for each, with an extra senator for each million inhabitants in that autonomous community).

What this means is that, as of 2017, Catalonia has 24 senators, counting both those elected (16) and those appointed by its own Parliament (8). The Spanish senate has a grand total of 266 senators. A Constitutional reform that challenged the Spanish nationalist basis of articles 1.2 and 2 cited above would need 177 senators voting in favour. Even if every single Catalan voted for pro-Constitutional reform candidates, they would not come close to the minimum number needed.

A loophole could be explored. As the articles detailing the process for constitutional reform are not themselves included in the core part of the Spanish Constitution, they could be reformed through the regular process so that the highly qualified majority in both Congress and Senate could be reduced. But again, the barrier is set in the Senate, as 160 senators (three fifths of the total) would still be needed, and out of grasp of Catalans even if all of the senators that are elected and appointed in Catalonia voted for such a reform.

At the end of the day, a constitutional reform seems like a pipe dream for most Catalans. While there is a substantial proportion of Spaniards who would support a legal referendum (43%), and a clearly sympathetic segment of people whose vote can be correlated to their parties (with Unidos Podemos voters being the most likely to support the referendum), none of the other parties–PP, PSOE or Ciudadanos (Citizens, a social-liberal party), have put any such proposal on the table.

It is possible that the Spanish Government is expecting its Catalan counterpart to eventually get tired and perhaps settle for an agreement on funding for Catalonia, aiming for a lesser version of what the Basque Nationalist Party treasures most: their favorable economic agreement with the Spanish Government. They might have been right if they relied on the political instinct of PdCat (Partit de Catalunya, Party of Catalonia), one of the main parties in the Catalan government, which is not above reaching agreements with PP in order to sell out the majority of Catalan and Spanish workers. But they miscalculated the pressure from Catalans, who have forced their elected Government to go through with what had been described, for the last few weeks, as “an impossible chimera”, a challenge to the State, an illegal act, high treason. Something to be stopped, by force if necessary.

It is of course true that neither the referendum, nor even independence from Spain, would mean that a socialist utopia would be established in Catalonia. Far from it, and Catalan socialists should be wary of those who join them in talking about “the people” only so they can keep doing what the Spanish right has been doing for so long: the day after the Spanish right is gone, the Catalan right would keep doing what they had been doing in coalition with their Spanish equivalents: selling out the workers.

But still, the facts that the Spanish Government chose to crackdown on the referendum and yet it went ahead, and that both the government and the Spanish employers’ association CEOE were powerless to stop the strike from being a massive success, bring a spark of hope. Neither of them counted on the fact that politics is not always the art of the possible, but rather the contrary: the Referendum Defense Committees and the strike are proof that sometimes, when workers organize, agitate and mobilize, politics becomes about making the impossible happen.


  1. There some mistakes and personal opinions in this piece. I’m just going to criticize the last paragraph, in which the authore says that the workers are those who organize, agitate and mobilize. This is not true but false. The political parties who support the independence are not representing the workers, its leaders belong to the bourgeoisie, whether of the most rancid and corrupt right (PdCAT), the well-to-do middle class (ERC), or the urban middle class illustrated playing the revolt (CUP). According to surveys, the working class is not separatist, in fact, the workers would lose the most in the case of independence.

  2. I am the author of the piece and Francisco Bana is factually incorrect on several claims he makes, a quick google search on the general strike on Catalonia shows that a general strike took place on Catalonia after the referendum, and in protest of the Spanish state repression.
    For example, The Guardian, a newspaper that cannot be said to be sympathetic to separatist leftist causes reported it:

    To say that Catalonia has such impressive number of “bourgeoise” which, for some bizarre reason, are able to take part in a strike (a tool for worker struggle) is, simply, to empty the term “bourgeoise” of any meaning and to use it as a mere hurling weapon against a cause one opposes. It is something quite common in Spain to masquerade one’s Spanish nationalism through an ambivalent opposition to “separatism”, as if support of the status quo (represented by the Spanish State, a capitalist, monarchic state born out of the Franco fascist dictatorship) was something that benefitted workers.

    Of course national liberation movements are never purely defined worker movements. No struggle is. Struggle for racial emancipation also include a number of oportunists, bourgeoise elements who may pay lip service to the cause, or even sincerely defend it but not go far enough and question capitalism. So what? That does not make the cause any less rightful and surely does not make it any less necessary in order to advance towards a cooperation of the working class and to the ultimate objective of human emancipation. You can’t advance towards human emancipation if you keep unjust structures such as states that deny people’s right to self-determination, racism, etc.

    Raya Dunayevskaya pointed this out when commenting how Lenin critizied Bukharin on the question of the Easter Rising. Bukharin dismissed the Rising as a mere bourgeoise rebellion (just like Francisco does). But Lenin saw beyond that and made it clear that whoever expected national liberation struggles to see two clearly defined sides with one “for socialism” and another “for imperialism” simply does not understand how social, political and economic struggles take place in the real world. He was looking for new beginnings.

  3. I have a question about the role and number of migrant workers within Catalonia. There are Spanish migrants in Catalonia, EU migrants and African migrants who make up- I hear- around 12-15% of the population- maybe more if you count Spanish migrants. What is their attitide towards independence and what is the attitude of the Catalan politicians to these migrants? My understanding- it could be wrong- is that they are largely neutral on the issue or maybe against independence. Is that right?

  4. elections on 21st December for new Catalan Parliament. Pro-independence very slightly ahead in the opinion polls. What does this mean for independence?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.