On Sunday 9th November, Catalonia voted.
1. My day. After a couple of very late nights trying to keep up with things on the internet, and trying to do some work at the same time, I somehow dragged myself out of bed just before 8am on Sunday to check (on the internet and radio) that all was well, that the police hadn’t turned up at polling stations and there was no need to rush there to help out. The missus then went off to help her mum (with mobility problems) get ready and bring her up to our house for a traditional Catalan breakfast – thick hot drinking chocolate, or rather, dunking chocolate. Delicious with lots of bread and buns dunked in it. And made in Tortosa.
After that we got our voting clothes on – I went for the ELO t-shirt to make a statement – and drove up to our polling station. There were about 50 cars in the car park, a queue of about 10 cars to get in and 8 local policemen helping out. We made our way slowly to the school entrance – my mother-in-law walks with crutches after 4 different unsuccessful hip operations. Once in the grounds, there were crowds of people milling around, many with Catalan flags, happy smiling faces, from babes in arms to elderly people – and I mean, really elderly people. The amount of people who must have been in their 80s or 90s waiting to vote was amazing. Goose pimples! We each had to go to different ballot boxes due to our surnames, but went happily from one to the other as a family. There’s no rush when you’re changing history. Loads of volunteers inside the school helping out. More smiles. Photos of the historic moment – see above. And finally we’d done, but spent some more time there in the school playground greeting friends and chatting about the importance of this day.
By 12.30 we were back home, but I then had to go back out to pick up my seven-month-pregnant sister-in-law at the train station. She’d flown back home especially from Mallorca just to vote. Left Mallorca early doors, arrived in Barcelona at 9, and then a 3-hour train ride to Tortosa. I drove her up to the school and we repeated the earlier process – and smiles.
Back home, for a vermouth together, another Catalan tradition, followed by a delicious paella and a short well-deserved snooze before spending the rest of the day following the proceedings on the internet and TV news. Finally hit the sack, worn out but euphoric about 1am.
2. The volunteers. As the Catalan government had sort of stepped aside in the final organization – remaining responsible for the vote itself, but they didn’t want it to be run by public sector workers who could find themselves in legal problems – they had appealed for volunteers to run the vote. Over 40,000 registered in a matter of days, and did a wonderful job on Sunday. The vote ran smoothly, efficiently, and was just as well-organized as any other election process I’ve seen. These people are heroes.
3. The legal threat. As I said previously, to reduce legal problems for local authorities it was decided to hold the vote only in buildings actually belonging to the Catalan government – basically schools (hospitals being ruled out). But the heads of the schools had to actually physically unlock the doors. Late on Saturday the 8th, the Spanish Public Prosecutor decided to apply the Constitutional Court’s ban of the vote by asking police to identify and inform on who was responsible for opening the schools/voting stations. The Catalan President, Mr Mas, immediately stated that he was the sole person responsible and people should not fear legal consequences.
The police did turn up on Sunday morning – but to help with any logistic problems! That's the Catalan police, not the Spanish national police force who, luckily, kept a low profile. Mid-morning, another right-wing political party denounced the process to Catalan courts, requesting the police act immediately to close the voting stations and arrest President Mas. The court, applying what is apparently known as “proportionality” of action, decided not to act. The chances of closing 6000 stations in 900 towns, faced with 2 million citizens, were not exactly high ones – and even less so with a peaceful outcome.
Two days later, though, the governing PP party have announced that tomorrow (Wednesday) the Public Prosecutor will press criminal charges against President Mas and the Catalan vice-president and maybe the Education Minister. Yes, you read that right, a political party is announcing what the legal system will do.
4. The stories. Polling started at 9am, but the volunteers had to be there by 7.30 to prepare everything – and, just maybe, offer peaceful resistance to police attempts to prevent the vote. Hundreds of other people turned up at every school too, just in case... and by 9am there were huge queues of people waiting to vote, queues that lasted most of the day, especially in big cities. My friend had to queue for an hour in Barcelona, for example. Queuing to vote – with a smile!
Catalans living abroad could either vote at a Catalan government office in 17 major cities, or fly “home”. People flew in from everywhere, even as far as from Chile and Argentina. People travelled from Miami to New York. From the west coast of Australia to Sydney. From Germany and Holland to Brussels. From Sheffield to London. There was a 6-hour queue to vote in London. See video below.
Babes in arms being breast-fed in hour-long queues. The 80-year-old man who went to vote on the way to his wife’s funeral. A 101-year-old voter. Many in their 90s who lived through the civil war and Franco waiting for this moment. A Catalan woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Smiles and tears, many tears were shed – tears of joy and relief.
5. The observers. Despite Spain’s insistence that the vote was a farce, and illegal, a team of MEPs came to observe that all was carried out correctly. The team was led by a Scottish Conservative MEP and they gave the process a clean bill of health. That a Conservative politician should give such a clear message on live TV too, saying that voting should never be illegal, and that protecting democratic rights comes before any thoughts for and against independence, is what we call a kick in the b*lls for the Spanish “democratic” government. More here.
6. The numbers. 2,300,000 voted (so far – but you can still vote during the next two weeks at official government offices and people are queuing every day). Before we go on to analyze this, that means that over two million Catalans have committed an act of civil disobedience on a scale probably never seen before in western Europe. Over two million Catalans have told the Spanish authorities where they can shove their laws and legislation. Think about this. In my opinion, this shows Catalonia is already free- we’re just missing the paperwork to formalize the divorce!
The exact number of how many could have voted varies as, with the vote (even the watered-down third and final proposal, known as a “citizen participation process on the political future of Catalonia”) being banned by the Spanish courts, the Catalan government weren’t allowed access to the official electoral roll and simply had to register voters one by one on the day itself. Still, it seems like around 5.5 or 6 million could have taken part (including 16 and 17 year olds, and foreigners like yours truly). The fact that about 35-40% of these voted is a huge success in my opinion, given the obstacles and threats:
a) There were far fewer polling stations than usual as they could only use school buildings. In areas like mine, not every village has a secondary school, so some people had to travel 10km just to vote. Obviously many people are committed enough (having just explained that some flew across the globe), but imagine the maybe-voters. Would a 65-year-old maybe-voter with a dodgy leg go on a 10km bus trip just to vote?
b) Legal grey area. People know full well that Spain has a reputation for carrying out its threats, it is a young democracy and I have no doubts that they would have played the law enforcement card if they thought they could get away with it without bloodshed. The volunteers obviously knew this and took the risk, but, again, what about the non-committed voters? Would you go out not knowing what you could find? Not just police action but there could also have been violence from fascist thugs as threatened in the run up to the day. My neighbour phoned me at 11pm the night before to ask us if we thought it was safe to take the kids with them.
c) It may not have affected many voters, but “someone” brought down the Catalan government and citizens’ pro-independence group websites with a massive cyber-attack on the Saturday and Sunday, thus making it difficult to find out last minute information – as the polling stations were not the usual ones, you had to find out online where to go. Read more here. This attack could have had terrible consequences as it also affected the health website, affecting access to patient’s records, prescriptions and so on.
d) Several right-wing parties, including the PP who govern in Spain, asked their voters not to vote, thus reducing hugely the overall participation.
e) Changing the format of the vote at such short notice left many people confused as to the legality and usefulness of the final vote. The question itself was confusing, being a split question rather than a simple Yes or No.
f) If this had been a “normal” referendum, there would have been a Yes and No campaign, thus informing people and getting more numbers to the ballot boxes. As it stands, only Catalan public TV and radio have done anything similar – mainstream Spanish TV channels, with a huge audience in Catalonia, just did their best to let people know the vote was "at best" a waste of time, and "at worst" illegal!
7. My quick analysis:
As it stands over 80% of those who voted want full independence (about 1.8 million, which could creep up near the 2 million mark in coming days).This is a decent number given the circumstances listed above, and my feeling is that if it had been a normal vote, the Yes could have reached 2.5 or maybe 3 million.
In any normal election, you don’t get 100% turnout so you’d have to expect maybe 75-85% participation, which could mean between 4.5 and 5 million voters in all. Thus, I think a simple Yes/No vote in democratic conditions would throw up a majority for independence. (PS I really admire the 4.5% who went out to vote NO, ignoring the government’s requests to boycott the vote and deciding to participate in a democratic vote). Apart from that, 2 million voters would probably give a parliamentary majority in a “normal” election.
My gut feeling is that there is a majority of Catalans in favour of independence, and if this had been a binding referendum as Catalonia wanted, we’d be on our way with maybe a 60/40 split, or at least a 55/45 (like the numbers in Scotland). As it stands, the numbers, given the huge difficulties, are excellent and give a clear indicator to President Mas what his next step should be – call early elections on a one-issue (independence) programme and declare independence upon winning the election.
Some photos(Catalonia) and videos (London) of queues! An article in Bloomberg. Irish Times too. Some great stuff by the BBC here and here who had a reporter here giving great live coverage on internet.
Cues per votar a Londres por vilawebtv