'Like the Civil War without the bombs': Catalonia's messy vote

In an apartment off Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia shopping avenue, Rosario Caceres debated with her grandson over Cat...

Posted: Dec 15, 2017 3:13 PM
Updated: Dec 15, 2017 3:13 PM

In an apartment off Barcelona's Passeig de Gracia shopping avenue, Rosario Caceres debated with her grandson over Catalonia's bid for independence from Spain.

The 95-year-old lived through the Spanish Civil War, and then the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who oppressed her people with an iron fist.

"We weren't allowed to speak Catalan in school. I had to teach it to my children again after Franco died," she said. "Naturally, I was very angry."

After all the turbulence she has seen in Spain, Caceres doesn't care for the current standoff between Madrid and Barcelona over independence.

"It feels just like the Civil War but without the bombs," she said with a laugh.

"In Franco's time we had no freedom of expression, but now this is all too much. I think we need to find something in the middle."

The Catalan people will go to the polls next week to choose a new regional government, but voters will be casting their ballots as it if it were an official referendum on independence.

There are few options for that "something in the middle."

Caceres usually votes for the Socialists' Party of Catalonia, which is anti-independence but has been largely sidelined this election. But she isn't sure she will bother casting a ballot this time. She is old and doesn't always find it easy to leave the house.

"But also there is only one issue - independence. No one is running a real campaign," she said.

Support for the two sides is split right down the middle. One major change, however, is that the pro-independence side is fractured and is sending mixed messages on what to do next, after its unilateral declaration of independence in October went nowhere.

The central government called the December 21 vote in the hope of finding a more moderate government to deal with, following an illegally held independence referendum that triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades. But Madrid may be disappointed to find that little has changed since.

As the vote approaches, the two main pro-independence leaders are campaigning from prison and abroad.

Oriol Junqueras -- whose pro-independence party, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), is narrowly leading most polls -- is in a Madrid prison awaiting trail on charges of sedition and rebellion over his role in the referendum.

The deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, is in Brussels to avoid facing the same fate as Junqueras: a possible jail term of up to 30 years.

In-s Arrimadas from the Ciutadans party is leading the anti-independence side, campaigning to put an end to the independence movement altogether.

For Rosario Caceres, there isn't much choice. She told her grandson, 35-year-old David Rosello, that she was not necessarily against independence, but that it just didn't seem financially viable.

Rosello told her he wasn't so worried about the economic implications.

"Madrid's treatment of us couldn't get any worse," he said. "I'm ready to try something new."

How did Catalonia get here?

Rosello was referring in part to violent scenes of Spanish police firing rubber bullets at relatively calm protesters and pulling elderly voters by the hair from polling booths.

The police crackdown on the October 1 referendum prompted outrage that such violence was going on in modern-day Europe. It also fueled the independence movement's narrative that Catalonia is oppressed by Madrid.

The Catalans' frustrations are not completely unfounded.

In 2010, the Popular Party (PP) - which now rules the country - challenged Catalonia's status as a nation within Spain in the Constitutional Court. The party won that case and when the PP came into power, it began rolling back the autonomous region's powers.

It has overturned several laws passed by the Catalan Parliament, including a ban on bullfighting, arguing that the Parliament was overstepping its authority and putting Spanish culture at risk.

Read more: A political crisis is scaring tourists away from Barcelona

Catalans now mock Madrid as a strict parent that always says "No." Madrid has said it is open to dialogue with Barcelona, but only if independence is off the table.

The independence movement picked up steam after that 2010 case, which came amid the economic woes of the global financial crisis.

Before that turning point, only around 20% of people supported independence, when given four options with varying degrees of autonomy, according to Catalonia's Center for Opinion Studies. Support for independence peaked at 49% in 2013 but has now come down to below 40% with the four-way option.

But when given a simple binary choice on independence, 48.7% say they want Catalonia to break away from Spain, while 43.6% do not. The rest are undecided.

Many people argue that Madrid would have been smarter to simply allow the referendum. It would almost certainly have won if it ensured that there were more than two options on the ballot.

Has the independence movement blown it?

Oriol Bartomeus, a professor in politics at the Barcelona Autonomous University, suggests the movement has lost steam since the Catalan Parliament unilaterally declared independence in late October.

Madrid responded by firing the entire government, dissolving the Catalan Parliament and imposing direct rule over the region.

"It is clear that support for the independist camp is not going up but that they are just maintaining the vote. That means they don't have 50% of the vote, and without 50% of the vote, they cannot push their agenda of independence, no matter what the Spanish state says," he said.

Current polling numbers are almost identical to those just before the last election in 2015, in which pro-independence parties won just under half the seats and were forced into a coalition to take power.

But in such divisive elections, polls can get it wrong.

One notable trend is the steady rise of the anti-independence Ciutadans party. Led by 36-year-old Arrimadas, the party threatens to knock one of the two pro-independence groups from the top two spots. If Ciutadans continues its rise, the party could even gain the most seats.

In Catalan politics, no single party is ever really expected to win an outright majority and elections are generally followed by weeks, if not months, of negotiations.

And regardless of who wins the most seats on December 21, the question of who will be the next President is another matter entirely.

After the 2015 election, Puigdemont was propelled to the presidency in a last-minute coalition deal.

A crackdown on all things yellow?

The bickering between Madrid and Barcelona has taken odd turns in this campaign, the latest one over the color yellow.

Independence supporters are using the color to call for the release of jailed politicians and activists, but Madrid has complained that yellow has become politicized and is being used by public bodies that should be neutral.

The country's electoral board - which goes by the name of the Junta Electoral in Spanish, but is called simply the Junta by its critics - has banned Barcelona from bathing its fountains in yellow light after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party complained about it.

The city began illuminating the fountains with yellow after the president of the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly (ANC), Jordi Sanchez, was imprisoned, along with -mnium Cultural's leader Jordi Cuixart, for helping organize the referendum. The two civil-society groups work closely with the pro-independence parties.

The board has also banned election officials from wearing yellow ties on election day, and yellow is prohibited on all public buildings, as are any symbols showing support for those in prison.

Read more: These banks and businesses are leaving Catalonia

Tensions are high and anger is easily roused. On Monday, scuffles broke out between the people of Lleida, west of Barcelona, and police who began seizing disputed artifacts from a museum there.

The neighboring region of Arag-n also claims the medieval artifacts as theirs, and Madrid used its special temporary powers over Catalonia to order the removal.

In Girona, at the epicenter of the independence movement, the electoral board has also picked a fight with the City Hall.

The Junta Electoral forced the building to remove a banner reading: "Free Our Political Prisoners." In response, City Hall has replaced it with another, reading: "Freedom of Expression."

"Because who can argue with that?" an official wearing a yellow ribbon said to CNN.

What happens next?

Meanwhile, Puigdemont has been speaking at his campaign events by teleconference, beamed in from Brussels onto giant screens.

He has vowed to return to Catalonia if he wins on December 21, but speculation is beginning to swirl that he may return sooner.

Junqueras is writing regular impassioned letters and notes from jail as his team portrays him to voters as Madrid's political prisoner.

Elsa Artadi, who is running for a seat and is a spokeswoman for Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia campaign, said it had been incredibly difficult to promote the former president and his slate of candidates.

"We can't compete with these unequal conditions," she told CNN at the campaign headquarters in Barcelona.

In the Catalan parliamentary system, a leader fields a list of candidates who are given a number in order of priority. Puigdemont's list has him at number one and at number two is Sanchez, who was imprisoned as leader of the ANC civil-society group.

"Our number one is in Brussels, our number two is in prison, our number three is in Brussels, our number four was in jail until a week ago. So that makes it very difficult logistically," Artadi said.

Ernest Maragall, who is running for a seat with Junqueras' ERC party, also complains of an uneven playing field.

"We are playing a lot of basketball, but only with one arm," he said.

Bartomeus, from the Barcelona Autonomous University, said that playing up the fact that crucial leaders in prison or abroad is an attempt to create a martyr effect.

"That's because the independist campaign is based on the idea that Spain is not a democratic state but an authoritarian one," he said.

"You don't even have to say it, you just have to remind your voters that your leaders are in prison. And that is a very clear message."

While there is anger about the imprisonments, it isn't necessarily translating to more votes.

With less than a week left to go and polls refusing to budge, someone will have to have something extraordinary up their sleeve to swing the balance. Otherwise both the people of Catalonia and the rest of Spain may find themselves where this all began, their wounds unhealed.

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