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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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STRIKES

Doctors, teachers and taxi drivers strike across Catalonia

Wednesday is due to be a difficult day in Catalonia with planned stoppages across three different sectors in health, education, and taxi services.

Doctors, teachers and taxi drivers strike across Catalonia

Medical staff

The union Metges de Catalunya has called for five days of strikes for doctors and medical staff across Catalonia on Wednesday, January 25th and Thursday, January 26th, as well as February 1st, 2nd and 3rd.

They are demanding more resources and personnel for the Catalan public health system and between 25 to 28 patient appointments per work shift of 12 minutes each.

READ ALSO – Key dates: How planned health service strikes in Spain could affect you

After an unsuccessful meeting on Tuesday, January 24th to try and resolve issues and further talks on Wednesday morning that didn’t lead to any resolution, 25,000 health professionals from health centers and hospitals across the region have been called to strike. They have not demonstrated en masse like this in Catalonia since 2018.

Some 500 nurses and midwives also took to the streets on Tuesday, January 24th to ask for better working conditions. Their protest continues this Wednesday, when both nurses and doctors have gathered to march to Sants train station, where they are due to arrive at midday. 

The regional government has agreed to guarantee urgent health care as well as that of the neonatal units and vital chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments.

Teachers

Teachers and other educational professionals have also been called to strike with two days of planned walkouts on Wednesday, January 25th and Thursday, January 26th.

After a series of unproductive negotiations with the Minister of Education, Josep Gonzàlez-Cambray, the unions Ustec, CCOO and UGT decided to go ahead with the stoppages.  

The unions have said that the simultaneous strikes in education and health make perfect sense as they are “two pillars” of society that should be a priority for the government.

The union Ustec demands that the regional government should invest 6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) in public education as established by the Education Law of Catalonia. They are also asking to reduce the ratios in the classes and improve the working conditions of educational professionals. 

Schools will remain open during these days, however, and minimum services have been established such as guaranteeing 50 percent of the staff in special education centers and nurseries.

Taxi drivers

Taxi drivers have also joined in the protests and will stage a four-hour strike on Barcelona’s Gran Via this Wednesday, against driver apps such as Free Now, Uber and Bolt.

Negotiations between The Elite Taxi union and the city council broke down last week and the union has called drivers to gather from 10am to 2pm on Gran Via with Plaza Tetuán and on Passeig de Gràcia.

Taxi drivers will also be voting on whether to protest during the Integrated Systems Europe (ISE) and Mobile World Congress fairs. ISE will be held from January 1st to February 3rd and Mobile World Congress from February 27th to March 2nd.  

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