On September 11, hundreds of thousands again took to the streets of Barcelona in what has become a yearly ritual of peaceful national affirmation and democratic resolve. The Catalans' persistent claim, this year and every year since 2010, is simple – they aim to be recognized as a people and, as such, assert their right to determine their country's future political status. The proposal to hold a Scottish-style referendum on the matter has been invariably rejected by the Spanish establishment, often against some sensible advice coming from beyond its national borders, and is sure to be rejected this time as well. The latest Catalan attempt could be, then, just a reenactment of the usual plea to discuss a political solution and the expected refusal from the Spanish side. What makes all the difference this time is the election called for September 27. On the face of it, it's just a vote to renew the regional parliament. But, as made clear by most international media reporting about last Friday's demonstration and the issues involved, it is widely recognized as a de facto plebiscite on independence.
Up to now, people from very different ideological backgrounds had learned to march side by side to voice one common demand. Now they have managed to induce the leadership of the two main parties in Catalonia to take a step back on their respective agendas and push to the foreground one essential point – that of the future relation with the Spanish state. Those two parties, representing the center-right and the center-left, together held an absolute majority in the outgoing parliament and have now formed a wider coalition including leaders of civil society associations and prominent independent figures. Supporting independence is also a smaller coalition of the left, while other groups come short of demanding full sovereignty but endorse the Catalans' right to decide in a popular referendum. In fact, some in those groups may lean towards independence when the issue comes to a vote in parliament. Against both options remain only the subsidiaries of the two major Spanish parties plus an up-and-coming organization that had its start defending Spanish interests in Barcelona and whose leader is now hoping to boost his career in Madrid.
That this will be, by another name, the referendum that a steady 80% of Catalans support and which has been so far denied to them has been made explicit by those in favor of independence. In a more devious way, it is also acknowledged by those that are against. For now, unionists fall back on repeating that this is just a routine regional election, but the way they act reveals that they know all too well that it's not. At the end of the day, glossing over their very deep disagreements, they will certainly count their combined votes as representing a no to separation and they will band together to oppose independence, even if that turns out to be the choice of a majority of Catalans.
Catalans have no doubts about what's at stake when they come to the ballot box this time. They know they must decide between prolonging their dependent status in a political framework that has proved to be detrimental to their interests or setting out on an orderly process of administrative disengagement from the state. And for those who may ask what comes next, the pro-independence side has also made it very clear: a vote in the new parliament will be called on the relationship that the Catalan people – acting through their newly elected representatives – wish to have from now on with the Spanish state. A democratically elected parliament, they claim, is indeed entitled to decide on the matter, since every other avenue has been closed. If there is a majority for separation, the transitional arrangements already devised will gradually be activated, the European institutions will be notified and the Spanish government will be invited to a meaningful negotiation on the terms and the time frame to bring about an amicable parting of the ways.
It could be claimed that by forcing the Spanish side to recognize the exceptionality of this election, the fact that it is indeed a plebiscite, Catalans have already won the first battle. On September 27 they will be exercising their right to self-determination, and that night every vote will be counted as a yes or a no to independence. At all events, a new scenario will open in Catalonia before the end of the month, and it will be in everyone's interest to manage it in a way that causes the least damage – and hopefully delivers the largest benefit – to all.