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The parallel reality of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia

Supporters of secession launch campaign in run-up to referendum as though nothing else matters

Tarraco Arena
Carles Puigdemont, left, and Oriol Junqueras, center, at the campaign rally.

In the parallel worlds created in Catalonia, the pro-independence movement’s seemed the more solid on Thursday, hitting the street first, which is where the game is going to be played. For the moment, the secessionists have pressed ahead with their cause, acting like everything is normal, plastering any public space with their message. The feeling is that all the legal action and warnings against them are so much water off a duck’s back. It was the same back at the informal ballot of 2014: in the end the vote went ahead.

On Thursday, the referendum campaign kicked off in Tarragona, with lines of people waiting in festive mode outside the former bullring, now called the Tarraco Arena.

The idea is that nothing else should be taken seriously, except the issue of independence

It was a little strange, and perhaps things will get even stranger, to be at a banned rally for an illegal referendum that is going ahead anyway. The ambiguity in Catalonia at the moment is like a series of layers of laws and authorities all superimposed on one another, and this was perfectly symbolized by the Tarraco Arena.

The central government’s delegation in Catalonia had warned that the rally had been prohibited and that it wasn’t ruling out measures to prevent “a crime” from taking place. At the same time, there were regional and local police directing the traffic and maintaining order. The mayor of Tarragona, Josep Fèlix Ballestero, is a member of the Socialist Party, and has said that the city’s schools and colleges will not be used as voting stations. But the Tarraco Arena is run the provincial government, which is controlled by supporters of independence. In the end, some 7,500 people packed into the venue, and it was clear the Civil Guard wasn’t going to do anything about it, much to the disappointment of many.

This was little more than a dress rehearsal, the beginning. Somebody will be fined over the affair, but that will come later. If you ask anybody whether the authorities are likely to intervene to prevent such events being held, few take the idea seriously. “Right: and what are they going to do? I don’t know, they’re not going to come here, with all these people. My husband is here as well. We’ve left the children at home, and we intend to be back, right?”

We are holding the most important illegal rally in the history of this country!

Jordi Sánchez of the Catalan National Assembly

The press passes have “Hola República” (Hello Republic) written on them. The three main banners hanging in the venue read: “Hola Europa” and “Hola Nou País” (Hello New Country). No goodbyes, which are sadder; instead, the innocence of the newcomer. Just like the simplification of the Yes, the other positive concept, which makes everything seem easy and normal. During the UK’s Brexit campaign, which was a trauma, nobody was saying hello, it was a goodbye, a slamming door, the beginning of an uncertain solitude. Here there’s no problem promising happiness.

It was a well-organized event, although the rock band to warm the crowd up was too much. Asked a couple of hours before if the event would be held, regional leader Carles Puigdemont replied with false innocence: “I don’t foresee any problems with the weather, so I don’t see why not.” Keep calm and carry on seems to be the message, go ahead and vote, why not, what’s the problem? Puigdemont’s obsession is that people must take part, it’s almost as if it doesn’t matter which way they vote. “I must ask you all a favor. Make an effort, bring people who aren’t thinking of voting. If we all make an effort, the wave of freedom will be unstoppable,” asked Jordi Sánchez, head of the so-called Catalan National Assembly, a grassroots pro-independence movement since 2012.

The feeling is that the lawsuits and warnings are so much water off a duck’s back

It’s important that the No vote is mobilized,” said Oriol Junqueras, the deputy leader of the regional government, adding: “that way, we will show that this is about democracy.” Expect major arguments at family gatherings over the next two weeks.

“We will vote, we will vote,” chanted the crowd, which later called for the mayor, who is against the referendum, to resign. The first ovation of the evening was for Josep Lluís Trapero, the head of the Catalan regional police, when his face was shown on a giant screen. The fact that he had attended a meeting of public prosecutors in Barcelona to discuss how to prevent the referendum from going ahead was a minor detail, because this whole thing is more like a game in which everybody plays their role, and whatever happens, the vote will go ahead.

It was clear the Civil Guard wasn’t going to do anything about it, much to the disappointment of many

This parallel reality was short-circuited when Puigdemont appeared on stage: dressed in a suit and tie, the head of a government that supposedly represents all Catalans, at a subversive event. He would have looked better wearing casual clothes, but there is confusion over his role. “Does anybody believe we won’t vote?” he asked the crowd. “What kind of people do they think we are?”

The stage was in the center of the arena, and the pro-independence leaders walked up and down it, microphone in hand. Reflecting the relaxed mood of the event, the hosts were two comedians, as though this were the Oscars. A certain disdainful humor has characterized this issue, and is always present in speeches and propaganda. The idea is that nothing else should be taken seriously, except the issue of independence. Madrid, the courts, the government, are all the butt of jokes. Satirical programs on public broadcaster TV3 make jokes about the Civil Guard checking homes for ballot boxes, letting a man go who has murdered his family, chopped up the dog and is carrying a nuclear bomb.

This was the opening event of the pro-independence campaign, and there are only two others planned before October 1. The rest of the time, representatives of the different parties supporting secession will hold their own meetings: Puigdemont, Junqueras and Quim Arrufat of the CUP, the small anti-capitalist party that supports leaving the euro zone and holds the key to power in the region, along with the members of other parties split by the drive for independence. And all this as though it had just somehow happened, and that destiny was inevitable. “We are holding the most important illegal rally in the history of this country!” said Jordi Sánchez. The others, the legal ones, no longer count.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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