Spain is trying to block Catalonia’s independence referendum tomorrow. What’s going on?

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People gather on Sept. 21 in Barcelona to show support for holding an independence referendum. (Manu Fernandez/AP)

The regional government of Catalonia, one of the wealthiest regions of Spain, plans to hold a referendum on independence from Spain on Sunday. That’s a problem. Spain’s Constitutional Court has ruled that a regional government cannot call a referendum, because Spain’s constitution does not recognize the right to self-determination and establishes that sovereignty resides with Spanish citizens collectively.

Sunday’s referendum pits two competing claims of political legitimacy against one another. The Catalan government says that the Catalan people want a referendum, and the majority of the Catalan parliament supports it. The broader Spanish government insists that the referendum must not go forward because it goes against Spain’s democratic political institutions and its constitutional order. In this, it has the support of the majority of Spain’s parliament. Which will prevail?

The conflict between Catalonia’s regional government and Spain’s central government has been simmering for years.

Catalan nationalism has a long history. Nonetheless, after Spain’s transition to democracy in the mid-1970s, separatism had little support in Catalonia. The main Catalan nationalist party, Convergence and Union (CiU), defended Catalonia’s political autonomy within Spain. CiU negotiated and supported the 1978 democratic constitution and the 1979 Catalan statute of autonomy, which regulated the establishment of a Catalan government and its authority.

In 2006, a new Catalan autonomy statute was put into effect, enhancing Catalonia’s autonomy as a political region in Spain. Following the established process of approval in the Catalan and Spanish parliaments, Catalan voters backed it in a referendum. But in 2010, Spain’s Constitutional Court declared some of its provisions unconstitutional. More than 1 million Catalans protested. Support for independence among Catalans jumped.

Meanwhile, the global economic crisis was racking Spain — and many Catalans thought that their fiscal contribution to Spain’s treasury was not being matched by the central government’s investments back into the region. In 2012, the Catalan government sought to renegotiate Catalonia’s fiscal regime, an idea that Spain’s center-right Popular Party government rejected.

That’s when the previously moderate CiU began to openly back a referendum on Catalan independence and secession. In 2015, the Catalan government called elections for the Catalan parliament, which pro-independence parties called a plebiscite on Catalan independence. The Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (the secessionist bloc of CiU), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and representatives of pro-independence civil society organizations ran together as an alliance called Junts pel Sí (Together for a Yes). The alliance won 40 percent of the vote and 46 percent of the seats in the Catalan parliament.

Because it didn’t win a majority, Junts pel Sí needed the support of a small secessionist, radical-left party to govern and reach a majority of 53 percent of seats. In exchange, the party demanded a referendum, even if the Spanish government didn’t agree to it.

The Catalan government has repeatedly called upon the Spanish government to permit some sort of vote that would allow Catalans to express their views on Catalonia’s relationship with Spain. The Spanish government has just as repeatedly refused.

The question of independence has come to a boil.

On Sept. 6, the Catalan parliament passed a Self-Determination Referendum Law that contradicts the Spanish constitution — and the Catalan government began preparing for the vote.

The Spanish government immediately filed an appeal with Spain’s Constitutional Court, which suspended both the law and the referendum on Sept. 7, pending a final ruling. And yet referendum preparations have been continuing.

Many polls in recent years show that 70 to 80 percent of Catalans support holding a referendum on Catalonia’s relationship with Spain. Support for independence has risen dramatically in the last decade, doubling to above 40 percent between 2010 and 2012, according to official Catalan government polling. Depending on the exact poll question, support for independence has ranged between 35 percent and 48 percent in recent years.

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