As Catalan separatists mark the fifth anniversary of a failed independence referendum next month, polls have shown support for splitting from Spain is on the decline.
The October 2017 referendum asked voters whether they wanted Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic. Ninety percent voted yes.
Shocking images of police clashing with voters were beamed around the globe during the vote, prompting international condemnation from some European countries and calls for a peaceful resolution.
The unofficial vote, which was declared illegal by the country’s Constitutional Court, caused Spain’s biggest political schism since a failed military coup some 40 years earlier.
The country was bitterly divided between Catalan separatists who claimed they had the right to create a new state in contravention to the Spanish constitution which forbids regions from breaking away, and Spanish unionist parties who opposed the rich region leaving Spain.
Tensions have slowly abated because Spain’s Socialist-led coalition government, since coming to power in 2019, has sought dialogue with moderate separatist leaders in Barcelona.
International crises such as the pandemic and the war in Ukraine also have diverted attention away from domestic politics, analysts said.
A series of surveys carried out by the Catalan government has shown a steady fall in support for creating a breakaway state at the heart of Europe.
In 2012, at the start of what is known as el procés – the process – toward independence – a poll for the Center for Opinion Studies for the Catalan government (CEO) found 57% of those questioned supported independence, 20.5% were against, 14% abstained and 8.3% did not know.
This figure dipped to 48% at the height of the separatist drive in 2017, according to a CEO poll. In the unofficial referendum, organizers claimed more than 90% supported independence but only 43% – or just over 2 million people in Catalonia’s population of 7.5 million – took part.
Support for independence ranged from 41% to 48% between 2015 and 2021.
The latest survey, carried out by the CEO in July, found 40.9% backed independence, the lowest point since 2015, while 52% were against splitting from Spain and the rest did not know.
Catalan separatist parties won 52% of the vote in regional elections last year but pro-independence parties that favor drastically different approaches remain in an uneasy coalition.
Analysts cautioned that the polls, in which 1,200 people were questioned each time, could be misleading, but said domestic and international political factors have generally changed attitudes in the politically turbulent northeastern region.
Spain’s policy of seeking dialogue with separatist parties running the Catalan regional government has marked a stark change from the confrontational policy pursued by the previous conservative Spanish government, which sent hundreds of police to Catalonia to try to stop the 2017 poll.
Last year, Spain ordered the partial pardon of 12 convicted Catalan separatists in a risky political move for the minority administration.
In 2019, nine Catalan separatists received prison sentences ranging from nine to 13 years for sedition. Three others were convicted of disobedience but were not imprisoned.
All were convicted over their roles in the 2017 referendum and a failed declaration of independence days later.
Splits between the two main Catalan separatist parties have worsened, which may have left voters in the region disillusioned, say political observers.
The moderate left-wing Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party, which runs the regional government, faces a threat from the hardline, conservative Together for Catalonia party to withdraw from the regional coalition government. This would force a snap election or ERC could seek the support of the Socialist party to survive.
During the annual Catalan National Day rally on September 11, an estimated 150,000 independence supporters took to the streets, police said, but Catalan President Pere Aragonès stayed away amid opposition to his move to hold talks with the Spanish government.
“The overwhelming majority of Catalans in polls but more importantly in every election held is in support of Catalonia being able to decide its own future. Our proposal is an agreed referendum with the Spanish state,” Aragonès told VOA in a statement.
“Despite what fluctuating polls might say, it is important to have a project to reach a political solution to the current political problem,” he said.
Aragonès said no one in his government has asked to leave the Catalan government.
More immediate concerns
Beyond domestic political disputes, more people are worried about keeping their jobs and heating their homes as the Ukraine conflict pushes Western Europe toward an economic crisis, analysts said.
Pablo Simon, a political analyst from the Carlos III University in Madrid, said external and internal factors have decreased support for independence.
“Originally, the process began because of economic and political crises in Spain, and in Catalonia, nationalists said independence would be the answer. But these factors have been replaced by factors which have nothing to do with Spain – the pandemic and the Ukraine war,” he told VOA.
“Internally, there are divisions. The hardliners still believe confrontation with Spain is the way to achieve independence. Moderates think investing in social projects will bring support from a base of voters. But voters are frustrated with the movement and where it is going.”
Barbara Rovira, of the Catalan National Assembly, a separatist civil society group, said splits in the independence movement had damaged the cause.
“There are also international reasons why people are not supporting the cause so much. After the pandemic there has been a war. People are more worried about having a good job and enough food to eat so politics doesn’t seem so important,” she told VOA in a telephone interview.
“People may also have stopped supporting independence because of repression from the Spanish state. Four thousand people face legal action over the referendum.”
Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, a historian who has written several books on Catalan separatism, said polls did not represent the complexity of Catalan society.
“I think polls are unreliable as Catalan society should be split into a pie chart with those who are in favor of nationalism, those who support Spanish nationalism and those who just don’t care,” he told VOA.