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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

The town where independence for Catalonia took root

Residents of Arenys de Munt voted to leave Spain in 2009 starting a political movement that ended in a declaration of independence in October. On Thursday they vote again

"The power is in the hands of the people." Josep Sanchez in Camps of the Arenys de Munt town council.
"The power is in the hands of the people." Josep Sanchez in Camps of the Arenys de Munt town council.

There is little to doubt the loyalty of the residents of the small Spanish town of Arenys de Munt to the cause of Catalan independence.

The flags of the Spanish region, which has aspirations to nationhood, hang from windows above shops on the main street of this town of 9,000 people.

A footbridge that crosses the narrow road is covered with dozens of yellow ribbons – the symbol worn by separatists to demand the release of their leaders jailed for promoting an independence bid from Spain in October.

But the nondescript town also holds its own unique place in the history of the Catalan separatist struggle.

Eight years ago, the town was the first to hold a symbolic referendum on independence, starting a process that led to today’s current constitutional crisis over the future of the region.

On Thursday they vote again for a new regional parliament – this time with the future of Catalonian independence at stake.

“Eight years ago we had to do something,” said Josep Sanchez i Camps, the town’s senior economics and investment official. “We sent a message. We are the people, we can make change. The power is not only with the political parties. The power is in the hands of the people.”

In echoes of the current crisis, the vote went ahead in 2009 despite an attempted ban by the central government from Madrid, a police presence and counter-protests from nationalist supporters opposed to the break-up of the nation.

“They said you can’t, it’s forbidden, you can’t use public resources,” said Mr Sanchez. “But we did. We wanted to be free.”

Josep Sanchez with a picture of the ERC Republican Left party whose leader is in prison for promoting independence.
Josep Sanchez with a picture of the ERC Republican Left party whose leader is in prison for promoting independence.

Some 40 per cent of voters in the town, some 30 miles up the coast from Barcelona, took part in that ballot which voted 96 per cent in favour of independence for the wealthy region from the rest of Spain.

It meant little in practice but received widespread publicity, starting a trend of similar symbolic events across the region smarting from the effects of the global economic crisis.

The movement culminated in a pan-Catalonia vote on October 1 and a declaration of independence several weeks later despite heavy-handed attempts at disruption by the central government.

It responded by dissolving the regional government and called the new elections for Thursday which could reinstate Catalan parliamentary control of its institutions and budget.

The separatists are hoping the vote will deliver another bloody nose to leaders in Madrid by securing another majority for the pro-independence politicians and giving them a platform to push ahead with an ‘illegal’ bid for independence. Opinion polls suggest the election is too tight to call.

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Read more:

Separatist leader makes final plea for split with Spain

Bitter Catalonia election battle ends with deadlock forecast

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The town of Arenys de Munt – with 11 of the 13 elected councillors backing independence – is again set to back the forces of separatism.

The town is home to an industrial area and some 100 businesses – including textiles, metallurgy and building firms - employing about 800 people directly, said Mr Sanchez. He said the town does more business with the rest of Europe than it does in Spain and without much help from central government.

Mr Sanchez said that many of the residents felt neglected by Madrid, and haunted by the near four-decade dictatorship of General Francisco Franco that saw the Catalan identity repressed and ended only with his death in 1975. With a separate language, culture and history to the rest of Spain, the residents of Catalonia have long demanded different treatment.

Francesc Roca, drinking coffee in the La Puntaire café in the town, voted for independence in 2009 and will do so again on Thursday.

He will support the pro-independence ERC party, whose leader is in prison for backing secession. His grandfather was put in prison by the Franco regime in the 1940s. His reasons for backing independence are mainly economic.

Flags of Catalonia fly in the main street of Arenys de Munt.
Flags of Catalonia fly in the main street of Arenys de Munt.

The retired banker used to work for a Catalan bank, now named Sabadell, which has moved its headquarters out of the region after losing deposits following the declaration of independence.

Mr Roca, 65, supports his former employer’s response to the crisis but complains that Catalans faced high tax bills, but get little came back in investment.

“Ten years ago, it was difficult to think about independence, but now it’s possible,” he said. “The first town to begin independence was Arenys de Munt.

“The mayor said to the people to start independence – and the people agreed. I think the first two or three years [after independence] will be difficult but after that it will be better.”

A few posters in the town back parties on a pro-unity ticket but none are obviously visible supporting the pro-unity People’s Party of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which is lagging in the polls.

Jordi, selling lottery tickets outside a town café, said he would be voting for the left-wing anti-austerity party Podemos which has not stood either for or against secession – but could be key in any attempt to form a coalition.

“Politicians don’t work for the people now,” said the former painter and decorator, bemoaning the level of investment in hospitals and schools.

He said the key was to get the People’s Party of Mariano Rajoy out of power. “There’s a lot of corruption …. but independence is not the solution.”

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