W hen The World Weekly reported on the uneasy build-up to last weekend’s Catalan independence referendum, one observer described it as a “game of chicken” between Madrid and Catalonia’s regional government.
As the contentious vote unfolded on October 1st, it was anything but a game. Tensions spiralled into chaos as regional officials defied orders not to hold the vote and hand over all related material. A brutal crackdown by the authorities has reportedly left over 800 injured. As the world watched on aghast, footage from Barcelona depicted riot police dragging voters out of polling stations by their hair, and beating protesters with batons.
Fast-forward several days, and Spain remains plunged deep in the abyss of its worst constitutional crisis since 1981, when 200 armed officers of the Guardia Civil stormed the parliament building in Madrid in an attempt to overthrow the country’s fledgling democracy. Carles Puigdemont, president of the Generalitat - Catalonia’s devolved government - insists that the people of Catalonia have won the right to form an independent state. 90% of the 2 million or so people who voted (a turnout of 42.5%) chose to shun Madrid and go it alone, he claims.
But even if Mr. Puigdemont’s figures are to be believed, it appears that no amount of support for independence could ever have been enough to bend the national government’s will. The referendum was ruled illegal under the constitution, which explicitly rules out secession from an indivisible Spain.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has therefore had no qualms in defending the 12,000 officers of the Guardia Civil and National Police deployed for the referendum. In his eyes, they were simply upholding the law. "We did what we had to do,” he said in a televised address on October 2nd. “We are the government of Spain and, as its leader, I assume my responsibility."
Few expect Catalonia to actually secede. Nonetheless, at this point it is unclear how both sides might reach a stable de-escalation, and even more uncertain where the change of heart many see as necessary for a long-term solution could come from.
A vicious cycle
The sheer ferocity of Mr. Rajoy’s crackdown has thrown Spain into a high-stakes game of tit-for-tat, and the window of opportunity for reconciliation is shrinking by the hour. The police are reported to have used illegal rubber bullets on crowds protecting the polling booths, and widely-circulated videos show women and the elderly being thrown down stairs by officers.
Not surprisingly, this has hardened the resolve of pro-independence supporters. “The goal of the government and of the security forces on Sunday was to punish, terrorise and humiliate the population, not to prevent the referendum,” said Abel Escribà Folch, an assistant professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, who was defending a polling station on the day of the vote. “We were dehumanised.”
At one point, there were brief signs that Mr. Puigdemont had softened his stance. A law pushed through parliament last month amounted to a promise of declaring outright independence in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote. However, earlier this week, he suggested his government did not want a “traumatic break”, but rather “a new understanding with the Spanish state”.
Now, though, he appears to have performed yet another volte-face, telling the BBC that he plans to declare Catalonia’s independence from Spain “at the end of this week or the beginning of the next.”
That statement was answered by a rare intervention from King Felipe who, in a televised address to the nation, accused Mr. Puigdemont of putting the country’s socio-economic stability at risk. “These authorities have scorned the attachments and feelings of solidarity that have united and will unite all Spaniards,” he said.
Neither Mr. Rajoy nor King Felipe mentioned the violence splashed across front pages around the world on Monday morning.
The feeling of victimisation currently felt by Catalonia’s separatists may embolden Mr. Puigdemont to stay the course. Yet his government’s decision to once again flout Madrid’s authority has also allowed Spain’s pro-union king and prime minister to brush off the police brutality which marred last Sunday’s vote, and which many argue has cost Mr. Rajoy his moral high ground.
An equal footing?
The dynamic between the two sides has changed since the referendum, however, and Madrid is looking increasingly vulnerable.
Firstly, by resorting to legal arguments against the Catalan rebels, Mr. Rajoy has been boxed in, making it more likely that his government will exert its legal authority on Catalonia. The prime minister now faces pressure to impose direct rule on Barcelona from Madrid, a constitutional weapon which has never been used before.
On October 5th, Spain’s constitutional court suspended Monday’s forthcoming session of the Catalan parliament at which Mr. Puigdemont was expected to make his declaration of independence, thus leaving the government little choice but to impose more drastic measures.
By contrast, by embarking on a political quest for self-determination, the pro-independence movement appears impervious to Madrid’s judicial repression. If Mr. Rajoy were to now force the Generalitat out of office, it would surely only throw more weight behind their calls for independence.
Secondly, Spain’s domestic political landscape is not tilted in the prime minister's favour. Mr. Rajoy is at the head of a minority government, and his somewhat precarious position will likely be playing on his mind.
Most of Spain’s main parties have condemned the Catalan government’s actions, so Mr. Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) is unlikely to gain much additional support from facing down the rebels. On the flip-side, if he goes too far against the Catalans, he may lose the parliamentary support he needs to pass his upcoming budget, potentially toppling his government.
Furthermore, the PP relies on the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) to pass votes in Parliament - but the PNV was critical of the government’s handling of the referendum even before the violence erupted, and will only distance itself further now.
The separatists do not count on particularly strong electoral support in Catalonia, either. Their presence in the regional parliament amounts to 47.8% of the popular vote, and even taking into account the Catalan government’s referendum figures, they only add up to 38% of the electorate having voted for independence. The crackdown bore down not on secession itself but rather on the Catalans’ very right to vote, something which polls have repeatedly showed enjoys strong support in the region.
EU can go your own way
Calls for EU mediation have quickly fizzled out. While the heads of some European governments, including Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel, have condemned police brutality, those protesting are few and far between.
Taking a stance on the political crisis, meanwhile, would go against the EU’s usually resilient ethos of avoiding the internal affairs of member states.
Ultimately, the power may lie with the people of Catalonia.
On the one hand, the referendum and its aftermath have turned many of Catalonia’s more moderate separatists further away from compromise.
“I’ve always believed that if the Spanish government changed its approach to Catalonia, it would be possible to solve the situation,” said Miquel Riera Gaja, who voted in favour of independence. “But now I think this relationship cannot be repaired. There’s no turning back,” he told TWW.
Many unionists, meanwhile, are now disillusioned with Madrid’s strategy. “The answer cannot be to remain in a sort of status quo,” said Enric López Jurado, a pro-union supporter working in the European Parliament.
“We must seize this opportunity to change how Spain is organised,” he told The World Weekly. Mr. López Jurado favours “a full federal state that recognises its own multinational nature and protects and cherishes its own territorial differences.”
Whether any shift in the public mood is widespread, however, remains to be seen. Many unionist Catalans still support Mr. Rajoy, and Mr. Puigdemont’s stubbornness could have lost him the support of separatists who decided to stay home and wait for a legal referendum.
But it might just be the only chance for Spain to pull back from the brink. As things stand, Catalan’s rebel government is standing on thin ice. Within weeks, it could find itself out of power and, quite possibly, behind bars. In that case, Spain’s riot police might well find themselves called back into action.