Catalonia referendum: After violence, Spain’s Rajoy sets stage for bigger battle
On Sunday, Catalonia’s controversial independence referendum was marred by violence as national police clashed with voters defending their polling stations. In Barcelona, security forces sent by Madrid fired rubber bullets and used truncheons to break up protesters blocking their path, the vast majority of whom did not fight back. The brutality on show, while somewhat effective in disrupting the referendum, turned into a public relations disaster for Madrid and may deepen Spain’s own political polarization.
As the sun set on an ugly day, local officials said almost 900 people were injured in clashes across the region, while officials in Madrid said at least a dozen police officers had been hurt. Spanish authorities managed to shut down hundreds of polling stations, but hundreds more remained open and many people still managed to cast ballots. Catalan officials declared victory over the Spanish state, but it wasn’t clear how many votes were counted — and results almost surely did not include anti-secession Catalans who avoided voting altogether.
Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue #CatalanReferendum #Spain
— Charles Michel (@CharlesMichel) October 1, 2017
“The vote in Catalonia was a mass act of civil disobedience, organized by the regional government but propelled by WhatsApp groups, encrypted messages and clandestine committees,” wrote my colleague William Booth, who was on the ground in Catalonia. “Thousands of parents and their children were deployed to occupy hundreds of polling stations before the vote to keep them from being locked down by National Police and Guardia Civil militia officers.”
But Madrid had little interest in any exercise of Catalan self-determination. In a speech Sunday evening, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy pinned the blame for what happened on Catalan secessionists, who engineered the confrontation by staging what Madrid deems an illegal vote. “Today there has not been a self-determination referendum in Catalonia,” Rajoy declared. “The rule of law remains in force with all its strength.”
But although Rajoy thwarted the immediate prospect of independence, he — not his Catalan opponents — looks like the day’s big loser. His government took a heavy-handed line with Catalonia’s secessionists in the buildup to the vote, and Rajoy is being slammed by opponents both inside Catalonia and elsewhere for making a mess of the proceedings.
“Rajoy faces an extraordinarily difficult task. He is adamant that it is his government’s fundamental duty to uphold the law and preserve the integrity of the Spanish state,” wrote Tony Barber of the Financial Times. “Yet the police’s use on Sunday of batons and rubber bullets to disrupt the referendum risks deepening the confrontation and putting off the moment when Madrid and the Catalonian authorities sit down to find a way out of the impasse.”
Critics say Rajoy’s own right-wing nationalist politics made it impossible to deal with Catalan secessionists, a coalition of pro-independence factions who came to power in 2015 regional elections and swiftly signaled their intent to stage the referendum. From the outset, Rajoy treated their aspirations as both illegal and intolerable.
The irony, as myriad analysts have noted, is that separatist feeling in the region had been on the wane in recent years. Although a clear majority of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people believe in their right to hold a vote, recent polling said that under 50 percent were actually in favor of independence. In an interview with me earlier this year, Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont said Catalonia simply wanted the same right of self-determination as that enjoyed by Scotland — which voted against independence from Britain in 2014.
“The Scottish way is the way we want to follow,” he said in March.