Catalonia is still in the grip of turmoil. Here’s what you need to know
A week ago, Spanish police were sent in to stop a vote in Catalonia by force, resulting in a considerable number of people getting hurt. The vote had been ruled illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court and the central government has, in the meantime, issued an apology of sorts. However, Spanish and Catalan politics are still in turmoil. Here is what you need to know.
Spanish government action did not stop the vote
Only a few hours after the chaotic scenes, the Catalan regional government, headed by the nationalist premier Carles Puigdemont, announced that the vote had been successful. The police had entered only a few polling stations. With an overall turnout of just under 43 percent, according to the regional authorities, just over 90 percent had voted in favor of independence.
These results should be treated with some care. Nonetheless, they were similar to those of the 2014 vote (also declared illegal but held nonetheless under the guise of a popular consultation). They suggest that 35 percent of those deemed eligible to vote by Puigdemont’s government turned out to support independence.
Politicians are now maneuvering over what happens next
Puigdemont has announced that he will comply with a law passed by the regional parliament that requires his government to declare independence within 48 hours of a yes vote (most of the opposition walked out when the vote was taken). At the same time, he has asked for international mediation. The 48-hour deadline has been stretched out to this week. Yet Puigdemont’s allies in the regional coalition, the nationalist Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and the more radical, anti-capitalist CUP, are insisting on the unilateral declaration.
The new interpretation seems to be that the clock will start ticking once the regional parliament has been formally informed of the result. A session of the Parliament was first called for Monday but suspended thanks to a challenge by members of the Catalan Socialist Party — which had opposed the referendum. A new session has now been scheduled for Tuesday.
In the meantime, the Spanish government seems to have made it clear, through a speech delivered by the head of state (King Felipe VI) that it is not willing to negotiate under the threat of the unilateral declaration. The king’s speech signaled that the government stood ready to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows it to take over the functions of a regional government if that government violates the Constitution.
The delay is the product of divisions among the pro-independence coalition
It is widely believed that Puigdemont decided to delay the declaration because of internal divisions within the Catalan pro-independence coalition, which holds a majority of seats in the regional parliament but did not get a majority of the vote in the last regional elections. Some Catalans also worry that the declaration would reveal that the independence movement is playing a weak hand. The day after the vote, Andreu Mas-Colell, who oversaw Catalonia’s budget office under Puigdemont’s predecessor, published an op-ed in the nationalist daily Ara. He said that Catalonia had now “earned” itself the right to an independent state: apparently because of the Spanish government’s reaction to the Sunday vote. However, he also suggested that the unilateral declaration might undermine international sympathy for the cause of Catalan nationalism. “We always knew,” Mas-Colell wrote, “that the Popular Party [which currently governs in Spain] would reveal its nature to international opinion” when it tried to stop the vote. But even though an aggressive response — of moving quickly to a unilateral declaration of independence — was justified, it might also reveal the weakness of the nationalist movement. “If we have not had the strength to obtain the type of referendum we wanted, we will hardly have it to proclaim and secure a new state.” A unilateral declaration, he continued, might lead to a fizzling out of the cause, which could be left “twisting in the wind,” as it became clear that the regional authorities cannot “count on the full obedience of judges, police or business” (when it comes, for instance, to collecting taxes). It would lead to the “day by day loss of the international support that has been won.”