Catalan referendum: Spanish govt’s crack down takes the world by surprise

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Spanish PM Rajoy’s ‘firm hand’ tactics have support across the country


London, October 2:  

Tensions were running high before Sunday’s Catalan referendum, which had been declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, but few could have envisaged the extraordinary scenes that grabbed headlines across the world, of voters, ensconced in polling stations, in Barcelona being dragged out by police.

Catalan authorities estimate that over 800 people had been injured in clashes with police, a brutal and dramatic climax to an already extraordinarily heated situation which has been exacerbated by political intransigence, leaving the EU’s fifth largest economy in social and political turmoil.

The immediate background to the events was the Catalan Parliament’s decision — backed by the regional government — on September 6 to approve legislation to enable the independence referendum to take place, putting in place the move for full secession.

The central government’s response was swift: within a day the Spanish Constitutional Court, that had declared such a referendum illegal, suspended the referendum legislation (the Spanish constitution declares the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and the “Common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.”).

The government led by Mariano Rajoy began a programme of confiscating electoral material in the region, shutting down websites promoting independence and pledging to show the “full force” of the law

While tensions between the Spanish government and the Basque separatist group ETA have gained international infamy, the tensions between the state and Catalonia, the wealthy industrial region in north eastern Spain, home to Barcelona, has until recently largely stayed out of the international spotlight.

However, the tensions are decades old: reflecting economic, cultural, social and linguistic differences that gained recognition of one form or another over time. In 1932 the Spanish Parliament approved the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, though was swiftly repealed under the dictatorship of General Franco, amid brutal repression in the region.

Under the democratic state that followed moves for greater autonomy have been met by some compromise and delegation of powers.

The independence movement brings together a complex grouping of forces from the left and the right, with many in the region in favour of the referendum taking place, while sceptical about independence itself.

Support for the movement gathered momentum following the 2007 financial crisis that tested the Spanish economy, and heralded an era of austerity, intensifying regional bitterness that it was propping up the rest of the economy. Two unofficial referendums have taken place in 2011, and 2014, and concluded with high levels of support for independence.

The scenes in Barcelona have been met with incredulity from across the world — that a Prime Minister of a democratic nation would use force in the way that it was — but Rajoy’s “mano dura” (firm hand) on independence has considerable support across other parts of Spain.

Ahead of the referendum several thousands gathered in Madrid to protest the referendum and assert their support for the Spanish nation state, while mainstream media sided with the central government ahead of the referendum.

“Agreements cannot be reached with those who stage a coup,” headlined El Pais, the largest Spanish daily, citing constitutional principles on the day of the referendum.

“Rajoy did not make his move alone. His actions reflected consensus across the Spanish state and much of Spanish society,” tweeted Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer at Kings College London, following Sunday’s developments.

The situation remains fast moving. The Catalan government has declared around 90 per cent backing for independence, in line with previous referendums and are expected to make a declaration of independence in days.

A general strike is set to take place on Tuesday. The government’s brutal tactics are likely to have exacerbated existing tensions and spurred support for the independence movement.

The political ramifications for Rajoy — who is expected to trigger Article 155 of the Constitution — a never before used section that would enable the centre to take control of the regional government – remains to be seen. There have been calls for his resignation with some drawing parallels between the approach of his government and that of General Franco, the bloody shadow of whose dictatorial regime continues to loom large.

Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau was among those who called for Rajoy to stand down, accusing him of shirking from his responsibilities as a leader through his authoritarian approach.

“For a long time we have been in a situation of deadlock between Catalonia and the government of the Spanish state because there has been no dialogue…no proposals on the table,” she told Spanish television stations on Sunday.

For now, however, Rajoy is under surprisingly little international pressure, perhaps reflecting anxieties about separatist movements elsewhere.

Belgium’s premier Charles Michel is one of the few voices of condemnation in Europe, with others such as Britain and the European Commission itself insisting it was a matter for the Spanish state, and constitution. It has fallen to others such as the Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon to issue strong condemnation.

“Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed,” she tweeted.

Rajoy’s political support base domestically may give him little incentive to change too. “Rajoy’s toughness is playing well with his electoral base, which means he has no incentive to backtrack on his strategy,” wrote Antonio Barroso of risk analysis agency Teneo Intelligence.

(This article was published on October 2, 2017)



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