Democracy in Spain challenged with bloody Catalan referendum
The Eurozone's fourth-biggest economy enters deep constitutional and political crisis with unforeseen outcome
6 October, 2017
People demonstrate in Gerona during a general strike in Catalonia on 3 October against the police actions.
Spanish National Police officers seize a ballot box during a raid on 1 October at a health clinic in Cappont, Lleida, Catalonia.
Spain entered in a spiral of political uncertainly and deep constitutional crisis after the bloody referendum held in Catalonia last Sunday. Some two millions Catalan citizens clearly said they want independent republic despite the police trying to disrupt their vote that Madrid has deemed illegal. The Catalan government said 2.26m people had cast ballots and 90% was for the split in a turnout of about 42%.
The way the conservative government in Madrid has handled the confrontation with Barcelona during the vote revived emotions rooted in 20th-century civil war and dictatorship, news wires reported. National police sent in to Catalonia for the referendum swept into polling stations, hitting people with batons, firing rubber bullets into crowds and forcibly removing would-be voters from polling stations, some dragged away by their hair. Images of riot police using force to stop the vote drew vast international condemnation. Local authorities said almost 900 people had been injured.
The leader of the province Carles Puigdemont declared on Monday that the vote was valid and binding and had to be applied. Puigdemont called for international mediation, challenging outside claims that this is an internal problem. "It is not a domestic matter," he told a news conference.
Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy in a TV address defended the police actions, saying "we did what we had to do". The people of Catalonia had been tricked into taking part in the banned vote, Rajoy said. The ballot, which asked voters if they wanted an independent republic, has no legal status as it was banned by Spain's Constitutional Court for being at odds with the 1978 constitution, which states Spain cannot be broken up. Justice Minister Rafael Catala said that Spain could use its constitutional power to suspend Catalan's existing autonomy if the regional parliament declared independence. Despite threats Catalonia's leader confirmed in a BBC interviews on Tuesday that the region would declare independence "in a matter of days". Puigdemont spoke just hours after King Felipe VI urged Spanish authorities to defend "constitutional order". He accused secessionist leaders of shattering democratic principles and dividing Catalan society. This is the first time King Felipe has spoken to the nation, outside the usual Christmas addresses, observers noted.
The same day Catalans came out onto the streets to condemn the police action, shutting down road traffic, public transport and businesses, and ratcheting up fears of intensifying unrest in a region that makes up one-fifth of the Spanish economy.
Spain’s governing Popular Party (PP), the Socialist Party (PSOE) and centre-right group Ciudadanos managed to stay united until the day of the vote, but there is no guarantee that this unity will survive, Spain media said. This much become evident following last Monday meetings between PM Mariano Rajoy and the leaders of both opposition parties, El Pais noted. What emerged from the meetings is that Spain’s pro-Constitution parties have no common solution for addressing the next steps that will predictably be taken by Catalonia’s separatist government. Reform party Ciudadanos, which began life as a Catalan anti-independence party before making the jump to national politics and becoming the fourth-most-voted force in Spain, asked Rajoy to invoke Section 155, a provision of the Spanish Constitution that could theoretically suspend home rule in Catalonia by “forcing” the region to comply with constitutional law.
Meanwhile, the anti-establishment Podemos is defending a legal referendum for the region and is openly hostile to Rajoy, making an agreement unlikely.
Socialist secretary general Pedro Sanchez asked Rajoy to open up an “immediate” political negotiation with Catalan authorities, and also to initiate talks with all of Spain’s parliamentary forces, including Podemos, to find a way out of the Catalan crisis.
The situation aggravated further on Thursday as Spain’s Constitutional Court ordered the suspension of the session of the regional Catalan parliament, scheduled for 9 October. For this date, the secessionist Catalan politicians have pledged to unilaterally declare independence. Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy called again on Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to drop independence plans or risk “greater evils”.