It isn’t just about what happens on Sunday; it’s about the ensuing days and weeks.
By Don Quijones, Spain, UK, & Mexico, editor at WOLF STREET.
The next 72 hours could be crucial not only for Catalonia, but also for the rest of Spain and Europe. For now, the cards are overwhelmingly stacked in Madrid’s favor. The central government enjoys the outward support of all European institutions, key Western partners and has the full power of the law on its side as well as the full arsenal of state repression at its disposal.
After confiscating millions of ballot slips and thousands of ballot boxes, and launching what Wikileaks’ Julian Assange has termed the “world’s first Internet War” against Catalonia, freezing telecommunications links, occupying telecoms buildings and censoring hundreds of websites, the Rajoy administration has made it logistically difficult, if not impossible, for the region to hold a credible referendum.
Spain’s constitutional court even went so far as to ask Google to shut down the app that allows Catalans to see where they have to vote on Sunday. Even the two main civil associations behind Catalonia’s push for independence have begun to tamp down expectations, conceding that the police operations have made it “very difficult” to hold a meaningful vote.
Now, all the government in Madrid has to do is sit back, watch and enjoy as the referendum’s organizers struggle to achieve a turnout even close to that of the purely symbolic consultation it held on November 9, 2014. Then, on Monday or Tuesday, Rajoy, with a small dose of humility, can launch political negotiations with Catalonia’s representatives from a position of strength.
But he probably won’t.
The Spanish government’s strategy so far has been to use the full extent of Spanish law to crush each and every attempt by Catalonia’s independence movement and regional government to organize this vote. It’s unlikely to stop now, when it’s winning. After all, the more it flexes its muscles, the more support it wins among its bedrock of voters in other parts of Spain, and the more they forget about all the myriad corruption scandals that the Rajoy government is tangled up in.
But the government’s repression is also creating a huge army of Catalan separatists. According to a new poll conducted by the Spanish firm GAPS, 63% of Catalans plan to vote in tomorrow’s referendum — over 600,000 people more than just two weeks ago. Eighty-three percent of respondents said they intend to vote for independence.
Spanish authorities are going to do everything they can to stop them. Police have already sealed off more than half of the 2,315 schools in Catalonia designated as polling stations. The chief of Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, has pledged that it will do everything it can to prevent public buildings from being used as voting colleges, but it will not use violence. The Spanish national police force and Civil Guard, which have thousands of reinforcements stationed on cruise ships in Barcelona’s port, have made no such assurance.
In recent days extremists on both sides of the political divide and from all over Spain and other parts of Europe have been converging on Barcelona, a city that has a long history of being an anarchist stronghold. Many of the people that have been occupying schools and colleges to facilitate voting tomorrow voting are affiliated with the pro-independence and anti-capitalist CUP party, which in many ways is the vanguard of Catalonia’s independence movement. Its members are unlikely to be evicted without at least putting up a fight.
So far, Catalonia’s push for independence has been almost completely non-violent, but with so many different groups with diametrically opposed agendas hitting the same streets tomorrow, it won’t take much to spark a major confrontation. Once the spiral of violence begins, it will be difficult to end, especially with Madrid running a de facto occupation of Barcelona.
But this isn’t just about what happens tomorrow’s; it’s about what happens in the ensuing days and weeks. Here are a few thoughts:
1. Don’t Count on Negotiations — According to the former French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, of Catalan descent, the independence of Catalonia would signify “the end of what Europe is, which is a federation of nation states.” But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. After Sunday, the likelihood of genuine negotiations between Madrid and Barcelona even beginning, let alone bearing fruit, is small. The main party in government, the People’s Party (PP), which did everything in its powers to get the last Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia (2006-10) annulled, has already hinted that it will not negotiate with Catalonia’s current President, Carles Puigdemont, or Vice-President, Oriol Junqueras. Its closest partner in government, Cuitadans, is even more stridently unionist than the PP.
2. Raising the Stakes — If tomorrow’s referendum is a flop, Catalonia’s separatists have two main choices: either they call new elections, which will probably wipe out the scandal-tarnished European Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCAT), which has headed the regional government since 2012; or they call a general strike. The Catalan government has already announced plans to hold a strike on Oct.3 that could last up to a week. This is not a new plan. In 2013 Catalonia’s Vice President (and likely future President) Oriol Junqueras warned Brussels that in the absence of any EU intervention, the only way to get Europe’s attention would be to bring Spain’s biggest regional economy and gateway to Europe to a grinding halt. This time he might actually mean business. But without high participation levels, it too could be a flop. And even if it works, it will hurt Catalonia’s economic prospects as much as it does the rest of Spain’s.
3. My Biggest Fear Of All — As the political divisions between Spain and Catalonia, and within Catalonia itself, continue to worsen, so too do the social and psychological divisions. Relations between families, friends and colleagues are already showing signs of strain as political views become dangerously polarized. This is my biggest fear: Without any way out of the current impasse, social cohesion and harmony could end up paying the price of political failure. By Don Quijones.
And this is how the Spanish government was preparing for the big day. Read… It Gets Ugly in Catalonia