Spain’s Rajoy sets the stage for a bigger battle over Catalonia

By Ishaan Tharoor – The Washington Post

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.

“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.

But the chaos on Sunday has presented a dramatic new moment of rupture. “The unjustified, disproportionate and irresponsible violence of the Spanish state today has not only failed to stop Catalans’ desire to vote … but has helped to clarify all the doubts we had to resolve today,” Puigdemont told reporters on Sunday. Later that evening, he insisted that, on a “day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to have an independent state in the form of a republic.”

Rajoy probably has little time for Puigdemont’s proclamation. The prime minister built his political reputation in the mid-2000s by fiercely opposing a Catalan charter for greater autonomy, which a Socialist government in Madrid at the time had agreed to and was later ratified by a referendum in Catalonia. In 2010, a Spanish constitutional court struck down a series of key provisions in that charter, based on an appeal filed by Rajoy’s center-right People’s Party. That, in turn, kicked off Catalan rumblings toward independence.

But Rajoy is also on rocky ground in Madrid, where he presides over a fragile, minority government in parliament.

Pablo Iglesias, leader of the left-wing Podemos party, tweeted against the “repressive strategy” of Rajoy and his allies, warning that it has “deteriorated democracy and coexistence [in Spain] to unprecedented limits.” Pedro Sánchez of the center-left Socialists called for political negotiations and seemed to blame Rajoy for not seeking talks earlier, saying that “doing nothing is the worst way of solving any problem.”

“The Spanish government would have been more likely to achieve its goals of national unity by allowing a vote in Catalonia in which it demanded that more options appeared on the ballot,” wrote Nafees Hamid and Clara Pretus, two academics who studied voter attitudes in the region. “Such options would have included the choice of remaining an autonomous community but with greater sovereignty, or becoming a federal state.”

Now, though, the political conversation is far more polarized. A tense standoff is in the cards in the coming weeks, with the possibility of further protests and mass strikes rocking Catalonia. Rajoy will have to own the crisis, and his opponents already have one idea of how he should do so.

“He is a coward who does not live up to his state responsibilities,” said Ada Colau, Barcelona’s mayor. “As a result, he must resign.” October 2, 2017

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