On October 27 Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, suspended the Catalan parliament and government and imposed direct rule on the restive region of Catalonia, whose capital Barcelona enjoys worldwide reputation as a tourist and business centre.
The Spanish move came at the head of a brewing crisis since the Catalan government organised referendum on the demand for independence on October 1 this year. The referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish constitutional court. Yet the government of Catalan headed by Carles Puigdemon went ahead with the referendum. In turn, the Spanish government tried to prevent the referendum from proceeding by ordering the police and judicial authorities not to let the referendum run smoothly. Voters were rubber bulleted and ballot box taken away from the polling booths by the Spanish police. Despite the widespread official interference and intimidation, about 2.3 million voters turned up to vote amid chaotic scenes of violence perpetrated by the law enforcing agencies. The referendum resulted in an overwhelming vote for independence. The Catalan president at the back of pro-independence vote turned the heat on the Spanish government. The Spanish government and the king solidly rejected the outcome of the referendum and resolved to prevent the Catalan government from declaring independence.
The stalemate persisted until Friday, October 27 when the Catalan parliament narrowly voted for independence. Of the 135 members, only 70 voted for independence. Within hours the Spanish government hit back by invoking article 155 which authorises direct rule. The action has resulted in the suspension of the Catalan government, imposition of direct rule and announcement of elections to be held on December 21. The announcement also led to the removal of the police chief in Catalonia, the Mossos d’Esquadra, who was found less than enthusiastic in enforcing the Madrid writ in Catalonia during the referendum.
Now the running of the Catalan government is with the deputy prime minister of Spain. The sacked government and its president face prospect of jail term of up to 30 years. The Spanish prosecutor has already dropped strong hints of legal proceedings against the pro-independence government of Catalan.
Fearing this, the ousted Catalan President, Carles Puigdemon fled the country on October 30 and has pitched his tent in Belgium where the Flanders region, gearing up for independence from Belgium, is seen hospitable to the Catalan independence cause. However, Catalan’s declaration of independence has received little support from the outside. Earlier on, the Catalan leaders had also criticised the EU for not condemning the heavy handed role of the Spanish police during the referendum.
Spain has a proud record of granting wide ranging autonomy to its regions. Spanish Basque region and the Catalonia region have enjoyed considerable autonomy over the years. This measure has helped calm down separatist passions in both regions. The ETA, the guerrilla movement fighting for independence of the Basque region, has decommissioned its weapons in recent years. Similarly, the Catalan has been fiercely independent and a culturally proud region professing greater loyalty to the Catalan language and culture.
Moreover, Catalan is one of the most dynamic regions of Spain, contributing to about 20 per cent of Spain’s GDP. The demand for independence has been on the horizon for a long time. However, the economic crisis of 2008 has accentuated demand for independence as the economic crisis began to bite all regions. Catalan felt that they were pouring in more money in the national kitty than getting in return. The just ousted Catalan current President, Carles Puigdemon, led the call for independence, putting his political career on stake. The result was the referendum of October 1 which triggered the current crisis.
It is not clear how things might pan out in the coming days. A lot depends on the election results. The election has polarised the Catalan political parties. Whether they will participate or boycott the election organised by the Madrid government remains to be seen. It will be interesting to see whether the Spanish direct rule will weaken or strengthen the pro-independence camp. So far, the action has seen some form of approval in the form of demonstration for unity. More importantly, the Catalan government officials are not resisting direct rule by turning up for work. This may put dent in pro-independence camp which has failed to acquire decisive critical mass. The crisis has also dealt a massive blow to the Catalan economy with many companies based in Barcelona deciding to pull out of the region due to political uncertainty gripping the region.
The crisis in Catalan is not the internal problem of Spain. In fact, it has created wider reverberations. The EU has been criticised for not coming to the aid of the beleaguered pro-independence government of Catalan. Yet the EU is also wary of the separatist tendencies in the EU which may break it apart. The exit of Britain from the EU is already jangling many nerves in the EU.
The case of Catalan is very relevant to Scotland which is also seeking independence from the UK. Like Catalonia, Scotland also organised a referendum on the independence issue. The call for independence in Scotland was rejected by the electorate. Despite this setback, the Scottish National Party is besotted with the idea of second referendum. No wonder Scottish National Party (SNP) Scotland has been closely following the twists and turns of the Catalan separatists to draw out lessons for its own strategy.
Right now, it seems that the Spanish government has succeeded in its strategy of cornering the pro-independence camp. The Catalan bureaucracy and other state institutions are cooperating with the Spanish government. The much-dreaded civil disobedience has not materialised. But things will not remain calm much longer if the Spanish government persists in its drive to push sedition charges against the sacked Catalan government. The way forward is political negotiations by common consent. The danger of the Spanish government overplaying its hand in Catalan could give a new lease of life to the independence movement.