Rajoy’s Legal Defenses Breached as Mas Unleashes Voters

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s plan to use the Spanish constitution to stop Catalans from voting on independence failed as regional officials defied the government, the state prosecutor and the nation’s highest court to hold the ballot.

More than 2 million Catalans voted in a ballot the Constitutional Court had ruled illegal with 81 percent backing independence, the regional government said early today. Catalan President Artur Mas took responsibility for the vote and challenged federal authorities to sanction him while regional police ignored orders from the state prosecutor to identify officials responsible for opening polling sites.

“I thought the prosecutors were paying attention to what was happening,” Albert Rivera, the leader of unionist Ciutadans party said on his Twitter account today. “I think there were political instructions to the prosecutors.”

Separatist sentiment in Catalonia, a culturally and linguistically distinct region in northeastern Spain, has surged in the last four years, spurred by dissatisfaction with high unemployment and cuts in public services. While the vote has no legal validity, Mas aims to use it to force Rajoy into negotiating a path to independence.

The ballot takes place as the Spanish political establishment faces its biggest crisis since the return of democracy 36 years ago. Unemployment is at 24 percent, the second-highest in Europe after Greece, and corruption allegations have eroded the government’s moral authority.

Rajoy had previously said the courts and the police would prevent a vote. Yet when more than 1,000 polling stations opened across the region yesterday, the prime minister demurred to avoid driving more Catalans into the separatist camp.

Not Interfering

“Were he to insist now on investigation of the volunteers manning the poll booths, he will have overplayed his hand and that will reinforce the sense of victimization,” Sebastian Balfour, professor emeritus of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics, said in a telephone interview. “Over the last few days he’s finally played a cleverer political line, which is not to interfere.”

Rajoy is fighting battles on several fronts: His government’s popularity is plummeting and his party faces allegations that officials were taking bribes in return for contracts while the prime minister has forced the rest of Spain to swallow the harshest budget cuts in four decades. Mas sidestepped two rulings by the Constitutional Court to deliver the vote to Catalans, although it was stripped of legal validity by Rajoy’s legal maneuvers.

“This isn’t a referendum or a consultation or anything like it,” Rajoy said.

‘Let Down’

Still, Spain’s state prosecutor Eduardo Torres-Dulce last night ordered regional police to find out who was responsible for opening up the public buildings used for polling. The police won’t identify people overseeing the voting, said a spokesman for the Catalan government, who asked not to be identified, citing government policy. Mas said he and his government took full responsibility for the voting.

“It’s really disappointing to see the government doing nothing to enforce the Constitutional Court rulings and the orders of the prosecutor,” said Alfredo Perdiguero, secretary general of a national police officers’ union known as SIPE. “Most of Spaniards, who don’t like the separatists’ defiance, are being let down today.”

Constitution Strained

Spain is facing a “constitutional moment,” according to Jeff Miley, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Cambridge who focuses on Catalan nationalism. That’s a reference to Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman’s theory that at times of political crisis the electorate can produce constitutional change through informal means.

In Spain’s case, it’s the 1978 constitution that held the country together after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco that is being strained by the Catalans’ demands. Under that framework, sovereignty rests with all the Spanish people so it’s not possible for the Catalans to decide on their own to break away; that would require a national vote.

Still, support for independence has surged in recent years in the region of 7.4 million in the northeastern corner of the Spanish peninsula. Forty-five percent of respondents said they’d back independence in a survey by the Catalan government pollster last month. That compares with 28 percent when Rajoy took office in 2011. An overwhelming majority want the right to decide their future on their own.

Unplugged from Spain

“We have disobeyed the Spanish state, we challenged it,” said Carme Forcadell, chairman of the Catalan National Assembly, the civil society organization that led hundreds of thousands of protestors onto the streets of Barcelona in September. “We’ve unplugged from the Spanish state. We don’t care what they say.”

As Catalans look to separatism as the solution to a five-year slump that drove unemployment in their region as high as 25 percent last year, voters in the rest of Spain are turning to the anti-establishment Podemos party, which favors a program of public investment to create jobs. Podemos, which was set up less than a year ago, took the lead in two separate polls last week pushing Rajoy’s People’s Party into third place.

The prime minister’s weakness on a national level is making it harder for him to pursue a pragmatic solution with the Catalans as he faces pressure to adopt a populist stance to shore up the support of his party’s traditional voters, Miley said.

“The PP is split between people behind the scenes who know the way out is to cut a deal and those who say the hard-line political strategy is what works for us,” he said in a telephone interview.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.