A Guide to the Catalan Referendum

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Catalonia Sets Independence Vote Deemed Illegal by Spain

Tension is building as Spain faces off with Catalonia over plans to hold a referendum on independence on Oct. 1. The Constitutional Court says the process is illegal and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is deploying police to the region to try to stop the vote and keep public order in the country’s biggest regional economy. Mass protests by the separatists are attracting global attention.

1. Is the referendum going ahead?

It’s difficult to see how the police can shut down all voting across almost 1,000 Catalan towns and cities, but it could be very limited. There’s been an extensive crackdown against the organizers and confiscation of materials like ballot boxes and voting slips needed to hold a vote. Whatever happens, the process will have none of the legal guarantees required to give the result legitimacy.

Catalan referendum voting cards

Catalan referendum voting cards.

Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

2. So what’s the most likely outcome?

Support for independence has slipped, with just 35 percent of respondents saying Catalonia should be independent in a July survey by the regional government’s polling agency. But with law enforcement agencies acting to prevent ballots being cast, those who do vote are likely to be strongly in favor of a split. Before the confrontations escalated, separatist leaders said they would consider 1.8 million “yes” votes enough to declare independence, because that’s enough for a majority in any normal regional election. More radical factions within the movement may be tempted to announce a split with less than that, but they’ll get no international recognition and such a move would probably trigger a full takeover of the regional administration from Madrid.

3. What does this mean for Spanish politics?

The government is wobbling. After two inconclusive general elections, Rajoy pieced together a minority government last year that relies on the backing of Basque Nationalist who don’t like to see Madrid getting heavy-handed with other restive regions. Rajoy aborted plans to present his 2018 tax and spending plans to parliament this week with his budget chief saying the government doesn’t have the votes to pass it. Some of the prime minister’s supporters are angry that he didn’t act sooner to shut down the separatist movement.

4. If Rajoy’s budget fails, will his government fall?

No. Rajoy can roll over his 2017 budget into next year to keep the government operating and under Spanish law, opposition parties need to rally around a rival candidate for a no-confidence vote to succeed. That’s proved beyond them so far. But losing the budget would expose just how limited Rajoy’s power has become and the chances of him seeing out a full four-year term would start to recede.

5. What’s the next move in Catalonia?

One way or another, a regional election is probably on the cards. The Catalan government could call a ballot as a way to stay in the game and keep the debate on independence raging. If they opt to raise the flag of the Catalan Republic instead, then Madrid is likely to seize control of the region’s administration in response. That would take Rajoy into uncharted constitutional waters, with no precedent, and little legislation to guide him. But the prime minister would probably have to call elections reasonably quickly to restore self-government, according to Elisa de la Nuez, a state attorney. In the meantime, anarchists within the separatist movement are seeking support for a general strike starting Oct. 3.

6. And then what?

The 1978 constitutional settlement has broken down. That agreement granted differing degrees of autonomy to regions like Catalonia and the Basque country and transformed the country during a three-decade boom. Until Spain finds a new framework within which its people can agree to live together, the noise of separatism will continue to drown out much of the debate on any other issues.

The Reference Shelf

  • This QuickTake explains the history behind three centuries of conflict in Catalonia.
  • Catalan government’s website and the Spanish government’s website.
  • Gadfly columnist Mark Gilbert explains how bond investors are looking at Catalonia and why they shouldn’t be spooked.
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