Catalan Independence Drive to Haunt Madrid Whatever Happens Next

  • Vote attempt frays pact that kept country whole for 40 years
  • Constituional crisis is most serious Spain’s faced: historian

Catalonia Sets Independence Vote Deemed Illegal by Spain

Catalonia’s planned vote on independence from Spain on Sunday, ruled illegal by the courts, will likely haunt the rest of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s political career, whether he succeeds in stopping it or not.

A declaration of secession would only deepen what is already the biggest existential issue that’s confronted Spain since it returned to democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco four decades ago. But even if Rajoy manages to stop the vote, as he’s vowing to, the level of rancor the movement has generated in the rest of Spain has already broken the political pact that has kept regional tensions in check since the 1970s.

Catalonia, which includes Barcelona and accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy, is attempting to become the first of 17 autonomous regions that already enjoy a measure of self-government to hold a binding plebiscite on independence. It staged a nonbinding ballot three years ago that was backed by about 80 percent of voters, though barely 30 percent of those eligible turned out.

The rebel administration is pressing ahead with the referendum even after Rajoy’s government seized 10 million ballots, deployed thousands of police and arrested more than a dozen Catalan officials.

“This is the most serious constitutional crisis Spain has faced,” said Alejandro Quiroga, professor of Spanish history at the University of Newscastle in the U.K. “The Catalan question could trigger a competition among the other regions to test how far they can go. It’s a very complex matter.”

Trump Backing

Rajoy’s efforts to keep Spain whole won U.S. President Donald Trump’s backing during his visit to Washington this week. But back home in Madrid, he’s facing a growing chorus of criticism, including from some of his staunchest supporters, for allowing the issue to go on so long.

Cristobal Fernandez, a bar owner in Chamberi, a trendy district of Madrid that voted overwhelmingly for Rajoy’s People’s Party last year, said the Spanish leader needs to deliver on his campaign pledge to maintain national unity. 

“He’s being weak,” Fernandez, 57, said, pouring coffee and smoking a cigarette after hanging national flags up and down the street. “They’re stepping all over the constitution. If there’s a referendum, it comes down to Rajoy and he needs to take responsibility.”

Read more: A Q&A on how the Catalan rift exploses cracks in Spain

This crisis has been decades in the making. Catalonia’s push for autonomy from Madrid in the 1930s was a factor in the Spanish Civil War, and Franco’s regime that emerged suppressed Catalonia’s people and language. Following Franco’s death in 1975, reconciliation efforts culminated with the passage of a constitution in 1978 that led to Catalonia winning language rights and control over its health and education systems.

Back then, when Catalonia was poorer, it opted not to accept the tax-raising powers that were granted to the Basque country on Spain’s northern coast. Now the region’s economy is thriving, separatists complain their taxes are being used to subsidize poorer parts of the country.

‘Go Get Them!’

With three days to go before the showdown, tensions are flaring. Videos posted on social media show crowds outside police stations throughout the country waving goodbye to officers being sent to Catalonia amid chants of “Go Get Them!” -- a cheer usually reserved for soccer stadiums. Since the days of Franco, soccer has been an outlet for regional animosities, most notably in the rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona.

“This is an issue that triggers a visceral response,” said Carlos Barrera, professor of political communications at the University of Navarra. “This works well for the separatists: It’s us against them. The central government needs to reconcile a very polarizing issue it has ignored for years.”

Regardless of what happens on Sunday, Rajoy, in power since 2011, is committed to making sure Catalonia remains part of the complicated system of trade-offs that’s held the country together for the past 40 years. But some Spaniards are past that stage.

“At this point, the only thing that interests me about Catalonia is beating Barcelona -- the soccer team,” said Juan Castillo, a doorman in Chamberi. “If the Catalans want to leave, let them leave. Just make sure they don’t return.”

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