Outrage at Catalonia crackdown a likely spur for independence

Madrid deploys series of measures widely seen as heavy-handed in Catalonia

Students gather at the historical headquarters of the University of Barcelona during a pro-referendum demonstration. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

Students gather at the historical headquarters of the University of Barcelona during a pro-referendum demonstration. Photograph: Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty Images

 

The Spanish government informed the authorities in Catalonia on Friday that it was deploying police reinforcements to the northeastern region to boost an already substantial security force presence ahead of the independence vote scheduled for October 1st.

“Their duties will be to watch over public spaces and maintain order and they will act if the illegal referendum takes place,” said interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido in a letter to the Catalan government.

That missive suggests that although the justice system has taken unprecedented steps to prevent the controversial referendum from taking place, the government still fears it may go ahead.

On Wednesday civil guards raided several premises of the Catalan regional government, arresting 14 officials believed to be involved in preparing the vote. The police also searched other properties for election-related material and seized 10 million voting slips from a warehouse.

Those drastic actions followed the central government’s decision to take control of part of the Catalan regional finances in order to ensure public funds are not being used for the vote. In addition, about 800 Catalan mayors are under investigation for having offered their public spaces as venues for it.

Wave of indignation

The response to Wednesday’s raids within the pro-independence movement has been a combination of uncertainty, outrage and defiance. Catalan deputy premier Oriol Junqueras admitted that the police action had “changed the rules of the game”, hinting that the vote had been irreparably compromised.

But regional premier Carles Puigdemont has been more bullish, insisting it will go ahead, because his administration has “contingency plans to guarantee it, but, above all, because it has the support of the immense majority of the population, which is fed up with the arrogance and abuses of the [Spanish] government”.

Although recent polls offer varying pictures, they tend to show that Catalan society is more divided on the referendum issue than Puigdemont suggests.

However, while Wednesday’s events have undoubtedly delivered a blow to the logistics of the referendum, they have sparked a wave of indignation that is likely to benefit the independence movement.

Demonstrators took to the streets almost as soon as the civil guards had entered the regional government buildings. Although the 14 detained officials have now been released pending charges, noisy but peaceful protests have continued in Barcelona and other Catalan cities since.

“The independence camp’s problem is that they have always said ‘we represent the will of the people’, but the truth is that they don’t represent a majority in Catalonia,” says Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University.

“So what does the independence camp want to do?” he added. “To generate so much tension that Catalans rally round the regional government – and I’d say that [on Wednesday] they very nearly managed that.”

The Basque angle

Support for Catalan independence has been hovering between 40-45 per cent in recent months, according to the regional government’s own polls. But the perception that the Spanish state and government are being heavy-handed could push many of those on the fence into the secessionist camp.

“The day support for independence hits 60 per cent, no number of civil guards will be able to stop it,” noted author and journalist Enric Juliana.

Although there has been little suggestion the central government plans to pull back from its strategy of strident financial and legal action against the Catalan government, ironically it might be restrained by other nationalists, in the Basque Country.

Rajoy is relying on support from the Basque Nationalist Party, which governs the northern region, in order to push the 2018 national budget through Congress. With historic but currently muted secessionist ambitions of its own, the Basque party is watching the central government’s handling of the Catalan crisis with a critical eye and is poised to withdraw its parliamentary support if it doesn’t like what it sees.

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