It’s been a few weeks since the tensions in Spain began to ramp up over the Catalan referendum.
Catalonia attempted to hold a vote to determine its independence and was told in no uncertain terms by the central government in Madrid that any attempt to do so would be illegal. Catalan government buildings were raided, the guardía civil was sent in. People tried to vote but were beaten and intimidated in the streets. In a remarkable scene, fire fighters formed a human wall to protect the general public from riot police as they attempted to access what they regard as their democratic right to a vote.
It got less violent, but no less tense from there. The central government gave the regional Catalan government an ultimatum to disavow the vote, which the independence campaign had gained 90% plus of the vote, though admittedly with only 43% turnout.
The Catalan government has so far refused to be intimidated, despite Madrid’s threats to enforce new elections and strip the region of many of its devolved powers. The more hard-line of the independence proponents are hoping that they can spin Madrid’s actions as unnecessary and excessive bullying, which they can then use to push a new referendum that might garner more popular support.
It’s unclear what happens next. Independence for Catalonia has been in discussion for literally centuries, ever since Spain’s union in the 15th century. It has waxed and waned since then, especially under the rule of dictator Francisco Franco, whose authoritarian regime violently quashed any suggestion of a non-nationalist vision of the country. The movement has grown stronger again since his death in 1975, especially in terms of people openly speaking Catalan, which was illegal under the Franco regime.
But Madrid has always been against the mere idea of allowing the question to be asked, despite allowing the region to have more devolved powers than most of the other comunidades autonomas in the country. It’s just never been on the table.
All of which begs the question – why would the Spanish government act this way?
While the idea of a referendum has always been a popular one in recent years, the actual proposition of independence has lost some of its appeal in recent years. Most opinion polls had attitudes erring on the side of remaining a part of Spain, where five years ago the opposite was true.
Had Madrid allowed this non-binding referendum to simply go ahead, it could have settled the issue for a generation or more. Instead the state used violence to repress people’s right to vote, famously never a good tactic for currying favour with an already disgruntled population.
The likely future is now a turbulent one, with both sides becoming more polarised. A return to centralised rule would be a huge blow to the Catalan independence movement, and that is what the Spanish government is now trying to push. King Felipe VI said this week that Catalonia was and would remain a vital part of Spain. Not much room for independence rhetoric there, then.
It remains to be seen what the Catalan parliament’s reaction will be in the near future, but one thing is clear – this question is far from settled.