Economy

Catalan referendum: Spanish govt’s crack down takes the world by surprise

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 02, 2017

Spanish PM Rajoy’s ‘firm hand’ tactics have support across the country

Tensions were running high before Sunday’s Catalan referendum, which had been declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, but few could have envisaged the extraordinary scenes that grabbed headlines across the world, of voters, ensconced in polling stations, in Barcelona being dragged out by police.

Catalan authorities estimate that over 800 people had been injured in clashes with police, a brutal and dramatic climax to an already extraordinarily heated situation which has been exacerbated by political intransigence, leaving the EU’s fifth largest economy in social and political turmoil.

The immediate background to the events was the Catalan Parliament’s decision — backed by the regional government — on September 6 to approve legislation to enable the independence referendum to take place, putting in place the move for full secession.

The central government’s response was swift: within a day the Spanish Constitutional Court, that had declared such a referendum illegal, suspended the referendum legislation (the Spanish constitution declares the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and the “Common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.”).

The government led by Mariano Rajoy began a programme of confiscating electoral material in the region, shutting down websites promoting independence and pledging to show the “full force” of the law

While tensions between the Spanish government and the Basque separatist group ETA have gained international infamy, the tensions between the state and Catalonia, the wealthy industrial region in north eastern Spain, home to Barcelona, has until recently largely stayed out of the international spotlight.

However, the tensions are decades old: reflecting economic, cultural, social and linguistic differences that gained recognition of one form or another over time. In 1932 the Spanish Parliament approved the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, though was swiftly repealed under the dictatorship of General Franco, amid brutal repression in the region.

Under the democratic state that followed moves for greater autonomy have been met by some compromise and delegation of powers.

The independence movement brings together a complex grouping of forces from the left and the right, with many in the region in favour of the referendum taking place, while sceptical about independence itself.

Support for the movement gathered momentum following the 2007 financial crisis that tested the Spanish economy, and heralded an era of austerity, intensifying regional bitterness that it was propping up the rest of the economy. Two unofficial referendums have taken place in 2011, and 2014, and concluded with high levels of support for independence.

The scenes in Barcelona have been met with incredulity from across the world — that a Prime Minister of a democratic nation would use force in the way that it was — but Rajoy’s “mano dura” (firm hand) on independence has considerable support across other parts of Spain.

Ahead of the referendum several thousands gathered in Madrid to protest the referendum and assert their support for the Spanish nation state, while mainstream media sided with the central government ahead of the referendum.

“Agreements cannot be reached with those who stage a coup,” headlined El Pais, the largest Spanish daily, citing constitutional principles on the day of the referendum.

“Rajoy did not make his move alone. His actions reflected consensus across the Spanish state and much of Spanish society,” tweeted Alexander Clarkson, a lecturer at Kings College London, following Sunday’s developments.

The situation remains fast moving. The Catalan government has declared around 90 per cent backing for independence, in line with previous referendums and are expected to make a declaration of independence in days.

A general strike is set to take place on Tuesday. The government’s brutal tactics are likely to have exacerbated existing tensions and spurred support for the independence movement.

The political ramifications for Rajoy — who is expected to trigger Article 155 of the Constitution — a never before used section that would enable the centre to take control of the regional government - remains to be seen. There have been calls for his resignation with some drawing parallels between the approach of his government and that of General Franco, the bloody shadow of whose dictatorial regime continues to loom large.

Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau was among those who called for Rajoy to stand down, accusing him of shirking from his responsibilities as a leader through his authoritarian approach.

“For a long time we have been in a situation of deadlock between Catalonia and the government of the Spanish state because there has been no dialogue…no proposals on the table,” she told Spanish television stations on Sunday.

For now, however, Rajoy is under surprisingly little international pressure, perhaps reflecting anxieties about separatist movements elsewhere.

Belgium’s premier Charles Michel is one of the few voices of condemnation in Europe, with others such as Britain and the European Commission itself insisting it was a matter for the Spanish state, and constitution. It has fallen to others such as the Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon to issue strong condemnation.

“Regardless of views on independence, we should all condemn the scenes being witnessed,” she tweeted.

Rajoy’s political support base domestically may give him little incentive to change too. “Rajoy’s toughness is playing well with his electoral base, which means he has no incentive to backtrack on his strategy,” wrote Antonio Barroso of risk analysis agency Teneo Intelligence.

Published on October 02, 2017

A letter from the Editor


Dear Readers,

The coronavirus crisis has changed the world completely in the last few months. All of us have been locked into our homes, economic activity has come to a near standstill. Everyone has been impacted.

Including your favourite business and financial newspaper. Our printing and distribution chains have been severely disrupted across the country, leaving readers without access to newspapers. Newspaper delivery agents have also been unable to service their customers because of multiple restrictions.

In these difficult times, we, at BusinessLine have been working continuously every day so that you are informed about all the developments – whether on the pandemic, on policy responses, or the impact on the world of business and finance. Our team has been working round the clock to keep track of developments so that you – the reader – gets accurate information and actionable insights so that you can protect your jobs, businesses, finances and investments.

We are trying our best to ensure the newspaper reaches your hands every day. We have also ensured that even if your paper is not delivered, you can access BusinessLine in the e-paper format – just as it appears in print. Our website and apps too, are updated every minute, so that you can access the information you want anywhere, anytime.

But all this comes at a heavy cost. As you are aware, the lockdowns have wiped out almost all our entire revenue stream. Sustaining our quality journalism has become extremely challenging. That we have managed so far is thanks to your support. I thank all our subscribers – print and digital – for your support.

I appeal to all or readers to help us navigate these challenging times and help sustain one of the truly independent and credible voices in the world of Indian journalism. Doing so is easy. You can help us enormously simply by subscribing to our digital or e-paper editions. We offer several affordable subscription plans for our website, which includes Portfolio, our investment advisory section that offers rich investment advice from our highly qualified, in-house Research Bureau, the only such team in the Indian newspaper industry.

A little help from you can make a huge difference to the cause of quality journalism!

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
You have read 1 out of 3 free articles for this week. For full access, please subscribe and get unlimited access to all sections.