The Catalan parliament has declared the independence of the region, while the Spanish government has suspended Catalan autonomy and the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has called regional elections for 21 December.
The feared clash between the Spanish and Catalan authorities has finally taken place, and political tensions are likely to be high in the coming weeks. However, an early snap election precludes the possibility of the long-term suspension of Catalan self-rule, which could have led the region into an endless cycle of mass mobilisations and police repression. What is likely to happen now?
Tens of thousands of pro-independence Catalans have celebrated the proclamation of the Catalan republic all over the region, but few expect the celebrations to last long. A few hours after the proclamation of independence in the Catalan parliament, Rajoy announced the suspension of Catalan self-government – an exceptional measure that no democratic government has taken since 1934, during the second Spanish republic. Rajoy has sacked Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, his government and several senior officials of the regional government, including the chief of the regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra. This was expected, but the Spanish prime minister has surprised everyone with his decision to dissolve the Catalan parliament and call regional elections. Although there are serious constitutional doubts regarding the move – insofar as dissolving the parliament is an exclusive competence of the president of the Generalitat, the Catalan government – but legal objections are not likely to stop Rajoy’s attack against Catalan institutions.
The suspension of Catalan autonomy will likely provoke more street protests. The violent repression practised by Spanish police during the 1 October referendum provoked a wave of indignation that united pro-independence and unionist Catalans in the streets: two days later, a general strike paralysed the region and mass demonstrations took place. Similar mobilisations are likely to occur in the coming weeks, particularly if Puigdemont and his government are detained and imprisoned, which the Spanish attorney general will demand. When the leaders of the two most important pro-independence associations, Assemblea National Catalana and Òmnium were imprisoned earlier in the month, 450,000 people marched in Barcelona.
There may be cases of disobedience by Catalan police officers or civil servants against their new bosses, but a massive rebellion against the new authorities imposed from Madrid is unlikely. Some minor clashes between Mossos and Guardia Civil [the Spanish gendarmarie] took place on 1 October when Catalan officers tried to protect voters from Guardia Civil violence, but most Mossos will probably obey the new authorities. If they do not, Rajoy could replace them with the thousands of national police and Guardia Civil officers who were sent from other regions of Spain and are still in Catalonia, waiting for orders. They have not left their barracks since 1 October, but they are likely to in the coming weeks as the implementation of article 155 is carried out by force.
The only factor that may stem the political situation in Catalonia is the prospect of a relatively early snap election. Even though its invocation will be considered illegitimate by the pro-independence parties, recent polls suggest most Catalans see an election as a way out of the current political impasse. However, if there is police violence during the campaign or the government uses its new powers in Catalonia to undermine pro-independence parties, a wide electoral boycott could occur. In that case, the gap between Madrid and Barcelona would grow wider than ever.
The snap election was demanded by Ciudadanos, a centre-right party which is the main parliamentary support of the ruling Popular party (PP) in the Spanish parliament. Ciudadanos is the second biggest party in the Catalan parliament and its leader, Inés Arrimadas, will try to get the support of the other unionist parties – PP and the Socialist party (PSOE) – in order to be elected president of the Generalitat. PP has already accepted the deal, but Arrimadas is unlikely to win. Polls suggest the results of the snap election will be very similar to those in 2015: pro-independence parties would receive slightly less than half the popular vote and slightly more than half the seats.
Meanwhile, Podemos and its sister organisation in Catalonia, Catalunya en Comú (CeC), are in a difficult situation. They hold an intermediate position between the pro-independence bloc and the unionist parties. The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, and Podemos’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, have rejected both the declaration of independence and the application of article 155 – they consider the 1 October vote a mobilisation rather than a binding referendum, but they object to the aggression towards Catalan self-rule. According to the latest polls, CeC will maintain its seats in the snap election (11 or 12 seats out of 135), while Iglesias’s defence of the right of Catalan self-determination is eroding Podemos’s national electoral prospects.
By invoking elections on 21 December, Rajoy has done what he does best: buying time. A lengthy period under article 155 would have increased the legitimacy of the pro-independence movement, insofar as it would have reinforced the idea that Catalans cannot be free within the Spanish state. By contrast, an election creates a short-term horizon within Catalan politics – albeit set by the Spanish government – which is good news for Rajoy.
However, the election will not erase the pro-independence movement, which has expanded due to the lack of political propositions from the Spanish state and, recently, due to the police and judicial repression practised against voters and pro-independence activists. As long as Spain’s approach to the political situation is characterised by repression and the absence of solutions – such as a legal and binding independence referendum – the pro-independence movement will only continue to grow.