Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
And that may not even be the most dramatic Spanish political event of the day.
After weeks of brinkmanship, it’s finally happened: On Friday the Catalan Parliament voted in favor of Catalonia declaring independence from the rest of Spain, with a view to breaking off as a sovereign republic.
The vote, which delivered 70 votes for independence against 10 against and two blank ballots, came after a predictably heated session when Catalonia’s Socialist Party (the PSC) walked out of the 135-seat chamber in protest before voting took place. While that boycott is a threat to the perceived validity of the parliament’s vote, pro-independence forces nonetheless received an outright majority, albeit a modest one.
The result manages to be shocking without being truly a surprise. Promises by the regional government to declare independence have been rumbling ever since the brutal suppression of October 1’s referendum on Catalan independence, a vote considered illegal by the current terms of Spain’s national constitution. The first counterblast has already been issued: The Spanish Senate, the upper house of the national parliament in Madrid, just agreed to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy by triggering the constitution’s Article 155, taking over regional powers until an election for a new regional government can be held.
Leaving open the possibility that Catalonia’s declaration of independence may not even be the most dramatic Spanish political event of the day, this throws the field open for a grand, escalated confrontation between the two sides.
So what next? To be frank, this is uncharted territory. Now that Spain’s national parliament has voted to revoke autonomy, the next step could involve taking control of Catalonia’s security forces and possibly arresting regional president Carles Puigdemont, who could be charged with treason. Should independence supporters take to the streets of Catalonia to prevent this—and it’s likely that some would—that means Rajoy’s national government risks an amplified repetition of the chaos from October 1, when federal officers beat and injured hundreds of voters. Scenes like that could so outrage those yet-ambivalent Catalans that any chance of meaningfully dialing back on independence becomes impossible.
At the same time, Rajoy’s hardline stance has many supporters in a divided Spain, where many non-Catalans are both disgusted by the violent suppression of the referendum and exasperated by what they see as spurious assertions of victimhood from one of the country’s wealthiest regions.
The position of Puigdemont’s government is even more precarious. The October 1 referendum delivered a majority for independence but received only a 42.3 percent turnout. Breaking away from Spain on the strength of a vote in which less than half the electorate actually cast a ballot is tenuous, even if Catalonia’s government can, with ample justification, blame the disruption by national police for the low participation.
Catalan opinion polls in the run-up to the referendum showed majority support for remaining part of Spain. A crackdown from Spain’s national government could galvanize and solidify support for breaking away that wasn’t present earlier in the year. Or it might do the opposite, leaving members of Puigdemont’s Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”) coalition out of power and quite possibly behind bars.
So is there any hope now for de-escalating the crisis? Both the national and regional governments seem determined to hurtle right to a very embittered endgame. In other parts of the political spectrum, however, positions are somewhat more malleable. Spain’s left-wing party Podemos has declared itself both against triggering Article 155 and unilaterally declaring independence. As Citylab reported Sunday, Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau, whose Barcelona en Comu citizen platform is loosely allied with Podemos, holds the same position. Spain’s center-left socialist parties—the national PSOE and Catalonia’s PSC—are in favor of invoking Article 155 under certain conditions, but have advocated snap elections in Catalonia as an alternative way out of the impasse.
These more flexible compromise positions could end up leaving both the national and regional governments—which are in power through slim majorities—look foolish and irresponsible. Rajoy and Puigdemont may well end up taking each other out in a blaze of mutually assured public destruction. At the same time, one or the other of them might be able to harness a tide of voter outrage at the other camp's actions, ending up with a strengthened position.
Even at this very early stage, one thing is already clear: Whether it’s the regional government, the national government, or Spain’s continuing cohesion, something or someone is going down.