Protesters display Catalonian separatist flags in Barcelona on Tuesday.
Protesters display Catalonian separatist flags in Barcelona on Tuesday. Enrique Calvo/Reuters

The politics behind the region’s independence movement are murky, but the stakes for Spain are clear.

The shocking violence in Barcelona on Sunday makes the politics behind Catalonia’s separatist movement even harder to parse. Helmeted police in riot gear disrupted polling places, beat citizens attempting to vote, and left an incredible 893 people injured—all in the name of halting a referendum on Catalonian independence that national laws deemed to be illegal.

It was hard to shake the impression of a brutal, oppressive state attempting to undermine democracy. Looking on, the world saw echoes of Spain’s Fascist past and civil war-era chaos, and dark hints of what might lurk in Europe’s unsettled future.

That impression will endure—and for good reason, given the violence—but it is also important to understand the context in which this violence unfolded. Away from the streets, it would be mistaken to paint the situation uncomplicatedly as a fight only of the weak against the powerful, or to suggest that a majority of Catalan citizens have actually been seeking total independence. Indeed, while the independence debate is evolving into a street battle, it also reveals a broader stand-off between power elites that is almost as worrying as the violence.

First, let’s look at Catalonia itself, which occupies a part-privileged, part-marginalized role in post-Franco Spain. Long one of Spain’s richer regions, Catalonia punches slightly above its weight, containing 16 percent of Spain’s population, but just over 20 percent of its GDP and over 25 percent of its exports. Despite brutal suppression under Franco’s dictatorship, the region (along with the Basque Country, which also has long had a large nationalist movement) has retained its distinct identity substantially intact, possibly because Spain’s central state was weak during the centuries when European neighbors France and Britain were, by contrast, systematically crushing their minority languages and cultures.

Catalan elites, however, have never quite got a slice of the national political pie that corresponds with their economic power. The autonomy written into Spain’s national system means that the region gets considerable say in its own affairs—the regional government, called the Generalitat de Catalunya, has substantial (and sometimes absolute) local jurisdiction in many areas. Still, the lion’s share of national institutional influence has always remained fiercely guarded in Madrid. In times of prosperity, this led to tension, but since the financial crisis of 2008, the post-Franco pact has truly been coming unstuck. With Spain continuing to flounder economically, people are losing faith in the central state’s ability to solve their problems.

Meanwhile, attempts to update Spain’s constitution to readjust its power-sharing mechanisms have been sabotaged by obstructive politicians more interested in playing to their base than forging useful compromise. The independence movement has thus become a focus for Catalans who feel that they could get a better deal by managing their own affairs—and taxes—locally.

This being the 21st century, there’s still more to it than that. The independence push is also a vessel through which Catalonia’s citizens voice their disaffection with wider problems affecting people across Spain, such as falling living standards and appalling youth unemployment. Faced with a vote for change—any change—people have mobilized, although independence has never quite gained majority support: Pre-referendum data from the Generalitat itself showed a mere 41 percent for independence. It’s not entirely coincidental that the movement has grown during the era of Brexit, another referendum that was partly a vehicle for frustrations that lay beyond the question being directly posed to electorates.

Meanwhile, Catalonia’s regional government has something to gain beyond satisfying its own supporters by pushing the independence issue. The PDeCAT (Partit Demòcrata Europe Català) party, currently ruling in coalition as part of the Junts pel Sí alliance, has been the target of a massive anti-corruption investigation by regional courts that alleges that officials affiliated to it (and its its earlier incarnation, a party called the CDC) took a mandatory 3 percent kickback on all state contracts, suggesting widespread graft may have taken root in the region.

The reaction to the Three Percent Case provides a window into the current mood in Spain. It may be excruciating for much of Catalan officialdom, but the popular perception is that such corruption is endemic across Spain and that Catalonia’s courts at least deserve some credit for trying to tackle it. At the same time, the Catalan government’s pushing of the referendum issue is seen by some as a calculated distraction from the corruption scandal.

It would be extremely wrong to suggest the somewhat murky motivations behind Catalonia’s referendum means that the leaders of Spain’s national government are in some way the good guys. In fact, the central government has also been accused of using the separatist debate to distract voters from other problems. It has failed to take advantage of numerous opportunities to defuse the situation, in part because anti-Catalan saber-rattling is catnip to a section of its base.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy heads a fragile minority government. Despite signs of a frail recovery, Spain still has two million fewer jobs than it did before the 2008 financial crisis. Officials from Rajoy’s right-wing Popular Party (PP) are themselves the subject of numerous corruption investigations, while the government has just been forced to withdraw its spending bill for 2018 due to fears it won’t pass. A portion of the PP’s base heartily approve of the kind of strong-arm tactics the world saw on Sunday: It’s possible that the condoning of appalling police behavior in Barcelona was designed to play well to this constituency.

If so, the ploy has probably failed. While independence voters have not yet enjoyed a clear majority in Catalonia, many citizens—including Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, who has not declared a fixed position on independence—were in favor of being given a vote on the subject. Now, the police have succeeded in resurrecting the specter of dictatorship past in a way that is likely to galvanize support for independence. The Catalonian government is today claiming a 90 percent vote in favor of independence, but the numbers are somewhat meaningless given that only 42.3 percent of voters were able, or chose, to vote.

Why did the government risk such a crisis by cracking down so heavily? Essentially, because the vote was a challenge not just to its authority, but to Spain’s constitution of 1978, which rules that the country is indivisible. Catalonia’s regional government even violated their own assembly’s procedures in pushing forward the referendum vote.

As the announcement of a general strike in Catalonia today indicates, it’s possible things will get yet worse. The violent crackdown has created a brimming reservoir of resentment among Catalans angry at being denied a voice. The regional government may cite the referendum results, incomplete as they may be, to a declaration of independence, with the national government responding by forcibly imposing direct rule. And the national police, some of whom were imported from other regions of Spain for the occasion, have now cast themselves as the central government’s thuggish enforcers. It’s a volatile mix of elements. What happen’s next is anybody’s guess, but the fates of both the national and regional governments—and, in a way inconceivable a year ago, the cohesion of Spain itself—now hang in the balance.

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