Madrid escalates tactics to halt Catalan vote

Independence referendum in Catalonia turning into constitutional crisis for Spain

Protesters handing out masks before a demonstration over the referendum outside the University of Barcelona on Wednesday.
Protesters handing out masks before a demonstration over the referendum outside the University of Barcelona on Wednesday.PHOTO: REUTERS

ARENYS DE MUNT (Catalonia) • The central government in Madrid is trying almost everything it can to stop Sunday's independence vote in Catalonia, a stand-off that is escalating into a volatile constitutional crisis for Spain and a worrying symptom of coming apart for all of Europe.

With the support of the Spanish judiciary, Madrid has shut down websites and advertising campaigns promoting the referendum. It has also raided the offices of firms printing the ballot papers.

And it has sent in thousands of policemen from outside the region, threatening to block polling stations.

Last week, a dozen regional government officials were detained.

Spain's Attorney-General has warned that scores more could be arrested and prosecuted, including even the leader of Catalonia, Mr Carles Puigdemont.

"We are witnessing the worst democratic regression since the death of Franco," Mr Puigdemont said in an interview, referring to former dictator Francisco Franco, whose death in 1975 opened the way for Spanish democracy.

"What is happening in Catalonia is very serious," he added.

Indeed, Catalonia's stand-off has steadily, if quietly, ratcheted up this year as world attention largely focused elsewhere, with pivotal polls taking place in critical European Union states, most recently this week in Germany.

Those elections presented big tests of the bloc's cohesion.

The dispute over Catalonia instead presents a test of the cohesion of an EU member state itself.

And it points to ominous storm clouds in other independent-minded regions, from Scotland to northern Italy.

Aspirations for an independent Catalonia, Spain's economic engine, have surged and ebbed for generations.

The tug of war is now entering perhaps its most intense and unpredictable phase since the approach of the Spanish Civil War last century.

In 2014, the last time Catalonia held an independence vote, it, too, was declared illegal by Spain's constitutional court.

But Catalan officials described that vote as a straw ballot, and the government in Madrid and the police did not prevent it.

This time, sensing the growing seriousness of the Catalan referendum, which the regional government says will now be binding, Madrid is taking a far more aggressive tack.

The approach has raised the hackles of many Catalans, who resent what they say is a heavy hand by the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The steps to intimidate people who back a vote not only may backfire, they argue, but also threaten to transform the conflict into a broad campaign of civil disobedience that could spiral out of control.

Tensions on the streets have mounted, along with political recriminations.

While the separatists charge that Mr Rajoy is taking Spain back to the dark days of Franco, Madrid warns that the separatists have shifted from violating Spanish law to encouraging civil strife.

In the interview, Mr Puigdemont said the conflict would not turn violent, but he warned that Madrid would have to assume its share of the blame if things got further out of hand.

"If you stop somebody from unfolding a banner that asks for more democracy, the problem is with the person who forces its withdrawal," he said.

Meanwhile, Ms Ada Colau, the Mayor of Catalonia's capital Barcelona, in an opinion piece published in Britain's Guardian newspaper yesterday, called for EU mediation in the stand-off over the planned referendum.

Barcelona "does not want a collision with unforeseen consequences. I am convinced most of our European partners do not want that either," the Mayor wrote.

The piece was published on the same day EU leaders were due to meet in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, for talks expected to centre on the future of Europe.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2017, with the headline 'Madrid escalates tactics to halt Catalan vote'. Subscribe