In Stratfor's 2017 Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we wrote that tension between the Spanish government and Catalonia's regional government would escalate during the quarter. We also said that Madrid would consider suspending parts of Catalonia's autonomy or even calling for an early election in the region. In the coming days, it will probably do both.
In their dispute over Catalonia's push to secede, both Madrid and Barcelona are hoping the other will make the first move. Once members of Spain's ruling Popular Party and its opposition Socialist Party finish drafting a series of measures, the country's Cabinet will meet on Oct. 21 to officially invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows the central government to take control of a region's — in this case, Catalonia's — institutions and resources. But Madrid, fearing local repercussions, could be slow to actually implement the measures. Meanwhile, the Catalan government is engaged in intense internal debates about what it should do next, with some within the group demanding an immediate declaration of independence and others suggesting a passive, wait-and-see approach.
Though the details of the Spanish government's soon-to-be announced measures are still unknown, they could involve Madrid temporarily taking control of the Catalan interior ministry and police, as well as its treasury and a regional television broadcaster. The government could also hold an early regional election in Catalonia in January 2018, as was alluded to by one prominent member of the Socialist party Oct. 20. A snap election is a risky move, though, because it could result in another strong performance by pro-independence parties. And some secessionist forces may even boycott the elections in an attempt to delegitimize the next Catalan government.
Even after Madrid settles on its plan, the measures it hopes to implement will not go into effect right away. First, the Spanish Senate must authorize them in a decision set for Oct. 27. Authorization should be a smooth process, given that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party controls the majority. But once the legislature has played its part, Madrid can and may still decide not to move forward. The central government knows that some Catalans will react virulently if it takes direct control over institutions in the region. And it is trying to avoid that consequence for as long as possible, hoping instead that exerting legal, political and economic pressure will exacerbate divisions within the Catalan government to such a degree that it collapses.
Currently, Catalonia's regional government is indeed coping with internal fracturing. Many radical secessionists are pressuring leader Carles Puigdemont to declare independence as soon as possible, but more moderate Catalans are urging caution. Some even argue that Catalonia could buy more time before the Spanish government intervenes by calling for its own election, of a slightly different nature than the one Madrid is considering. From the moderates' point of view, constituent elections to appoint writers of a Catalan constitution would allow Catalonia to move forward with its independence process without formally attempting to enforce a declaration. However, it is unclear whether Madrid would be willing to hold off on suspending parts of Catalonia's autonomy should these elections happen.
On a longer timeline, Madrid does not seem to be interested in an extended intervention in Catalonia. Instead it is focused on taking temporary control of some, but not all, of the region's institutions and resources to keep social discontent within tolerable margins. But that plan relies on no new episodes of social unrest, and once Madrid triggers Article 155, pro-independence forces are unlikely to remain passive. At this point in the conflict, the waiting game can only last so long before one party must make a move.