Tensions remain high between the Spanish government and the regional government in Catalonia. Madrid insists that the referendum on Catalan independence
, scheduled for Oct. 1, is illegal and will not take place. The Catalan government has promised that the vote will go on as planned.
Turning Up the Heat
So far, Madrid's strategy for dealing with Catalonia's push for secession has had three parts. The first consists of applying legal and economic pressure on the regional government. Madrid has taken every secessionist decision by the Catalan government to the country's Constitutional Court, which has declared each one illegal. The Spanish judiciary has started investigations to determine whether any crimes have been committed during the organization of the referendum, and many members of the Catalan government and mayors of Catalan cities who offered to help organize the vote have been summoned to testify before provincial prosecutors. Madrid has also increased control over how Catalonia spends its money. According to the Spanish Finance Ministry, the goal is to guarantee that the regional government does not spend public money on organizing the referendum.
The second part of Madrid's strategy is political. The Spanish government has received support from two large opposition parties, the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and the centrist Ciudadanos. Both have called the referendum illegal and said it should not take place. These parties also support Madrid's decision to avoid suspending Catalonia's autonomy for as long as possible. According to the Spanish Constitution, the parliament has the power to suspend a region's autonomy and take direct control of its institutions in the case of a severe violation of the law. While Madrid has not ruled out doing this, it is aware that suspending Catalonia's autonomy would only exacerbate secessionist sentiments. Therefore, it will try to avoid doing so for as long as possible. The left-wing Podemos is the only large Spanish party that criticizes the government's position on Catalonia and supports negotiations for a legal referendum in the region.
The third part of Madrid's strategy is to disrupt the logistics of the referendum
. In recent days, Spanish police have entered several Catalan government offices, looking for documents linked to the referendum. Tensions reached a new peak on Sept. 20, when the police arrested 14 members of the Catalan government because of their alleged links to the organization of the vote. The arrests triggered large protests in Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Police have also confiscated about 10 million ballots and thousands of envelopes, pro-referendum posters and pamphlets. The Spanish government ordered the national post office not to distribute any material linked to the referendum, and private courier companies were also raided. In addition, Madrid has blocked several websites connected with the referendum.
For now, the Spanish government wants to undermine the organization of the referendum as much as possible. In 2014, roughly 2.3 million people participated in an unofficial independence referendum
(about 5.4 million people had the right to vote). The Catalan government has said that the Oct. 1 referendum will be valid regardless of voter turnout, but from a symbolic point of view, the secessionists hope for a higher participation than in 2014. Many Catalans, especially those who want independence, will try to vote or at least will take to the streets on Oct. 1. Some polling centers — in some cases, improvised ones — will probably be open in parts of Catalonia. But Madrid wants to make sure that turnout remains as low as possible and that voting conditions are as informal as possible, to delegitimize the referendum. Oct. 1 is likely to be a chaotic day, with people voting in some places but not in others. It will probably be a day of large protests, especially in Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Sporadic acts of violence and vandalism cannot be ruled out.
The Day After
The real challenge for Madrid and Barcelona starts the day after the anticipated referendum. Even if the vote is disrupted, secessionist sentiments in Catalonia will not go away anytime soon. Starting Oct. 2, the regional government will face a few choices. It could unilaterally declare independence, but this would probably force Madrid to suspend Catalonia's autonomy and dissolve the regional government. The Catalan government could also resign and call for early elections, hoping to obtain a stronger popular mandate for independence. This would only continue the conflict and lead to another period of political and legal uncertainty. Finally, the regional government could remain in power and seek a compromise with Madrid about the area's future. This could create severe frictions within the Catalan government, because the most radical secessionist factions would probably refuse to go back to the negotiating table. Regardless, the issue of independence will continue to dominate Catalonia's political environment and shape relations with Madrid for the foreseeable future.
For Madrid, the choices are equally difficult. One option would be to authorize a legal referendum and negotiate its terms (such as the voter turnout required to make it valid, or the type of majority required to obtain independence) with Barcelona. Opinion polls suggest that most Catalans, regardless of their position on independence, want the opportunity to vote on their future. But the central government is unlikely to authorize a legal referendum because other regions with strong secessionist sentiments, such as the Basque Country, could demand referendums of their own