Political showdown looms in Spain over Catalonia vote

Political showdown looms in Spain over Catalonia vote
Catalan pro-independence students hold a banner during their protest against the Spanish Constitutional Court along Las Ramblas de las flores street in Barcelona October 2, 2014.

LONDON - Two weeks after Scotland voted firmly to stay in the United Kingdom, lawmakers in Catalonia, one of Spain's most influential regions, have brushed aside appeals for dialogue, and vow to hold a planned referendum on independence next month.

"We will forge ahead," said Catalan leader Artur Mas.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has appealed to nationalists in his country to abandon their independence demands and join talks with the central government on how to avoid Spain's disintegration, saying: "The law and dialogue, these are the ways out of the tension."

But Catalonia's move is certain to plunge Spain into its biggest political showdown in more than half a century.

Catalan politicians claim that they want no greater rights than Scotland, which, last month, was allowed to hold a referendum on independence from the UK.

Like the Scots, the Catalans are a substantial nation, with a distinct language, traditions and history.

Like Scotland, Catalonia has enjoyed a substantial measure of autonomy from the central government, with its own Parliament and government, but many of its people still resent what they regard as their "annexation" into Spain.

However, unlike the Scots who are net beneficiaries of subsidies from other parts of the UK, Catalonia is a net contributor to the rest of Spain: At 7.5 million, the Catalans are only 15 per cent of Spain's total population, but account for 22 per cent of the country's total economy.

So, while fears of potential economic difficulties had a decisive impact on Scotland's rejection of the independence option, economic advantages could persuade the Catalans to vote for their separation from Spain.

Precisely because the stakes are so high, Prime Minister Rajoy remains determined to prevent the referendum from ever taking place.

Soon after the regional government of Catalonia scheduled a ballot on independence for Nov 9, Mr Rajoy asked Spain's Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of this move.

The court may take years to issue its verdict, but the outcome is hardly in doubt: Since Spain's Constitution refers to the "indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation", the judges are likely to conclude that any separatist move is illegal.

Meanwhile, the Constitutional Court has already ordered the Catalan government to halt all preparations for an independence ballot.

Mr Mas is walking a tightrope: He has promised that his province's quest for independence will be accomplished entirely peacefully and lawfully, so he cannot be seen to be ignoring a ruling of Spain's highest court.

At the same time, his moderately separatist movement is being cornered by the Republican Left of Catalonia, a more radical party which argues that independence should be pursued regardless of what the Spanish "establishment" wants.

For the moment, Mr Mas has chosen to appease everyone. He has suspended preparations for holding the referendum, just as Spain's judges had demanded.

But he has also allocated €9 million (S$14.3 million) towards holding the ballot, and has appointed a commission to supervise voting procedures.

Mr Mas claims to be acting within the law, yet Spain's central government will have none of this, and has threatened to ask the courts this week to invalidate these moves as well: "No one in Spain can say on their own authority what is legal and what is not; that is a matter for the courts," Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria has said.

"This government has an obligation to obey the law and to make sure it is obeyed," she added.

Yet, behind this semblance of grim determination to confront Catalonia, the Spanish government is divided on what it should do.

Some ministers worry that the separatist movement could turn violent: The hundreds of thousands who poured onto the streets of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, soon after the Spanish Constitutional Court halted the referendum preparations, are seen as a warning of things to come.

Meanwhile, Spain's Socialist Party, the biggest national opposition movement, has broken ranks with the government over the question of Catalonia, arguing that simply refusing the Catalan demands for independence without suggesting a constitutional alternative makes no sense.

By offering direct talks with Catalan leaders, Mr Rajoy hopes to both defuse the tension and deflect criticism about his handling of the crisis.

The snag for Mr Rajoy is that the Catalan leadership has no incentive to enter into such talks, and no interest in rescuing the Spanish government from a political predicament of its own making.

The prediction is that the Catalan government will choose to resign in order to trigger early parliamentary elections, and use those ballots as an indirect referendum for independence.

Either way, it is obvious that the failure of the referendum in Scotland has done nothing to dampen separatist demands in other parts of Europe.

This article was first published on Oct 7, 2014.
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