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Spain in Crisis: Where to from here?

Image credit: Sasha Popovic (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Spain is currently in a deep political crisis. Since the 1 October independence referendum in Catalonia, tensions have reached breaking point. In summary, on 1 October, Catalonia held a referendum to break away from Spain and become an independent state. The Spanish national police intervened, destroying many voting stations and confiscating ballot papers. As a result, while the turnout was counted at only 43% of the population, 90% of the votes were in favour of independence. Since 1 October, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called the actions of Catalonia’s government, led by Catalonian President Carles Puidgemont, illegal and the backlash from the Spanish government has caused daily protests and civil unrest in the region.

More than a week after the independence vote, Puidgemont declared that he was suspending the declaration of independence pending talks with Madrid, leaving many Catalonians confused about the status of their vote. Tensions reached breaking point on 19 October when Mariano Rajoy declared that he would be seeking the Senate’s approval to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. This would permit the central Spanish government to suspend some of Catalonia’s autonomy.

Triggering Article 155 gives the Spanish government the power to intervene in a region if its autonomous government ‘fails to fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain’. In reality, if Puidgement unilaterally declares independence and Article 155 is used, the Spanish government could dissolve the Catalonian parliament, call new elections and prosecute individuals involved in leading the referendum.

Apart from the political ramifications of triggering Article 155, what will suffer the most is Catalonians’, pro- and anti-independence alike, ability to continue to trust the central Spanish government, particularly given that many at this point would be feeling increasingly isolated, frustrated and victimised by their national leaders. We do not know what has gone on behind the scenes, but if dialogue had not been occurring before, it certainly will not occur now.

Emotions aside, the legal and constitutional argument put forward by Rajoy is reasonable and clear. Catalonia’s political leaders are technically breaking the law and acting contrary to constitutional law and judicial direction. At this point, however, the fact of the matter is that the way the Spanish government has handled the referendum has inflamed already sensitive emotions, potentially prompting many ‘No’ voters who have felt victimised by the Rajoy government to sympathise with the ‘Yes’ campaign.

There is no doubt that Carles Puidgement was and is serious in his bid for independence. In the lead up to 1 October, however, many observers would have seen the move as a last ditch effort at forcing the Spanish government to the table to commence talks about improving equality amongst the regions. Those who saw the referendum in this way would have assumed that in the face of a potential crisis, Rajoy would have (or should have) conceded to the need for negotiation, and offered to engage in serious dialogue on the condition that the referendum be suspended.

Unfortunately, Rajoy did not choose this course of action, and with both parties determined to take all steps necessary to secure their positions, Spain has found itself in an unstable and somewhat violent stalemate. The most significant, and frankly sad, consequence of this state of affairs is the inevitable loss of mutual trust and respect between the two sides. Although political institutions can be mended, the emotional pain from this crisis is likely to outlive both Rajoy and Puidgemont’s political careers.

Rajoy is not going to win this fight with threats and violence, especially now since so many in the region feel betrayed and victimised by their own country. The pro-independence Catalonians mean business, and considering that this is a recurring issue in Spanish history, Rajoy must understand that fighting fire with fire will only lead to further disaster. The only way forward is to open dialogue. Without that, Spain will be trapped in a perpetual internal war of money, identity and power.

Elena Christaki-Hedrick is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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