Thu, Oct 05, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Spain’s heavy-handed tactics have only inflamed separatists

By Therese Raphael  /  Bloomberg View

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Sunday night stuck stubbornly to his script while the rest of the world watched an entirely different movie unfold in Catalonia.

“There was no referendum. What we have seen was a mere dramatization,” Rajoy said.

He sounded a little like a Kremlin spokesperson brushing aside a separatist uprising in, say, Chechnya. Nothing to see here, folks.

Only there was plenty to see and cameras everywhere to document riot police firing rubber bullets into crowds of peaceful protesters, dragging voters by the hair and using truncheons.

The injury estimates were continually revised higher; more than 800 were reportedly injured in clashes with Spanish police. Spanish authorities downplayed those reports.

Regardless, the videos that went viral were damning. It is hard to imagine anything in recent years that could do more to bolster the cause of Catalan separatism.

Spain has now been plunged into its deepest crisis in decades; the 1978 constitutional settlement that granted Spanish regions various degrees of autonomy looks to be in tatters.

In the early hours, Catalonia’s government announced that it had counted nearly 2.3 million ballots that had not been seized and 90 percent were for independence.

It hardly matters that turnout was a low 42 percent; Catalonia’s leaders got exactly what they wanted — victory in the court of public opinion and widespread international condemnation of Madrid.

As clashes with police were broadcast, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, a former journalist and mayor of Girona, nimbly recast the narrative as “truncheons versus the ballot box.”

For Catalan separatists, Rajoy’s law-and-order mantra conjured images of General Francisco Franco, whose legacy still casts a long shadow over Spain.

Puigdemont is completing his transformation from accidental revolutionary to human rights champion. He must keep promising steps toward independence to keep his movement going.

The problem is that Rajoy and Puigdemont each have firmly committed to a path of escalation.

A declaration of independence would be the next stage in a rapidly intensifying standoff.

Puigdemont says Catalans have earned that right, though it remains to be seen whether parliament would back such a move.

Catalans gathering in Barcelona’s central square on Sunday evening jangled keys, a reference to the local schools that, in defiance of Madrid, turned over their keys to separatists so that ballots could be cast there. The mood in the square was described as funereal rather than celebratory.

Catalans might not have the will to take up arms against the Spanish government, but that is not the same as loyalty; the emotional link to the rest of the country will have been severed for many by Sunday’s violence.

That Rajoy managed to accomplish this was some feat.

Approval for the referendum barely cleared Catalonia’s own parliament last month; it had nowhere near majority support in polls.

Support for independence peaked in 2013 after the Spanish government refused Catalonia’s demands for more autonomy over its finances.

A non-binding vote in 2014, also held in defiance of the Spanish courts, saw 80 percent back a split from Spain on turnout of under 40 percent.

In a recent poll, only 35 percent of respondents said the region should become independent.

That is not surprising: Catalans enjoy a relatively good life; whatever their grievances with the Spanish government, many were wary of the economic uncertainty that life outside Spain — and initially at least outside the EU — could bring.

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