As I walked home from my office in Barcelona yesterday evening I came across hundreds of pro-independence supporters gathering to celebrate what they hoped was going to be the culmination of a long march towards the Catalan republic.
They were told they had voted to be free; that this time the referendum was for real, and that the government would declare independence 48 hours after the parliament was notified of the official results. After all, they proudly stood in long lines amid the fear of being beaten by riot police only 10 days ago.
Carrying with them the flags and T-shirts they have sported in so many massive demonstrations over the past five or six years, they waited in hope to hear their president declare independence.
But they were kept waiting in front of a giant screen broadcasting Catalan public TV, displayed in a boulevard a thousand yards away from a parliament heavily protected by police. This was not a good omen of what was about to happen. If the promise was a peaceful celebration of history in the making, why should citizens be kept at bay?
After an agonising delay of more than an hour, they had to listen to a dull introduction recalling a long list of the grievances of the Catalan people. And then Carles Puigdemont solemnly declared that he will abide by the results of the disputed referendum and pursue an “independent state in the form of a republic” – here people cheered – only to finish the sentence by saying that such independence was “in suspension”.
Incredulity and surprise were immediately followed by confusion and disappointment, as people tried to make sense of what a “republic in suspension” could actually mean.
The Catalan government is trying to save face in front of voters who defended the ballot boxes with their own bodies. It cannot tell them now that the referendum was false and useless, and that we are once again back to square one. The government has had to concede that not only is independence currently impossible – the state has all the trump cards and the overwhelming backing of the international community – but also undesirable, as Catalans who want to defend Spanish unity have now been mobilised and there is a real risk of social fracture, possibly even violence on the streets.
But declaring independence and, in the same sentence, suspending it may lead to a suspension of the autonomy Catalonia currently enjoys. The government in Madrid will seize the opportunity to feed its own nationalist base and take electoral advantage of the situation, while it tries to restore its dignity and authority after the humiliation suffered during its pathetic and failed attempt to stop the referendum from taking place. Most probably, Madrid will keep the judicial pressure on Catalan leaders, and end up holding them accountable for breaking the law.
The question now is whether Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will trigger article 155 and completely suspend Catalan self-government. Without the backing of the Socialist party, he probably won’t. Autonomy will probably be partially suspended, much as the independent republic now is. Having lost its power and prestige (the pro-independence radical left today feels betrayed), the Catalan government will be waiting for opinion polls to show who is going to pay the price for this exhausting, regrettable, nerve-racking episode. That is, of course, so long as Rajoy does not commit yet another catastrophic mistake that revitalises today’s depressed pro-independence ranks. This morning the news suggests that a federal solution through a constitutional reform might be on its way.
When the dust settles, we will see if and when regional elections are called for. But today, sadly for many, the idea of holding an agreed and binding plebiscite is receding. After all, the referendum in Catalonia has proved to be such a polarising, toxic and treacherous device that it has become more of a problem than a solution.
• Francesc Badia i Dalmases is the editor of DemocraciaAbierta, and an international affairs expert, author and political analyst