Calling an election will by no means resolve the Catalan conundrum

Madrid’s tactics put Catalonia’s separatists in a fix, but they could backfire by handing the independence movement a clear win

When Catalans vote for a new regional government on 21 December, truncheon-wielding riot police should be absent and the results will clearly be valid, but the Spanish prime minister’s decision to call a snap election, combined with the imposition of direct rule, does not magically resolve the problem.

Much could, and probably will, go wrong before then, as the cat-and-mouse game between Madrid and Catalonia’s independence movement enters a new phase.

It is still not clear that all separatist parties will stand. If they do, they look unlikely to maintain the unity that has turned them into such a formidable force. Conservatives and anti-capitalists were always a strange and strained alliance.

Oriol Junqueras, who was sacked as deputy prime minister with the rest of the Catalan government on Friday, is expected to become the independence movement’s leader as his Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party storms past more moderate rivals.

His warning on Sunday that the movement must now take “decisions that will be difficult to understand” reveals a terrible dilemma. If his party stands, it will be accused of backtracking on claims that Catalonia is now an independent republic – even if no other country recognises it. If it does not stand, it will be accused of cowardice.

Mariano Rajoy’s government in Madrid has challenged the deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, to stand so that voters can judge his behaviour. Puigdemont, however, was a compromise candidate in January 2016 and will reportedly step back. His conservative Catalan European Democratic party (PDeCAT), a recent convert to separatism, has clearly lost its position as the region’s dominant party.

With emboldened unionists demonstrating in Barcelona on Sunday and many politicians already in campaign mode, the separatist side is mulling its options.

In many ways, this is the best possible moment for the independence movement to go to elections. With some of its leaders now remanded in jail – but able to run as candidates – while Puigdemont and others face long-running court cases, sympathy is running high. The memory of police violence during the chaotic 1 October referendum remains fresh.

Rajoy wants voters to punish the separatists for the chaos of recent weeks and for any future disruption, including upcoming strikes. With Catalonia’s biggest banks and companies moving their registered headquarters elsewhere and the lack of EU support now obvious to all, he hopes waverers will back down.

Rajoy also expects a so-called silent majority of non-separatist Catalans to shake off their apathy and vote. This is risky, because the police violence on 1 October may have shrunk their numbers or they may prove to be a figment of unionist imagination.

In the meantime, legal action against Puigdemont for deliberately flouting the Spanish constitution is likely to provoke another round of peaceful mass demonstrations. Separatists know violence would dramatically damage their cause, and Puigdemont called on Saturday for civic and peaceful conduct, though he does not control the entire movement.

On Sunday the only violence came from a small group of ultra-rightists who joined the unionist demonstration.

Separatists will seek other ways to keep people mobilised. The remains of the deposed government could issue their own instructions to 200,000 public sector workers in the hope that some will defy direct rule. At a more local level, separatist mayors may also start a campaign of disobedience that leads them to court.

The results of open elections are impossible to predict, especially because Catalonia seems to be almost equally divided into two. At the last regional elections in September 2015, separatists won 48% of the vote but took a majority of seats.

After the events of recent weeks, a unionist victory would be deeply humiliating for the separatists, but Rajoy is taking a risk because a clear victory by the independence movement would help win the support that it lacks among EU governments.

It may also finally oblige his conservative People’s party to accept that the constitution which Spaniards, and Catalans, approved so massively in 1978 is overdue for a rewrite.


Giles Tremlett

The GuardianTramp

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