Two Years Ago Catalans Voted For Independence. Now Spain’s Future Hangs In The Balance Again.

Spain's top court is set to decide on the fate of the politicians and activists behind Catalonia’s 2017 independence referendum.

MADRID — Spain is once again holding elections on November 10 – for the fourth time in four years, a record across all of Europe. Financial indicators are showing the first signs of weakness, and the country-wide institutional crisis taking hold appears to be the worst since democracy was established in 1978.

Spain isn’t exactly living its best life right now. And despite this, everyone’s attention – politicians, business, the media – is being drawn to just one place: Catalonia. Everything, or almost everything, that has happened in Spanish politics in recent years hangs on this autonomous region.

And no, there isn’t another referendum to see if the Catalans want to leave or remain with Spain. Over the short term, that piece of history isn’t set to repeat. The concerns, the unrest, and uncertainty all stem from one judicial ruling: the rebellion and sedition trial against a dozen Catalan politicians and activists behind Catalonia’s Oct. 1, 2017, independence referendum.

On that day, images of Spain were broadcast worldwide that damaged the country’s credibility as a democratic system: hundreds of police officers charging against citizens who were trying to vote freely. The big problem is that this referendum was illegal.

The majority of the parties to the right of the political spectrum have come to label what happened on 1-O as a coup d’etat. For the Catalan independence movement, it was entirely the opposite, an attack against freedom and proof that real democracy does not exist in Spain.

Spanish politics has been torn between these two extremes ever since. Catalonia affects everything. And the upcoming general elections on November 10 will be settled based on the Supreme Court ruling. No date for the decision has yet been determined, but it is expected sometime mid-October. There is no doubt about it – Catalonia will once again be the subject of global debate.

Of most concern isn’t just the outcome of the ruling, but instead, what will happen the very minute after the sentences have been announced. Because there will be sentences. Very few doubt the fact that the 12 leaders of the independence movement accused will be sentenced to up to two decades in prison.

And these aren’t just any old politicians. The defendants are the Catalan vice president, and among others, ministers in charge of foreign and domestic affairs, labor, business, justice, and government matters, as well as the President of the Catalan parliament. Then President, Carles Puigdemont, has been fleeing justice since 2017 and is living in a luxurious mansion in Waterloo, Belgium.

Yet the sentences imposed will without question only serve to revitalize the sentiments behind the independence movement in Catalonia. Huge protests and even riots are expected in the streets. There are reasons to expect the worst. In mid-September, nine members of the separatist protest group the Committees to Defend the Republic (CDR) were detained for encouraging the independence movement to take a more violent stance.

A woman holds a Catalan pro-independence "estelada" flag during a demonstration in Valencia on Oct. 9, 2019.
A woman holds a Catalan pro-independence "estelada" flag during a demonstration in Valencia on Oct. 9, 2019.
JOSE JORDAN via Getty Images

All those detained have been accused of “terrorism,” and, at the moment of arrest during the so-called “Operation Judas,” nearly two dozen manuals were found on the production of explosives, as well as sulfuric acid, paraffin, aluminum powder, industrial paint stripper, and gasoline. Sources behind the investigation stated that the detainees were organizing an attack against the Catalan Parliament, to take place on the day on which the sentence against the independence leaders was announced, as well as striking other landmarks in the independent region.

“No matter how tough the sentence, the pro-independence movement will not disappear,” Pere Aragonés, vice president of the Catalan government, has warned. What is causing worry now is not so much whether it disappears or not, but whether it will be possible to contain the anger of so many Catalans who have been reining in their defense of independence for the past year. The recent National Day of Catalonia, when historically, Catalans have enjoyed demonstrating the sheer force of their movement, was the least attended in recent years. This is nothing more than a sign.

The major political dilemma is how to extinguish the Catalan fire from Madrid. And that’s why Catalonia is set to be the leading topic of the Nov. 10 electoral campaign. All the politicians are awaiting the sentence in order to take positions, one way or another.

In this sense, the parties on the right – the People’s Party, the Citizens Party, and the extreme right-wing Vox – are not quaking in their boots. They defend the application of article 155 of the constitution, permitting the state to intervene in an autonomous region; that is to say, stripping Catalonia of all the rights of self-government that autonomous regions in Spain enjoy, far more than if the state were federal. The result of this is that Catalan finances would be managed from Madrid, while regional policing would also rely on Madrid. Effectively, the central government would be holding Catalonia’s reins.

Article 155 was already temporarily enforced by the president of the then conservative government, Mariano Rajoy. It came into effect on Oct. 27, 2017 – a little more than three weeks after the 1-O referendum took place – and remained in force until June 2, 2018, when the current President of the Government of Catalonia, Quim Torra, stepped into his role, one of the most fervent defenders of independence and the Catalan right to vote.

On the opposing side are the Catalan parties that are campaigning in the 10-N elections and Podemos, the most leftist party in the parliament. Their leader, Pablo Iglesias, maintains his stance on not wanting Catalonia to become independent, while staying in favor of allowing the Catalans to vote freely in an election on whether to remain in Spain or not.

The only party to change its position has been PSOE, the setup of current Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez. As the date of the 1-O sentencing has crept closer, Sánchez has hardened his stance and, in the last few weeks, even advised that as Leader of the Executive, he holds the power to enable the controversial article 155. Quite simply, this is a warning message.

This is a notable change of position. Two years ago, Sánchez was not prime minister and was far more ambiguous when it came to discussing the issue of Catalan independence. Now he is taking a much more rigid position, aware that this attitude is set to garner him a great deal more votes in the coming elections. This is one of the other national dilemmas. The majority of the non-Catalan Spanish population want Catalonia to continue being part of Spain and take a positive view of any method that blocks this nightmare from occurring.

Anything, absolutely anything, could happen over these coming days in Catalonia. Just like the last five years, more or less. But with one difference – a legal ruling could put the country in a historically unprecedented situation.

Everything depends on one ruling.

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