In our newest guest column, read our special on-the-ground reports of what’s happening on the streets of Catalonia from American journalist and Barcelona resident-of-two-decades Lynn Baiori.
Last week, with tensions mounting, the head of Spain’s governing People’s Party (PP), Mariano Rajoy, made clear that if the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, did not clarify whether he had or had not declared independence, Spain would be within its right to shake the dust off the constitution and toss article 155 onto the table, a move that had many people asking, “What in the in hell is article 155?”
Puigdemont responded by neither definitively asserting a declaration of independence or removing it as a possibility, and Rajoy made clear his intention to follow through on his threat. Everyone from the corner grocer to a parade of political pundits in the media spent the following days speculating how the Spanish government might make use of a fail-safe article of the constitution that gives Rajoy the power, with the backing of the senate, “to give instructions to all of the authorities of the autonomous communities”, in this case Catalonia. It is a somewhat broad statement of what he is constitutionally allowed to execute.
Since the death of military dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and the establishment of a modern Spanish state, no Spanish prime minister has ever enacted article 155. The vague nature of its reach has given everyone here something to think about as the country heads deeper into uncharted waters. The threat of a move by the Spanish government to take direct control over the autonomous regional government, a move spearheaded by the conservative Partido Popular, backed by the arguably more right-wing Ciudadanos party and supported by the Socialists, has intensified rather than diminished the rising tension within Catalonia.
The decision to move ahead with a senate vote on the implementation of the article and the prepotent tone of members of the Partido Popular, most notably Thursday’s speech by the Vice President, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, gave ammunition to hardcore supporters of independence who have cited the central government’s perceived anti-democratic tendencies as a prime reason for self-determination. Within the general population, and this includes the muted voices of Catalans who would prefer to remain in Spain, article 155 has resurrected fears of returning to life under the thumb of Spanish rule and revived draconian ghosts of the past; it has also served to deepen the division between the Catalan government and the government in Madrid.
The rallying cry of protesters will only intensify. Not every one of those voices are separatist voices. What unifies the many separatists with the largely unnoticed Catalan nationalists who want to remain in Spain is strong opposition to the policies and actions of the current Spanish government. The best propaganda tool the independence movement has in its pocket has been provided by just those who are trying to suppress it.
I have rewritten this blog entry four times this week, unable to keep up with the changes taking place on an hourly basis. On October 10, Puigdemont announced and immediately suspended a declaration of independence; last Thursday morning it was rumored he would call local elections; hours later he decided against it when it was clear that it wouldn’t be enough to keep the central government from implementing article 155. On Friday, expectant crowds once again gathered throughout Barcelona, as a majority of the Catalan parliament was voting on independence. Meanwhile, another vote was taking place in the Spanish parliament, following a speech by Rajoy to which he received thunderous applause and a standing ovation from a majority of the senate there. He held Puigdemont personally responsible for the current political turmoil. He did not pull back on his desire to dissolve the Catalan parliament and exert direct rule over the autonomous region.
A few hours later, in an overt act of defiance, a República Catalana was declared. That evening in Barcelona, under a half-moon, the sky exploded in a display of fireworks. On the street there were cheers, tears and disbelief. A declaration of independence has satisfied the many Catalans who have been clamoring for it all along; it also has generated greater anxiety for those who had hoped for more autonomy for Catalonia, not less.
Rajoy’s first step has been to dissolve the Catalan parliament as he prepares to take control of the region’s finances, media, police and foreign offices. He has called for new elections in December. While people dance in the squares, Puigdemont is aware of his place in history and that the price of political defiance could well be his arrest and, if sentenced, a long prison term. Meanwhile, speculation continues as what will happen tomorrow. One thing can be counted on: we had better gear up for more unrest, not less.