Backers of Catalonia’s quest to break away from Spain had just eight seconds Tuesday night to savor the moment they’d long been waiting for.
“I accept the mandate of the people that Catalonia become an independent state in the shape of a republic,” Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont said in a highly anticipated address before the regional parliament.
With those words, Puigdemont fulfilled his promise to follow-up last week’s controversial referendum, when voters were bloodied and beaten by Spanish police, with a formal declaration of independence. Or so it seemed.
Just moments later, Puigdemont asked that the parliament “suspend the effects of the declaration of independence” for several weeks to allow dialogue with the Spanish government in Madrid.
So did he or didn’t he? Depends who you ask.
Among pro-independence supporters gathered outside the building in Barcelona, it was ecstasy to agony all in the blink of an eye. Faces literally dropped, as a pair of Reuters photos published in the Spanish daily ABC attest.
For others, the yes-but-not-just-now independence declaration simply caused confusion, especially given how unwilling the Spanish government, under conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has been to engage Puigdemont and his diverse alliance of separatists.
As the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia noted in today’s editorial, the Catalan leader faced an extremely difficult scenario. Not wanting to let his base down, but wary of unduly antagonizing Madrid, he tried to find an “intermediary path.” This third way, however, “managed only to generate disagreement and confusion.” The daily warned that Puigdemont’s biggest risk could be exacerbating divisions inside his own political coalition in the Catalonia parliament.
What is clear is that the political crisis that had been brewing for years and culminated, on Oct.1, in a brutal police crackdown on referendum voters, is far from over.
Nearly 2.3 million people managed to cast their ballots, despite the violence. And of those, approximately 90% opted for independence, the Catalan regional government reported. For Puigdemont and his allies, the mandate is clear. “We are not criminals, madmen or coup plotters, just ordinary people who want to vote,” he said Tuesday evening, switching from Catalan to Spanish. “We have nothing against the Spaniards.”
The Rajoy government says the vote was illegitimate from the outset, and notes that only about 43% of eligible voters participated. Either way, as the hundreds of thousands of people who turned out in Barcelona this past Sunday for a massive pro-union demonstration, support for breaking away from Spain isn’t as cut and dry as the referendum result suggests.
After Puigdemont’s quasi-independence declaration, the ball is squarely back in Rajoy’s court. The question on everyone’s lips now is whether he’ll try to employ Article 155, a never-before-used constitutional mechanism that, due to the exceptional circumstances, would allow Madrid to impose direct rule in Catalonia.
Until recently, Article 155 was “almost taboo,” the Madrid daily El País reports. “But it’s now being thrown around by citizens and the parties with ease. Among constitutional law experts, the question is no longer if it should be used or not, but when, how and under what conditions.”
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