Rajoy’s gamble failed. Now it’s time to negotiate
‘Really?’ The BBC’s Andrew Marr couldn’t hide his surprise when Alfonso Dastis, Spanish Foreign Minister, dismissed cases of police violence against Catalan voters on 1 October 2017, the day of Catalonia’s independence referendum.
‘Many of those pictures have been proved to be fake,’ Dastis said.
There were around a thousand medical reports documenting the injuries caused by police violence against citizens. Five people were found in critical condition. One person lost sight in his eye after being hit by a rubber bullet – the use of which is prohibited by Catalan laws.
This violence was not something done to a small, aggressive section of society but to the elderly, kids, fathers and mothers who make up a widely supported movement.
The Spanish government’s line has been consistent and predictable: denying the extent of the injuries and repeating that the independence vote was illegal – despite being demanded by over 75 per cent of the population – and that the referendum didn’t take place.
But the illegality of the vote is a reflection of a political will in Madrid to make it illegal. The Spanish constitution doesn’t state that referendums are illegal per se – other referendums (albeit not on independence) have taken place before. For a referendum to be legitimate, the Spanish parliament has to approve it.
But Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP) is reluctant to approve a referendum or even start symbolic discussions on decentralization – a demand made by Catalans since the first massive self-determination demonstrations some five years ago.
This movement has mobilized over a million people every year since 2012. It has led to a huge rise in support for separatism, from 20 per cent in 2009 to around 50 per cent after 2013. This was translated into a political vote in 2012, which gave a regional majority to pro-secession parties for the first time since the Spanish Civil War.
But Rajoy’s only response is that ‘there’s nothing to talk about’. Not a single proposal, not a single political gesture. Nothing. Combined with a few inopportune statements and unfortunate proposals – such as a gaffe over whether Catalans would lose their Spanish nationality after independence – this silence simply increased the Catalan separatists’ sense of alienation from Madrid and strengthened their resolve. In Catalonia it is common to hear the joke that the biggest separatist ‘factory’ is Mariano Rajoy’s PP itself.
Rajoy must finally understand that a political problem needs political solutions, not judicial or security ones.
The Spanish state has jailed politicians and civil society leaders, which led to massive demonstrations including a November general strike.After the botched referendum, the central government dissolved Catalan’s parliament and ran the region via direct rule, calling for elections in December 2017 with the aim of restoring calm. But it backfired: Rajoy’s PP received a mere 4.2 per cent of the vote – a signal that its control of the regional authority, including the public media, civil service and regional police, is seen as unacceptable – and separatist parties won another majority.
There are now efforts to restore Carles Puigdemont – the former President of Catalonia currently in exile after fleeing charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds over the independence campaign.
The government is trying to use the Council of State to block Puigdemont’s return – but a resort to legalism and judicial arbitration should be a last resort, not the one and only hammer in the political toolbox. It is ironic that to ‘protect’ the democratic system that arose after the end of General Franco’s reign, central authorities are choosing to use coercive measures rather than political ones to solve a political crisis.
When your ministers show up on the TV denying the lived experience of tens of thousands of your citizens, when you’re unable to sincerely ask yourself how come half the population of a region wants to leave the country you’re presiding over – you’re abdicating the duty to govern the country you swear to love so much. Rajoy must finally understand that a political problem needs political solutions, not judicial or security ones.