Spain’s constitutional crisis takes a turn

Madrid sets Thursday ultimatum for Catalonia as threat of another ruptured European democracy fades.

A woman holds a Spanish flag (foreground) in front of a crowd holding a Catalan flag marked "Long Live Catalonia," during October street demonstrations over the separatist crisis between Madrid and Barcelona. CREDIT: Flickr/Sasha Popovic
A woman holds a Spanish flag (foreground) in front of a crowd holding a Catalan flag marked "Long Live Catalonia," during October street demonstrations over the separatist crisis between Madrid and Barcelona. CREDIT: Flickr/Sasha Popovic

A week on from Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont’s murky, much-criticized address on his region’s political future, the constitutional crisis roiling Spain seems at a glance to be only heating up.

The central powers in Madrid deemed Puigdemont’s team in default on a promise to clarify his plans over the weekend, putting the breakaway Catalans on notice: Either commit in plain language that there will be no unilateral independence declaration by Thursday morning, or Madrid will use an extraordinary provision of the constitution to suspend Catalonia’s political autonomy — likely to be enforced with police, soldiers, and military hardware in the streets of Barcelona.

Puigdemont wrote to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s team Monday to ask for formal negotiations over the future relationship between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, proposing a two-month plan for talks. The request follows from Puigdemont’s wishy-washy statement last week that he was declaring independence, but suspending the declaration in order to foster dialogue.

That strikes the central powers — and many political observers across the Spanish media — as an incoherent proposition for having it both ways. In a written response to Puigdemont, Rajoy demanded the “absolutely necessary clarification” that Catalonia has not already gone independent, and warned that “you will be solely responsible” if Madrid revokes Catalan autonomy.

Puigdemont now has just a few days to decide if he will press ahead and invite the lasting, potentially violent rupture of Spain’s 40-year-old democratic unity.


Yet while the setting of new deadlines keeps the potential for violence on the horizon, the weekend developments are in some ways promising for the majority of Spaniards — and perhaps even of Catalans — who hope to maintain national unity after a low-turnout referendum on October 1 brought harsh police crackdowns that left more than 1,000 injured.

Puigdemont has no legal basis for the flailing position he’s laid out. The courts, laws, and most of the people of Spain all back Madrid’s position. Popular support for Madrid has softened after Rajoy’s political gamesmanship over the past few months led to unnecessary state violence against civilians on referendum day, much of the brutality caught on viral video. But the law remains the law: Catalonia’s actions are illegal, and sufficient legal basis for Madrid to revoke the region’s charter of autonomy, take over its governing bodies, and replace its independent regional police force with the national cops whom many Catalans still closely associate with Spain’s bloody fascist history.

The Catalan leader’s stance also lacks political legitimacy. Just 2.3 million of his region’s nearly 8 million citizens voted in the October 1 poll. Three times more people didn’t vote at all as voted for independence and secession.

The national left party PODEMOS, an important force despite being less than a decade old, has expressed sympathy for Catalan victims of state repression and opposition to King Felipe VI’s one-sided commentary on the crisis. But it opposes secession even as it calls for a free and fair vote of the Catalan people, and a walking back of the current tensions between Madrid and Barcelona.


Many unions and smaller political parties held solidarity strikes across Spain in the days after the Catalan referendum for similar reasons: To chasten Madrid for turning to police batons and rubber bullets, without necessarily supporting Puigdemont’s ultimate goal of fracturing the nation. In Catalonia, too, the “remain” side of the population turned out in their largest numbers ever for street protests against independence roughly a week after the vote.

Rajoy’s decision to brutalize Puigdemont’s supporters and try to prevent a vote from even occurring strengthened the Catalan separatist hand politically, making their cause look more sympathetic. But the economic arguments against fracture remain potent.

Come Thursday, the tanks may still roll. Puigdemont’s unpredictable, messy handling of matters since October 1 makes it all tough to predict. A Spanish judge has ordered one senior official of the Catalan police force jailed for sedition, along with three other civic leaders, over conduct relevant to the illegal referendum — another potential escalation, at a time when European leaders and Spanish ones alike are calling for calm.

But when Madrid could have sent in the authorities to arrest Catalan leaders and voted to suspend their autonomous government from the very moment Puigdemont declared-and-suspended independence last week, the simple fact that they still have not done so is evidence of progress toward a peaceful resolution.

Ultimatums frighten, but they do not kill or maim. The ongoing saber-rattling could yet be prelude to tragedy — but it has begun to look more like the gruff shouting of two men who, having decided not to actually fight in the street, still wish to retain their pride as they back away from one another.