Spain announces takeover of Catalonia autonomous government, shattering 40 years of democracy

Spain's two big rowdy government boys have scheduled a schoolyard fight for Saturday.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. CREDIT: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. CREDIT: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Catalonia’s regional government will be disbanded and its functions taken over by central Spanish government staff, ministers, and police under Article 155 of the national constitution, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared Thursday after his deadline for Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to bend the knee to Madrid passed without action.

While Rajoy’s government must still hold a formal vote scheduled for Saturday in order to put the provision into formal motion, the gears began grinding at 10:00 a.m. Thursday there. Article 155 has never been invoked in the four decades since Spain emerged from the fascist dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in the late 1970s. Its exact mechanics are therefore untested in the real world.

Governing documents, like court orders, require men and guns to give them force when their subjects choose defiance. Ever since Rajoy sent police into Catalonia on October 1 to stop Catalans from voting in an independence referendum declared illegal by the Spanish high court, flooding the internet with bloody scenes of armed men beating old ladies and facing off with angry crowds, Puigdemont’s government has sought dialogue but refused to tear up its independence plans preemptively.

By the time Rajoy’s team votes formally to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy on Saturday, the crisis and stalemate will have dragged on for three full weeks. But its roots trace back much further, to a summer of saber-rattling statements from the minority independentists in Barcelona and unusually intractable responses from the conservative Madrid leadership.

October’s vote was only the most recent in a string of such ballot measures in Catalonia, a region with close to 8 million people where just 2.3 million actually cast votes in favor of leaving Spain this month. In the past, Madrid’s leaders have responded with tough talk but resisted the urge to physically stymie voting. There is some polling evidence to suggest that these previous votes have caused support for independence to fall rather than rise, as pent-up cultural frustrations toward the central state get vented at a ballot box. But this time, Rajoy chose escalation and confrontation, as national police confronted citizens at the polls with rubber bullets and truncheons.

While Rajoy’s move carries the air of hard power — and would, ultimately, require sending armed men to take over from Catalonia’s own police force — it also reveals the weakness of his position. A democratic government forced to resort to guns is one that has failed a basic legitimacy test and that threatens to contaminate its claims of authority over other sectors of society. Think of President Dwight Eisenhower (R) federalizing the Arkansas National Guard in 1959 to enforce schools’ desegregation — a move that revealed as much his failure to persuade Gov. Orval Faubus (D) to follow his duty to the constitutional system as it did the state’s power to enforce the rule of law.

Rajoy rules in a parliamentary system, serving no fixed term and relying on coalition to govern. His own political position is therefore more perilous. The politics of brinksmanship with Catalonia have traditionally helped rally conservative Spain, as the historian Paul Preston told the BBC recently. Rajoy has played this game for months.

But with the country’s very cohesion now at stake, the endgame may not twist to Rajoy’s political favor. His primary opposition party is already beginning to undercut the invocation of 155 by calling for a “very very limited” form of its use, not that anyone is quite clear on what that means with regard to a never-before-invoked constitutional provision. As the renowned journalist and commentator Iñaki Gabilondo said in the days following the referendum, Rajoy is likely to see some temporary political gain from all of this. But relying on coercive measures is tenuous, and should they fail Rajoy is likely to lose his ruling coalition — and maybe even his job.

The political drama driving Spain’s crisis will be overshadowed by the more kinetic elements of that crisis, and rightly so. Come Saturday’s vote, Rajoy will have cast himself as the expunger of a rebellion. That may look good on a campaign flyer, but its consequences are dire. The prime minister will in effect have become the leader of an armed confrontation with the richest region in his country — and just one of several Spanish states that entertain strong separatist sentiment tied to the knowledge they once ruled themselves as standalone nations, before being stapled together by force and royal marriage into something called Spain.