The sentencing of 12 former leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement from Spain in 2017 prompted mass protests in Barcelona and the reemergence of tensions between the Catalan separatists and the Spanish government. Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. The Catalan represent a nation of people, with their own culture, history and language. Catalonia is located in northeast Spain and has a population of 7.5 million. It is one of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive regions, generating one-fifth of Spain’s economic output, equivalent to the economy of Portugal. The regional capital of Catalonia is Barcelona, a hub of Spain’s tourism industry. The Catalan nationalists have long argued that Catalonia is taxed too heavily by the Spanish government and too much of their money is given to poorer parts of Spain. Catalan also feel their identity has been undermined by changes to their autonomous status by the Spanish government.
Under the repressive regime of Francisco Franco from 1939-1975, Catalan autonomy, language and culture were suppressed. Thousands of Catalan activists were executed and forced into exile. Similar to the discrimination of the Kurdish people in the Middle East, the Catalan were culturally censored by an authoritarian figure trying to produce a homogeneous state. Following Franco’s death in 1975, the new constitution of Spain gave Catalonia a significant degree of political autonomy, holding their own police force and public services. In August of 2006, Catalonia’s autonomy statute was reformed, giving the regional government greater powers and financial autonomy. Catalonia was also described as a “nation” in the preamble of the statute. In July of 2010, part of the 2006 autonomy statute was overruled, arguing that there was no legal basis for recognizing Catalonia as a nation within Spain. Since 2010, there have been numerous pushes for Catalan sovereignty by the regional government, the latest being the 2017 vote for independence.
On October 1, 2017, the Catalan government voted for independence in a referendum already declared illegal by the Spanish government. The Spanish government sent national police officers who attempted to shut down polling stations and seize ballot boxes. The Catalan government claimed 90% of voters supported independence, however over half of Catalan voters did not cast a ballot. Shortly after the vote, the Spanish Senate imposed direct rule over Catalonia, citing Article 155 of the constitution. Former Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, fired Catalan leader and separatist Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet, dissolved the Catalan Parliament, and ordered new elections be held later in the year. Some members of the regional government were jailed pending trial, while others, such as Puigdemont, fled to Belgium, claiming they traveled there to guarantee themselves fair trials.
On October 14, 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced former leaders of the Catalan independence movement to lengthy prison terms for their failed attempt to secede from Spain in 2017. In the trial, 12 leaders of the Catalan independence movement stood accused of crimes ranging from rebellion to misuse of funds. Nine of the former leaders were sentenced for both sedition and the misuse of public funds while the other three were condemned for the lesser crime of disobedience. The leaders avoided the more serious charge of rebellion, which could have resulted in a prison sentence of 25 years. As soon as the verdict was made public, protesters gathered on the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities. In response, Spanish authorities deployed anti-riot police officers to contain the protests. The protests escalated, especially around Barcelona’s airport, where demonstrators attempted to occupy the main terminal. Airlines were forced to cancel more than 100 flights and protesters also disrupted traffic along various railway lines and roads of Catalonia.
On October 18, 2019, the Catalan independence movement returned to the streets of Barcelona with renewed vigor. Five columns of protesters marched in from different parts of the region into the city during a general strike, culminating in a crowd of 525,000. During the previous four nights, protesters had clashed with police and set fires in the streets in Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Protesters blocked the entrance to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, one of the most popular tourist sites in Spain, chanting, “Freedom for political prisoners!” Additionally, the protesters disrupted the region’s transportation network, erecting barricades on major roads, including the main highway to France. Protesters and police could also be seen clashing outside of police headquarters, where the officers charged against activists who were throwing flares, eggs, and bottles.
The situation in Catalonia holds immense implications for the upcoming Spanish national election on November 10. The election was called by current prime minister Pedro Sánchez after he failed to garner enough support from smaller parties in Parliament to form a government. It will be Spain’s fourth election in four years. Sánchez and the Socialist government have been calling on Quim Torra, the president of Catalonia, to condemn the acts of violence in Catalonia more forcefully. Sánchez has faced pressure from center-right opposition parties to use his emergency powers to restore order in Catalonia, similar to the direct rule imposed in 2017. Sánchez has sworn by a policy of moderation, telling reporters, “Moderation calms minds and this is what the government of Spain will do.” The leader of the main opposition Popular Party responded to this statement, urging Sánchez to act “with urgency” before the situation in Catalonia grows out of control.
The increased violence and radicalization of the Catalan independent movement could lead to increased division within Catalonia and the movement itself. The Catalan struggle to unite on the topic of independence is evident in the pro-independence parties never having a majority in parliament and most of the population not voting in the 2017 referendum, knowing the vote was illegal. Additionally, separatist politicians such as Oriol Junqueras have condemned the violence in Catalonia, while other separatist leaders such as Quim Torra have called on the Catalan to demonstrate. I wonder how the Catalan independence parties will reconcile following this split.
The way Pedro Sánchez handles the violent protests in Catalonia could become a huge factor in the upcoming elections. If the violence and disruption continues in Catalonia, Sánchez risks being seen as weak and unable to uphold internal sovereignty. Contrarily, if uses his emergency power and orders the Spanish police to quell the protests with repression, he risks being viewed as oppressive and tyrannical by the Catalan. Sánchez, however, has never depended on the support of pro-independence parties in elections. If Sánchez stands by his policy of moderation while the violence in Catalonia continues, he could continue to face criticism from smaller right leaning parties and lose votes to these parties, failing to form a majority coalition yet again. The prospect of forming a coalition government is also uncertain, as Spain has never been governed by a coalition and Sánchez failed to form a coalition with the left-leaning Unidas Podemos party in the last election. Should Sánchez stand by his policy of moderation regarding Catalonia and how could his response to the protests affect the upcoming election?
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“Catalonia Crisis in 300 Words.” BBC News, BBC, 14 Oct. 2019
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Minder, Raphael. “Catalan Separatist Leaders Get Lengthy Prison Terms for Sedition.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Oct. 2019
Minder, Raphael. “Catalonia Protesters, Slipping the Reins of Jailed Leaders, Grow More Radicalized.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Oct. 2019
Minder, Raphael. “With Catalan Fury Inflamed Anew, What Comes Next for Spain?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Oct. 2019