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When Spanish President Mariano Rajoy deployed thousands of police forces to Catalonia to repress an illegal referendum for independence, he probably thought it would bring some closure to an open issue. Perhaps, enforcing the law violently on peaceful citizens who just wanted to cast a vote, and doing it on the global stage would finally convince those rebellious Catalonians that their cause was lost.
Far from closure, the events of 1 October 2017 will cause more consternation in Catalonia than ever before. It is fair to question if Catalonians live in a 21st Century democracy, whether their most basic human rights are going to be respected and whether there is any room for political dialogue. Many of those who were not pro-independence before yesterday but supported a referendum, are probably wondering today whether there is any point in even considering staying in Spain, after all. In total, at least 60% of the electorate supported a referendum as per the last State elections in Catalonia in 2015.
To many in Spain, the Popular Party’s (PP) actions come as no surprise. Wrapped in the flag of stability and the theoretical defense of the law, Rajoy never opens a door for dialogue. He consistently applies the ostrich strategy, literally hiding away from the media and his political opponents, waiting until problems magically disappear. This time he thought the magic would come from a police rubber club instead of a wand. These images of repression inevitably remind us of the government’s response to recent post-GFC up-rises, a repetitive strategy to respond any sign of challenge to the establishment. In this occasion, the repression is a response to a 7-year long political conflict with Catalonia.
With over 7 million people and almost 20% of the Spanish GDP, the wealthiest region in Spain has always showed a preference for political nationalism. But 2010 was the beginning of an unprecedented wave in favor of independence. The consequences of the GFC and the actions taken to tackle it created a growing gap between Madrid and the Generalitat (Catalonian State government). Twice, Catalonian citizens voted a majority in their Parliament in 2012 and 2015 that supported the organization of a referendum. This was belittled and blatantly ignored by Madrid. Gradually, moderation was replaced with radicalism within the Catalonian pro-independence political sphere. So much so that they decided the only way to move forward was a full-on challenge to the Spanish government, organizing a referendum deemed illegal by the Spanish Constitution. Whether the Constitution is inadequate or obsolete for the contemporary Kingdom of Spain is never discussed by the PP. The Constitution is an untouchable totem that will be defended with force when necessary, no debate to be held.
PP’s ridiculously obsolete strategy is a paradox in itself. The main accusation typically thrown at Catalonian and Basque nationalist parties is that they only govern for their followers, ignoring the needs and demands of those who, while opposing, are their citizens too. Their nationalism propels forward leaving behind anyone who disagrees. Nonetheless, the PP have consistently followed this pattern not only since 2010, but since its very own foundation. Their political narrative is designed and applied within a bubble of Spanish nationalism. One where the unity of Spain is sacred and untouchable. Disagreeing with that is heresy probably inspired by those who befriend terrorists and their accomplices. Make no mistake, this is not a symptom of political idiocy, but a well-thought, effective strategy. Surveys are already showing the PP would win the government again, by a landslide. The PP thrives in conflict, and Catalonians served them one on a silver platter. Why resolve a conflict when you can benefit from it instead? This is classic Real Politik applied within its own borders. By simplifying and trivializing, they polarize the electorate, perhaps leaving almost no chance for those who show moderation and relative impartiality, like center-left PSOE and Podemos. On the other hand, this conflict is the perfect attention deviation device. One they desperately need to divert attention from hundreds of cases of rampant corruption, which include the political manipulation of the same national police they sent over to Catalonia.
The next time they have a chance, Spaniards and Catalonians will vote with their guts rather than their brains. Nevermind that PP will be reduced to political irrelevance both in Catalonia and the Basque Country. They will have the rest of Spain, drawing a map that paradoxically will make borders ever more obvious. One more question to answer now is how far the PP will go with this strategy. How much can the conflict be managed for political benefit before it explodes into an uncontrollable succession of violent events. It looks like we could find out soon, as the Generalitat prepares itself to unilaterally declare Independence in the following days.
Victor Lasa is a PhD candidate with the Centre for Global Research, RMIT University, and chief editor of the Spanish news site Geopolitica HOY. With an interest in information politics, he has contributed as an advisor to emergent political parties in Spain and Australia. Follow him at @victorlasa