MADRID — The Spanish government isn’t taking any chances. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the prosecutor’s office and the Spanish judiciary have launched an all-out legal assault on the government of Catalonia over its plans to hold a binding referendum on independence on October 1.
An unprecedented combination of legal action, police deployments and economic sanctions are disrupting the effort to hold the vote, declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court, and sowing divisions among the separatist leaders.
In the latest development, Spanish authorities seem determined to physically prevent Catalans from casting a ballot on Sunday — setting the stage for a high-voltage climax to one of the gravest political crises the country has faced in the past four decades.
Catalonia’s High Court on Wednesday ordered national and regional security forces to prevent any activity connected to setting up polling stations in likely voting locations until Sunday, seal off buildings on that day, including any polling stations that do open, and confiscate computers and all material related to the ballot.
Pro-referendum demonstrators protest in front of Spanish National Police officers in Barcelona | Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images
Hundreds of thousands of Catalans are expected to take to the streets on Sunday to try and cast a ballot. National police forces from other parts of the country — probably numbering in the thousands, though the interior ministry hasn’t provided a figure — have been deployed to Catalonia in anticipation of potential unrest in the streets.
The officers will be tasked with shutting down polling stations if the Catalan regional police — the Mossos — are unable or unwilling to do so. Barcelona and Madrid have tussled over control of the regional police, whose loyalty will be tested in the coming days.
The Spanish government has entered full crisis mode. Rajoy is not expected to attend the European Union’s informal summit in Tallinn this week. The finance minister on Tuesday announced that the 2017 budget will be extended to next year over tensions with Basque legislative partners on how to manage the Catalan crisis. Rajoy, however, maintains the backing of three quarters of the Spanish Congress on the Catalan issue.
Madrid considers the basic infrastructure required to hold the referendum to have been “dismantled,” Enric Millo, the Spanish government’s representative in Catalonia, told reporters Tuesday. But few believe the crisis is anywhere close to an end.
It’s not clear whether any Catalan officials will end up in prison, but it’s also possible that many will.
The sheer scale of the measures the Spanish state has put in place provides an indication of the seriousness with which it views the conflict — and how difficult the problem will be to resolve even after the vote.
Catalonia’s High Court is investigating the entire Catalan Cabinet led by regional President Carles Puigdemont — as well as five regional lawmakers — on charges of disobedience, prevarication, and misuse of public funds. The latter crime is punishable with up to eight years in prison.
Another judge in Barcelona is investigating 20 people on the same charges in a case related to the vote that has been placed under judicial secrecy. Last week, the same judge ordered 41 facilities allegedly connected to the referendum — including six government offices — to be raided in Catalonia.
In the operation, authorities temporarily detained more than a dozen Catalan officials, prompting thousands of people to the streets to protest. Computers and key data belonging to organizers of the referendum were reportedly confiscated.
The prosecutor’s office at Spain’s High Court submitted a penal complaint on charges of sedition — punishable by up to 10 years in prison — for the protests that day, when supporters of independence and grassroots organizations called on people to surround the buildings where the raids were being conducted, aiming, in the prosecutor’s view, at preventing by force the work of the authorities and police agents.
The prosecutor didn’t identify a particular target for the charges, but specifically mentioned the actions taken that day by the leaders of the two biggest pro-independence organizations. On Wednesday, the High Court admitted the prosecutor’s complaint and decided to proceed with the investigation, ordering security forces to provide an account of the facts that day and the following.
Earlier, Spain’s chief prosecutor ordered a preliminary investigation against more than 700 Catalan mayors who had vowed to cooperate with the referendum, and ordered them to be questioned and detained if they refused to appear before the authorities. He also urged criminal action against two mayors leading city hall associations promoting the referendum on the charges of disobedience, prevarication and misuse of public funds.
It’s not clear whether any Catalan officials will end up in prison, but it’s also possible that many will. An investigative judge said that once the criminal justice system starts to roll, it’s a very difficult mechanism to stop — though the central government will have the option of granting pardons.
In addition to the prosecutions and investigations, police have been sent to hunt down ballot papers and materials related to the referendum, and media organizations have been warned not to broadcast official Catalan campaign advertisements related to the vote. More than a hundred websites related to the referendum have been shut down.
The central government has also essentially taken over the regional executive’s finances to ensure that “not a single euro” is spent on the ballot. Banks have been ordered not to allow money transfers from Catalan government accounts without Madrid’s consent.
The pressure — in particular, threats of financial sanctions — is starting to create rifts among the separatists.
When the Catalan pro-independence newspaper ARA initially complied with the broadcast ban, it came under severe criticism from parts of the secessionist camp who pointed to other outlets willing to take the risk.
In a key move, Spain’s Constitutional Court imposed daily fines of between €6,000 and €12,000 on two members of the Catalan Cabinet on the charge of organizing the referendum and the 22 members of the ad-hoc electoral body created to supervise the vote and proclaim the official results.
In response, the Catalan government dissolved the electoral body and dismissed one of the two Cabinet officials. That some officials calling for Catalans to flout the law were so quickly willing to back down did not sit well with some supporters of independence.
Spain’s heavy hand has left millions of Catalans furious at what Puigdemont has described as a “totalitarian” crackdown.
Meanwhile, Spain’s Court of Auditors has demanded that the organizers of an informal independence vote in 2014 repay the state for the expenses incurred. The order shook up the ranks of the separatists this summer. Five members of the Catalan Cabinet were replaced, one of whom had said he was willing to risk prison but not his assets.
On Tuesday, former Catalan leader Artur Mas — who’s been ordered by the Court to post a bail of more than €5 million — asked people in a radio interview to make private contributions to a solidarity account, arguing that those who lead the effort should not be asked to bear “such a high price.” Pro-independence organizations have reportedly collected more than €2 million so far.
Spain’s heavy hand has left millions of Catalans furious at what Puigdemont has described as a “totalitarian” crackdown. Most observers expect massive protests if Catalans are prevented from voting, and there’s little certainty what will happen in the effort’s aftermath — whether Puigdemont or the regional chamber will declare unilateral independence.
Divisions have started to form among the separatists — which include political parties from the center right to the anti-capitalist left — over whether the region should unilaterally secede if the referendum passes, as called for under the law the Constitutional Court has suspended while it prepares a definitive ruling.
In an interview broadcast Sunday, Puigdemont said a unilateral declaration of independence was a possibility even if voting proved impossible — though he added that it was not his preferred option.
On Tuesday, one of Puigdemont’s fellow lawmakers, Carles Campuzano, “absolutely ruled out” a declaration of independence — no matter the outcome of the vote — prompting outrage across the separatist political spectrum.
Joan Tardà, of the Catalan Republican Left, responded in a tweet that “the first and last word” on independence belongs to the Catalan chamber and the regional government.
Spain is doing everything it can to prevent that from being the case.