Commentary: Whose Catalonia coup is it anyway?

For the hundreds of thousands of marchers thronging the palace-lined streets of Barcelona on Sunday, there was only one answer to the question about where storied Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, really belonged. “Viva España,” they chanted, waving flags emblazoned with regal lions and banners that read “We are part of Spain!”

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Just 36 hours earlier, the city had been filled with nearly as many rival activists − this time waving uni-starred flags, yelling “Viva la República Catalana!” to show their support for the Catalan Republic, the new, sovereign country theoretically created when Catalonia’s autonomous provincial government Friday controversially declared itself free of Spain.

In the time between the two marches, Spain’s conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had dismissed Catalonia’s independence declaration as “null and void”; fired the Catalonia cabinet; dissolved Catalonia’s parliament; called new elections, and announced the central government was stepping in to oversee the regional authorities, which until Friday had held substantial powers of self-rule.

Rajoy’s action, declared Catalonia Vice President Oriol Junqueras, was a “coup d’état” directed by the “anti-democratic” prime minister in Madrid. “The president of the country is and will be Carles Puigdemont,” said Junqueras, referring to Catalonia’s regional president in a piece for the newspaper El Punt Avui. Junqueras is correct about one thing: a coup has indeed rattled this province. But the instigators aren’t in Madrid. Despite appearing rigidly authoritarian, Rajoy has Spanish law, the courts, the national Senate, the king, and the 1978 constitution solidly backing his actions in lassoing runaway Catalonia back into Spain. It is not the Spanish government, but the separatists in Catalonia, where a July poll showed 41 percent wanted independence and 49 percent wanted to stay in Spain, who are undermining democracy in this land.

Junqueras, Puigdemont and their social media-savvy band of separatists, have leveraged historical grudges to create rancor and division, making a mockery of the very democracy they claim to desire by saying that it’s Spain, with elections, a healthy constitution, and a decentralized government, that is undemocratic.

Puigdemont, an avowed independence supporter and onetime-mayor of Girona, was an unelected appointee to the regional president’s seat in Jan. 2016, chosen by a parliamentary coalition that shared little but a desire for separatism. Dubbed “the accidental president,” he became the first leader of Catalonia to refuse to pledge loyalty to Spain’s constitution and king.

Filling their cabinet only with like-minded members, Puigdemont and Junqueras emphasized independence above all and promised a referendum on leaving Spain. However, Spain’s constitution, approved by 90 percent of Catalan voters in 1978, holds that the regions can only secede if all Spanish voters approve it. In spite of that, Puigdemont ignored Rajoy’s warnings and the Constitutional Court’s ruling that a vote on independence was unconstitutional and illegal.

For months, the separatist faction of the Barcelona-based government made misleading promises. An independent Catalonia would remain in the European Union, they said − even though the EU had said that declaring independence would effectively be resigning from the group. A report from the regional Ministry of Economy, headed by Junqueras, concluded that international investment would rise and wealthy Catalonia would remain economically viable despite warnings from major businesses that they’d move their headquarters, and perhaps relocate entirely if independence was declared.

Separatists riled up the populace with fervent rallies, where they claimed the national government in Madrid was robbing Catalonia, and depicting Catalans as victimized and oppressed. On Sept.7, the secessionist camp in parliament pushed through a bill on holding the referendum ignoring standard procedure, including discussion and advance notice it would be on the agenda. While 52 of the 135 parliamentarians left in disgust, the bill passed with 72 votes.

Puigdemont and Junqueras appeared to revel in the calls from Rajoy to drop the plebiscite scheduled for Oct. 1, perhaps realizing that any move from the national government would be seen as Goliath stomping on David. On that count, they were right. Instead of ignoring it, Madrid sent out national police to try to prevent the vote from taking place. The police were largely unsuccessful and their attempt short-lived, but the images of them battering doors, knocking down the elderly, dragging voters down stairs, pulling women by their hair and shooting at civilians with rubber bullets did more to alarm the world and rally support for the separatist call than any advertising campaign could have achieved. Later reports showed the number of injuries, initially thought to be over 800, had been exaggerated, as had some reports of victimization.

Missing in the dramatic imagery beamed worldwide was the fact that the disorganized vote was marred by more than violence: as Madrid tried to shut down voting stations, basic polling safeguards were overlooked and the Catalan government announced that regardless of registration, Catalans could cast ballots anywhere − creating the potential for repeat voting. Since voters had been warned by Madrid that the referendum was illegal, it was largely boycotted by those who wanted to stay in Spain; only some 2 million Catalans of 5 million-plus potential voters cast their ballots. Despite this low turnout and allegations of voter fraud, the Catalan government hailed the result as a 90 percent vote for independence.

After nearly four weeks of double-speak and canceled announcements about independence − during which over 1,000 businesses moved their headquarters outside Catalonia and tourism plummeted − Puigdemont referred the issue to the regional parliament, which held a secret ballot about it on Oct 27. Of the 135 parliamentarians, 70 wrote yes, 10 wrote no, and the rest stormed out. Many left Spanish flags on their empty chairs. Before the hour was out, Spain’s Senate in Madrid agreed to invoke the constitution’s never-before-used Article 155, giving Madrid the authority to suspend Catalonia’s government. Hours later, Rajoy announced that the central government was taking over.

Puigdemont, Junqueras and other Catalan cabinet members may now face charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. Puigdemont slipped off to Brussels, where his Belgian lawyer says he will not return to Spain for questioning. Junqueras still wants to tackle the creation of his new republic, writing in a New York Times op-ed column published Wednesday that Catalonia would not retreat. “In a battle for self-determination and the recognition of rights, one does not win with the first punch,” he said.

It will be an uphill battle even in the unlikely event that the central government lets Junqueras stay in office. A new poll, just published in El Mundo, shows the number of Catalans supporting independence has dropped to 33 percent.

About the Author

Melissa Rossi, who lives in Barcelona, is the author of the “What Every American Should Know” geopolitical book series for Plume/Penguin. @melissarossi199

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.