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Tensions, talks, courts: three scenarios for Spain-Catalonia stand-off

MADRID (Reuters) - Leaders of Spain’s industrialized northeastern region of Catalonia said the regional population had voted for independence in a ballot on Sunday that the central government said was illegal and non-representative.

Students hold Catalan separatist flags during a demonstration two days after the banned independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Enrique Calvo

With 95 percent of the vote counted, authorities said the “Yes” vote stood at 90.1 percent, albeit with a turnout of just a little over 40 percent - 2.26 million out of 5.34 million registered voters.

On Tuesday, Barcelona metro stations were closed, pickets blocked main roads and civil servants walked out in response to a strike called by pro-independence groups.

The stand-off could now take three different paths.


Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont continues with his pledge to declare unilateral independence, likely prompting the central government to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which would strip the region of its autonomous status and put it under direct Madrid rule.

If Article 155 is triggered, the next step would be snap elections in Catalonia.

Pro-independence parties only hold the majority in the regional parliament with the help of the far-left group CUP, and polls, before Sunday’s ballot, suggest these groups could lose their hold on power if a new election was called.

However, after events on Sunday, when police swung truncheons and fired rubber bullets in the direction of mostly peaceful demonstrators to shut down the referendum, pro-independence parties may again win the election.

Such a result would raise doubts surrounding Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s ability to govern.

Rajoy’s immediate opposition in the national parliament lacks the numbers to force him out through a no-confidence vote, but without cross-party support on Catalonia, he may be forced to call a snap national election himself.

Rajoy was voted in as a minority leader twice in last year’s two elections and a fractious parliament suggests a snap election may prompt a similar result.


If the Catalan parliament gives up the push for independence, Rajoy may sit down with Puigdemont to hammer out a new deal for the region including a better tax deal and greater fiscal autonomy.

Budget Minister Cristobal Montoro and Economy Minister Luis de Guindos have suggested this may be a possibility if the independence drive is completely abandoned.

Puigdemont has yet to make a unilateral declaration of independence, instead calling for a period of reflection, leaving the door open for such a scenario.

However, after the violent scenes on Sunday and continued protests on Tuesday via a partial strike across the region, the Catalan leader may be keen to keep face and avoid being seen bowing down to Madrid.


If the Catalans do not go ahead with a declaration of independence but also fail to sit down for talks with Rajoy as the two party’s positions diverge beyond a possible compromise, Madrid may refer the matter to the constitutional courts.

Legal and financial action against Catalan leaders is likely to fuel animosity and could prompt further protests, pushing leaders on both sides into difficult positions.

Reporting by Paul Day; Editing by Julien Toyer/Mark Heinrich