In a statement, the deposed president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, called for “democratic opposition” to Spain’s takeover of the region, as a huge pro-Spanish unity rally unfolded in Madrid.
Puigdemont signed the statement as president of Catalonia, indicating that Madrid would have to use some kind of force to formally remove him.
“We continue persevering in the only attitude that can make us winners. Without violence, without insults… and also respecting the protests of the Catalans who do not agree with what the parliamentary majority has decided,” he said.
The secessionists say a referendum on Oct. 1 gave them a mandate for independence. However, less than half of eligible voters turned out for the ballot, which Madrid declared illegal and tried to stop.
Opinion polls show that more than half of the 5.3 million people eligible to vote in the wealthy northeastern region, which is already autonomous, do not want to break from Spain.
But emotions are running high and the next few days will be tricky for Madrid as it embarks on enforcing direct rule.
Calling a new regional election is something of a gamble by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as it could increase the numbers of pro-independence supporters in a new parliament. But Mendez de Vigo said it would give Catalans the final say about how they felt.
The number of Catalans who might support independence will increase substantially if there is street violence in response to Madrid’s takeover. Right now, there is peaceful defiance in the region. But any sign of a heavy hand by Madrid could alter the independence dynamic and create even more headaches for Rajoy.
Much will depend on the attitude of the region’s formerly autonomous police force:
Catalonia’s police force told its officers to stay neutral, a step towards averting possible conflict following doubts over how the Mossos d‘Esquadra, as they are called, would respond if ordered to evict Puigdemont and his government.
The force is riven by distrust between those for and against independence and also estranged from Spain’s national police forces, Mossos and national officers have told Reuters. Some Catalan officers stood between national police and those trying to vote during the referendum.
“Given that there is it is likely to be an increase in gatherings and rallies of citizens… and that there are people of different thoughts, we must remember that it is our responsibility to guarantee the security of all and help these to take place without incident,” an internal memo said.
Government buildings, the headquarters of national political parties, ports, airports, courts, and the Bank of Spain were being guarded, the Interior Ministry said. Units of the regional force could be replaced if events made that necessary, it said.
The Madrid government also sacked the Mossos’ chief, Josep Lluis Trapero, who became a hero to the secessionists after his force took a much softer stance than national police in enforcing the referendum ban.
Spain’s High Court barred Trapero from leaving the country and seized his passport as part of an investigation for alleged sedition, although it has not ordered his arrest.
Rajoy would do well to cool talk of arresting separatists. He only makes martyrs of them and elevates them as symbols of resistance.
The pro-unity rally in Madrid is a clear sign that the Spanish people overwhelmingly back Rajoy’s crackdown on Catalonia. Even the socialist opposition has joined the country in advocating unity.
But this is a fragile unity. If things go south in Catalonia and blood runs in the streets, Rajoy risks his majority. That’s why it’s likely that Madrid will walk softly in Catalonia, trying to make the takeover as businesslike as possible. The goal is to promote pro-unity candidates in the elections Rajoy has ordered on December 21 and hope that cooler heads will prevail. At that point, both sides can sit down and tweak the autonomy agreement, almost certainly concentrating on sending more tax money back to the region, which is one of the major talking points in the independence movement.