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Spanish Court Rejects Catalan Referendum

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The Spanish Constitutional Court has accepted the government’s appeal and blocked the Catalan referendum decree[1], signed into law on Saturday by Catalonia’s President, Artur Mas. Earlier today, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had called an extraordinary session of the State Council to respond to challenge and his government had quickly appealed to the Constitutional Court for a ruling on the law’s unconstitutionality. In his statement, Mr. Rajoy stated that “Catalonia has taken unilateral decisions to a point of no return” as well as declaring the Generalitat’s actions “a grave attack on the general interest of all Spaniards”[2]. The latter is a direct reference to Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which authorizes the government to take all actions necessary consistent with the law to deal with situations involving such an attack on the general interest.

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Citing the “constitutional and political transcendence” of the Catalan question, the Court met within hours of the filing of the appeal and reached a unanimous verdict even more quickly. At the same time that the Court was deliberating, Mr. Mas was in Barcelona presenting a 1,300 page “National Transition” document that plots the path for the Catalan region to become a sovereign state.

No comment as of yet from the Catalan government or major parties, though the Generalitat will have to issue a statement very soon to avoid a charge of contempt or disobedience to the Court. Meanwhile, the Catalan National Assembly, a private organization, is planning a rally for the 30th of September at 1900 in protest[3].

For its part, the Spanish government continues its own preparations in the face of a possible refusal by the Catalans to accept the Constitutional Court’s verdict. According to El País[4], the Interior Ministry is preparing to deploy up to 4,500 National Police and Civil Guards to Catalonia should the regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, fail to obey government orders.  As ominous as that sounds it is surely only a warning of worse to come: the Mossos number approximately 16,000 effectives so 4,500 Spanish police are hardly going to restore order if the Mossos side with the Generalitat. It is more likely a red flag to any that care to see it that Mr. Rajoy will not negotiate, will not back down and will use force to enforce the government’s decrees if necessary. Behind the 4,500 special police brigades is the Spanish Army, and no one needs reminding of what happened the last time the Spanish Army intervened in its country’s politics. That Catalans remember, in any event.

Analysis:

President Mas has said that he will proceed by all legal means. That implies that he will now drop the referendum scheduled for 9 November, declare that the government can no longer function under these conditions imposed by Madrid (or similar wording) and call for early elections, which will serve as a de facto referendum. Legally, the central government has no competence to prevent this; according to the Spanish Constitution, regional governments have full authority to organize elections. The pro-independence Catalan parties will then probably form a unity coalition on the sole platform of independence. If they win more than half the vote, they will form a government and unilaterally declare independence.

The difficulty of this scheme is that not all pro-referendum Catalans are pro-independence as well, or at least not fully. Such a course would probably mean the split up of CiU and relegate Mr. Mas to a junior partnership role with Mr. Junqueras of ERC; something which Mr. Mas might not be agreeable with.

He might not have a choice: Mr. Junqueras might have enough votes in the Catalan Parlement to force a no confidence vote through the legislature if Mr. Mas refuses the snap election.

In any event, the business is far from concluded, whatever Mr. Rajoy might hope for. Expect a rocky road through the end of the year at least. Common Sense will continue to provide analysis of developments.

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Sources and Notes:

[1] Matthew Bennet, “Spain’s Constitutional Court Suspends Catalan Referendum Law As Mas Presents Secession Plan,”, The Spain Report, 29 September 2014

[2] Fiona Govan, “Catalan independence vote ‘anti-democratic’,” The Telegraph, 29 September 2014

[3] Ángeles Piñol, “La Asamblea Nacional Catalana llama a los ciudadanos a protestar en las calles,” El País, 29 September 2014

[4] Juan E. Pflüger, “4.500 agentes para controlar el 9-N,” El País, 26 September 2014

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