The Catalan crisis has entered a new phase that is likely to lead to further instability. The head of the Catalan regional government, Carles Puigdemont, nominally declared independence on 10 October, but then immediately suspended it ‘for a few weeks’.
The prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, has asked the Catalan leader to clarify whether he had in fact declared independence. Rajoy has indicated that an affirmative response or a failure to revoke the declaration by 1000hrs on Thursday, 19 October would force Madrid to apply article 155 of the constitution. This would mean disbanding the regional government of Catalonia.
The seemingly indecisive speech by Puigdemont on 10 October appears to have been a poorly judged attempt to appease hardliners in his coalition, while trying to forestall Madrid from intervening politically in Catalonia. The Spanish prime minister’s strategy, on the other hand, is plainly far more robust and he seems intent on using legitimate constitutional mechanisms to bring the crisis to a swift end.
If Puigdemont confirms that Catalonia has indeed declared independence, we assess that Madrid will move to disband the regional government and implement direct rule, as it has threatened to. And due to a long history of mistrust, the national government would be unable to count on the loyalty of the Catalan police force (Mossos d’Esquadra). As such, Madrid would most probably deploy gendarmes to Catalonia. This sequence of events would almost certainly trigger large and disruptive demonstrations in Barcelona and elsewhere in Catalonia.
Conversely, if Puigdemont effectively withdraws the declaration of independence, there is a strong possibility that his coalition will fall apart. The hardline Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) has indicated that it would find such a reversal unacceptable and has threatened to withdraw its support for Puigdemont. Without the support of the CUP, the regional leader would lose his majority in parliament and early elections would probably follow.
In an apparent attempt to give the Catalan leader a way out of this dilemma, Rajoy today offered Puigdemont something he could hold up as a victory: a commitment to initiate a process to reform the constitution of Spain next year. But the CUP has already called this proposal insufficient. Given the prospects of Madrid intervening in Catalonia or the loss of his majority, it seems likely that Puigdemont will try to avoid confirming independence to buy time. This would not be a sustainable strategy, however. And in any case, it seems clear that Madrid will not accept secession or negotiate in light of the recent illegal referendum.
In the more immediate term, there are several potential flashpoints for protests across Catalonia in the coming week, and a possible risk of violent unrest, particularly in Barcelona. These include the potential imposition of direct rule and subsequent deployment of additional police or gendarmes to the region, and the possible arrest of Catalan politicians or regional security officials, some of whom are already under investigation for sedition.