The Catalan Independence Movement's Shifting Fortunes

How Rajoy Outmaneuvered a Fragile Coalition

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy receives applause from members of his People's Party after his speech to Parliament in Madrid, October 2017. Sergio Perez / REUTERS

Only a few weeks ago, it seemed quite likely that Catalonia would declare itself independent from Spain. On October 1, the people of Catalonia voted overwhelmingly for independence (some 90 percent of voters, according to Catalan authorities) in a referendum that took place under the most inauspicious of circumstances. In the days leading to the referendum, the central administration in Madrid confiscated some 10 million ballots, threatened to prosecute any Catalan public official involved with the referendum, and disabled the Internet to prevent people from finding their voting stations. When all that failed, Madrid sent thousands of national police and civil guard officers to block people from entering voting stations. It all backfired.

Images of police dragging people, some of whom had bloody faces, from voting stations and firing rubber bullets into the crowds dominated the headlines. According to Catalan health authorities, 844 people were injured in clashes with the police. The mayhem, condemned by human rights organizations, fed the separatist narrative of a villainous Madrid administration preventing people from expressing their right to self-determination. In particular, Madrid’s resort to violence ceded the higher moral ground to the separatists. Seeking to capitalize on the situation, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared that “with this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.”

Just ten days after the referendum, however, the fortunes of the independence movement had shifted radically. Puigdemont was forced into a delicate balancing act of acknowledging both the right to declare independence and the reality that unilaterally doing so would be extremely unlikely to succeed. In a speech to the Catalan Parliament on October 10, Puigdemont said that he was declaring independence but was suspending the declaration to pursue negotiations with Madrid. The incoherence of the news stunned those who had gathered all over Catalonia to witness the momentous occasion, with some claiming to be “cheated and lied to.”

What will come of negotiations with Madrid is far from

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