Catalonia has taken a big step back. It is currently in the position that it was prior to 1982, when the Spanish autonomous communities system was established.
We, the Catalans, asked to solve our dispute with the central government through a referendum to democratically decide on the independence of Catalonia. There was general discontent and demands that needed to be addressed. The response of the Spanish government was not only to deny us this right, but also to crack down on Catalonia and leave it in a much worse state.
They have imprisoned half of the Catalan government, while the other half is in Brussels, embarrassing Madrid and causing instability within the Belgian government.
What happened in the past month and a half has had an immensely polarising effect on the general population. On December 21, we Catalans are called to the polls, for elections that were imposed by Madrid and with candidates of pro-independence parties in jail or in exile.
In this atmosphere, the election campaign will likely do no more than whip up more extreme sentiments on both sides and deepen the societal divide. And whatever the outcome of the vote, it will not resolve the crisis.
Dangerous polarisation ahead of the elections
The recent events have mobilised not only a huge part of the population that is unhappy about the central government’s mismanagement of the crisis and mistreatment of Catalans, but also the part that is ready to defend the unity of Spain, fearing Catalonia could develop an extreme form of nationalism.
Pro-independence voices have increasing influence in the Catalan society. They enjoy strong emotional support from the general public which remembers vividly the police violence in October and continues to protest the ongoing victimisation of imprisoned activists and politicians.
They do not trust Madrid. They see the actions of the central government not as attempts to resolve the crisis, but as punishment and deliberate humiliation of the Catalan people. The pro-independence crowd continues to organise large gatherings to defy the central government. On November 8, a general strike paralysed parts of Catalonia as thousands went out in the streets blocking, railroads and highways and chanting “Freedom!” Three days later, hundreds of thousands marched in Barcelona demanding the release of pro-independence movement leaders which they consider political prisoners.
Supporters of unity with Spain have also held large rallies, including one on October 12, Spain’s national day, which ended in a brawl between “unionists” and independence supporters. On October 29, hundreds of thousands marched in Barcelona to “celebrate” the application of Article 155, with chants like “Long live Spain!”, “Spanish Barcelona!”, and “Puigdemont in prison”.
The pro-unity movement in Catalonia is apprehensive about the rise of Catalan nationalism and does not trust the education provided in Catalan public schools. They fear that their children will be indoctrinated with a Catalan identity. They believe that if they express their Spanish nationalism in an independent Catalonia, they would be singled out and persecuted. They do not see the pro-independence movement as a grassroots one and consider it an initiative of the Catalan government to cover up its mismanagement of regional affairs.
Needless to say, the pro- and anti-independence crowds do not see eye-to-eye and their antagonism is increasingly reaching dangerous levels. If this polarisation persists and deepens, the election risks becoming another plebiscite, where people vote for staying with Spain or for establishing a Catalan republic and where the losing side could refuse to accept the results.
No solution will come out of the elections
In the December elections, the pro-independence parties will run separately, despite calls by removed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, to form a coalition. But even without a coalition, there is a chance they might win the majority in the elections.
A survey released on October 31 by Catalonia’s Center for Opinion Studies shows that pro-independence parties have a majority if they form a coalition.
The ruling People’s Party (PP) in Madrid has threatened to re-apply Article 155 if the pro-independence parties win the elections and continue with their push to establish the Catalan Republic proclaimed on October 27.
That would mean that the newly elected parliament would be dissolved, its government would be suspended and its members would likely be prosecuted. Then another election would have to be called, plunging Catalonia into a permanent crisis.
There is also a chance that the parties in favour of unity with Spain win the December 21 elections. The central government is hoping that the so-called “silent majority” will go out to vote in favour of the PP and is currently promoting it as the party that “has solved the Catalan challenge”.
The pro-unity parties – the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), the PP and Citizens Party – are ideologically very different and the only issue that they agree on is unity. They would face a formidable challenge in forming a stable coalition government that is able to make decisions. These parties would struggle to resolve major political and socioeconomic problems because they simply lie on different ends of the political spectrum (one is leftist, the other conservative, and the third is liberal).
The PSC prioritises regulation in socioeconomic affairs, promoting policies that mitigate poverty and encourage small business. Both the Citizens Party and the PP support deregulation and neoliberal policies favouring big business over social justice.
Furthermore, the PSC does not support anti-autonomy measures. It would not agree to change the current educational system in Catalonia to remove the priority status of Catalan language and culture – a policy that both the Citizens Party and the PP are in favour of. In other words, a coalition between these three parties would be difficult to sustain for four years, especially in a polarised environment.
However, such a government could survive long enough to try to suppress pro-independence activism and sentiments, alienating a huge part of the population and enabling the rise of a more vicious form of nationalism. Spain and Catalonia have already suffered from the effects of toxic fascist politics and it is a dangerous move for the pro-unity parties to push in that direction.
There is another option that could take Catalonia out of this vicious circle. An opinion poll conducted in late October shows that 57 percent of Spanish citizens are in favour of another referendum to resolve the current crisis – an option that was proposed by the Catalan government and rejected by Madrid.
The central government could allow another referendum to be held – one that does not involve police violence and arrests – and accept the will of the Catalan people for independence or for unity. This is the only solution that would guarantee lasting stability in Catalonia.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.