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Who Will Blink First — Barcelona or Madrid?

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President of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell
President of the Catalan parliament Carme Forcadell, center, sits with parliament representatives to discuss their next move after Spanish government announced plans to remove members of the region's pro-independence government, at the Catalonia Parliament in Barcelona. VOA
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Catalan separatists are devising nonviolent plans to resist the imposition of direct rule by Madrid.

With days to go before the Spanish government secures parliamentary approval to curb Catalonia’s semi-autonomy, separatist leaders are promising to disrupt Madrid’s efforts to shutter their regional government, which could start by the end of the week.

Separatists stand firm

They have pledged to meet any deployment of the national police with what the leaders say will be “walls of people.” And they say that new bosses sent in by Madrid to oversee Catalonia’s own regional police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, and Catalonia’s public broadcaster, as well as the regional tax authority, will face obstructionism and disobedience.

Spain’s conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and the country’s three main national parties are adamant that the unruly northeastern region won’t be allowed to secede. They maintain Catalans broke the law when they held an independence vote on October 1, which was deemed illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court.

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gestures as he delivers a statement at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid. VOA

Government strategy

According to Spanish officials, Madrid’s current plan is to remove from their offices only the top echelon of Catalonia’s government, including regional president Carles Puigdemont and his deputy Oriol Junqueras but will leave in place other Catalan ministers, government officials and the executives of public companies so that they can continue to oversee day-to-day administration.

“We are going to ask them to be professional and to continue to provide services for their citizens,” a Spanish official told VOA. The strategy is to be as light-touch as possible and for the intervention to be as brief as possible with quick early regional elections.

Direct rule

On Saturday, the Spanish prime minister announced plans to impose direct rule on the troublesome Catalonia — marking the first time since 1933 that an elected Spanish government has stripped Catalonia of its semi-autonomy.

The separatists’ answer came Sunday when an estimated 450,000 took to the streets of Barcelona to protest on a warm sunny evening the proposed direct-rule measures and to demand the release of two prominent independence leaders, who have been jailed on charges of sedition.

“If the repressive drift does not end, the time will come when we will be freer in prisons than in the streets,” he says. He argues Catalan separatists will endure any crackdown by Madrid and come through “more convinced of their cause and stronger.”

Separatist propaganda on a winning streak

As the dangerous game of political chicken nears a denouement there are many here in the Catalan capital who feel impotent and puzzled why the conservative national government of Mariano Rajoy keeps on gifting — as far as they are concerned — the Catalan separatists propaganda wins.

In Barcelona’s warren-like medieval Barri Gotic or Gothic Quarter, an area filled with trendy bars, clubs and Catalan restaurants as well as tourists, VOA found more people ambivalent about independence than for it. But all were alarmed about how the confrontation might play out, and critical of the central government’s strong-armed tactics-like its attempt to stop the October 1 referendum, which left about 800 people injured.

Many are ambivalent

Less than half of the region’s 7.5 million Catalans turned out to vote in the referendum earlier this month, although 9 out of 10 who did, backed independence. But separatists think the political trajectory is favoring their cause.

But an opinion poll Sunday for El Periodico, a Barcelona newspaper, found only 36 percent of respondents backed independence, a 10 percent drop on previous polling.(VOA)

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Catalonia Referendum: Over 3 lac People attended Sunday Rally for Spanish Unity

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Activists protest with a giant Catalan flag
Activists protest with a giant Catalan flag during a mass rally against Catalonia's declaration of independence, in Barcelona, Spain. VOA

Barcelona, October 30: An air of calm settled over Barcelona after hundreds of thousands of Catalan attended a rally Sunday for Spanish unity. The atmosphere of the rally was peaceful, as police helicopters monitored from above.

Amid a forest of Spanish national flags and chants of “Viva Espana,” protesters called for the jailing of Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who on Friday issued a declaration of independence shortly before the Spanish government stripped Catalonia of its autonomy.

But the calm that followed the rally in the Catalan capital attended by an estimated 300,000 people had the quality of the stillness before a storm. Few are ready to hazard a prediction of how events in Catalonia may unfold in the coming days in a confrontation that has seen intransigence from both sides.

How Madrid starts imposing direct rule Monday on its restive northeast region, and how separatists respond, will determine the next phase in the month-long cat-and-mouse standoff between the politicians in Madrid and Catalan secessionists. Both appear to be banking on the other side tiring like a bull played by a matador.

But fears are growing the perilous confrontation, at times visceral and seamed with past historical grievances including from the era of Gen. Francisco Franco, will degenerate into violence, despite the separatists’ determination to remain non-violent and Madrid’s eagerness not to repeat the national police violence that accompanied an October 1 independence referendum.

“If Puigdemont takes part in these elections, he can exercise [his] democratic opposition,” said government spokesman Íñigo Méndez de Vigo. That suggests the implacable deputy Spanish prime minister, María Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría Antón, a 46-year-old former prosecutor who is charged with overseeing direct rule, is not planning to kick off by arresting Catalan separatist leaders, a move some analysts say would be inflammatory if it is tried.

Nonetheless, there will be several flash-points in the coming week that could push the confrontation, the worst political crisis to roil Spain since a failed military coup in 1981, down paths neither Madrid nor the secessionists want or could control, say analysts. They worry the type of clashes seen on October 1, when the national police and Civil Guard tried to distort the referendum, will be seen when Madrid decides to enforce direct-rule by closing down Catalonia’s parliament and regional government. “I really will be amazed if we don’t see more of that, sadly,” said Sally Ann-Kitts, a lecturer in Hispanic studies at Britain’s University of Bristol.

“All sides seem to be living in Wonderland,” according to John Carlin, who was fired from his job at the Spanish newspaper El País earlier this month over an article he wrote highly critical of the Spanish government for its response to the independence referendum.

In an article for the London Sunday Times, Carlin argued the biggest risk may come if the idea takes hold “among highly energized independence-seeking youth that they have been the victims of a Franquista coup d’état.”

Another risk is that provocateurs on either side, violent anarchists or hardline Spanish nationalists take advantage of the mess Catalonia is in and organize an incident to provoke a reaction from their opponents. On Friday young Spanish nationalists attacked a Catalan radio station.

Rival administrations

As things stand, Catalans will wake up Monday to two rival administrations in their region claiming legitimacy, the Puigdemont-led regional government and an emergency authority staffed by Spanish civil servants and led by Sáenz de Santamaría. On Saturday, Puigdemont defied the fact that he was formally dismissed by the Spanish government and urged Catalans to “defend” the new republic in a televised address.

Separatist leaders and their supporters appear determined to wear Madrid down much as a matador does with a bull by obstructing and resisting the orders issued by Madrid. “The only answer we have is self-defense – institutional self-defense and civil self-defense. I hope Catalans won’t be intimidated by Madrid,” says Abel Escriba, a pro-independence political scientist.

Madrid is banking on Catalonia’s 200,000 public employees and the executives of public companies in the region accepting direct-rule and ignoring the instructions of the Puigdemont-led regional government. The public employee, teacher and firefighter unions have proclaimed their members will ignore Madrid’s instruction.

“We are going to ask them to be professional and to continue to provide services for their citizens,” a Spanish official told VOA last week. The strategy is to be as light-touch as possible as the region is steered to the snap elections in December, which the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is gambling will go against the separatists.

A poll published by El Pais Saturday suggested a small majority of Catalans (52 percent to 43 percent) favour the dissolution of the regional parliament and the holding of the early elections. Fifty-five percent of Catalan respondents opposed the declaration of independence, with 41 percent in favour of secession.(VOA)