Catalonia's 1 October referendum on independence precipitated a major political crisis in Spain and prompted Madrid to assume direct rule of Catalonia pending regional elections scheduled for 21 December. There appears to be a realistic possibility that Catalan voters will opt for a less disruptive push for enhanced autonomy within Spain. But if they re-assert independence, the cycle witnessed over the past several months could repeat and produce deeper crisis.

Catalonia is an autonomous community in northeast Spain, with a distinctive linguistic, cultural, legal and political identity. It contains Spain’s second-largest city, Barcelona, a major cultural centre and tourist destination. These features, coupled with Catalonia’s historical status as a relatively autonomous and distinct entity throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, have traditionally stimulated Catalan calls for self-government. In recent years, such sentiments have gained strength due to the disillusionment of many Catalan people with systemic fiscal imbalances disfavouring the Catalan region, and the Spanish national government’s denigration of Catalan rights and symbols. Mounting discontent induced Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to hold an independence referendum on 1 October, though the national government maintained that referendum was illegal, and successfully petitioned the Constitutional Court of Spain to declare it a breach of the Spanish Constitution of 1978. The national government then ordered that the vote be suspended.

Those opposed to independence widely boycotted the referendum, for which turnout was only 43%. The Spanish government took drastic measures to impede the voting process, disabling the internet, confiscating ballots, arresting electoral officials and threatening many more with prosecution. Madrid also dispatched police officers in riot gear, who used truncheons and rubber bullets to disperse crowds, shut down polling stations and seize ballot boxes. More than 750 civilians were injured. Catalan officials defiantly improvised, employing privately printed ballots and spontaneously changing voting hours and rules. Although some 92% of those who voted did so in favour of independence, neither Madrid – which voiced suspicions that Russia had covertly promoted independence to destabilise Spain – nor the European Union recognised the result. Puigdemont withdrew his insistence on immediate implementation, but eventually declared independence, prompting Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to invoke extraordinary powers and impose central government authority over Catalonia.

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