A test of wills in Catalonia as Spain tightens grip on restive region

Protesters wave Spanish and Catalan Senyera flags during a pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona on Sunday. The sign reading "38% is not Catalonia" refers to turnout for the referendum on independence.
Protesters wave Spanish and Catalan Senyera flags during a pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona on Sunday. The sign reading “38% is not Catalonia” refers to turnout for the referendum on independence.
(Lluis Gene / AFP/Getty Images)

In the first large-scale public rebuke of last week’s independence vote by the Catalan regional parliament, hundreds of thousands of supporters of Spanish unity surged into the streets of Catalonia’s capital on Sunday, decrying the breakaway bid as trampling the majority’s will.

A major test of wills loomed Monday, the first full business day since the independence vote, as the central government moved to tighten its hold on the restive region. Catalonia’s ousted president, Carles Puigdemont, could face arrest, especially if he attempts to discharge any official duties, and some civil servants have threatened to ignore directives from Madrid as the work week gets underway.

The raucous but largely peaceful pro-unity rally came against a backdrop of deep political polarization in the prosperous northeastern region, as illustrated by a new public opinion poll published Sunday that showed the region to be nearly evenly divided.


Madrid, calling the independence drive illegal and unconstitutional, has fired Catalonia’s secessionist leaders, dissolved its parliament and called new elections to take place in December.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked a constitutional provision known as Article 155 that gives the central government the authority to strip a region of its autonomous powers in the event of a grave breach of law.

Marchers flood the streets in Barcelona, waving Spanish and Catalan Senyera flags in a pro-unity demonstration on Sunday.
(Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP/Getty Images )

In the heart of the Catalan capital, marchers flooded an elegant main boulevard and spilled into side streets around it, waving the Spanish national flag or wrapping themselves in it, singing Spanish folk songs. Many described feelings of fear and anxiety over the independence bid, and spoke of their powerful ties to the region as well as to Spain as a whole.

In the crowd, schoolteacher Balbina Garcia de Polavieja, pregnant with her second child, said she embraced both identities.

“We have been in this country for hundreds of years,” said Garcia de Polavieja, who is Madrid-born but a six-year resident of Catalonia. “To be Spanish is to share a history.”


Municipal police quoted by the Catalan public broadcaster put the turnout at 300,000, though organizers claimed it was far higher

The pro-unity rally contrasted with a night of wild rejoicing by independence supporters after Friday’s vote by lawmakers to break away from Spain. At Sunday’s march, speaker after speaker insisted that the parliamentary vote for independence had not reflected the will of the people.

Teresa Freixes, a Spanish jurist who teaches constitutional law at the University of Barcelona, called the anti-independence camp a “silent majority,” drawing cheers from the crowd.

“We want to defend our values,” she said. “How can you proclaim a republic against the will of the majority? They want to rob us of this Catalonia that belongs to all of us.”

Voters in a banned Oct. 1 referendum overwhelmingly approved independence, but turnout was less than half the electorate after the central government branded the balloting illegal and urged people to stay home from the polls.

Opinion polls have pointed to a roughly equal split between pro- and anti-secessionists in the region, and a new survey published Sunday in a Spanish newspaper gave the anti-independence side a tiny edge heading into parliamentary elections that are just seven weeks away.

But the survey, conducted by the polling agency Sigma Dos and published in the conservative newspaper El Mundo, said the two sides were separated by less than 2 percentage points, within the standard margin of error.

Puigdemont on Saturday appealed for resistance to Spain’s direct rule using democratic means. It was not clear whether he envisioned separatists contesting the Dec. 21 elections called by Rajoy.

Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, told the Associated Press on Sunday that Puigdemont himself could “theoretically” run in parliamentary elections — if he wasn’t in jail by then.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont sings the Catalan anthem on Friday inside the parliament in Barcelona after a vote on independence. Soon after, the Spanish government ousted him and dissolved parliament.
(Manu Fernandez / Associated Press )

Although some pro-independence politicians have urged a boycott, Puigdemont’s deposed vice president, Oriol Junqueras, said secessionists should consider participating, even if they did not accept Spain’s right to call the new elections. Junqueras wrote an open letter that was published Sunday in the Catalan newspaper El Punt-Avui.

Pro-unity politicians promised to vigorously contest the vote.

“We Catalans are going to the polls,” anti-independence politician Xavier Garcia Albiol, of the conservative People’s Party, said in an interview broadcast on TV3.

“If Puigdemont wants to be independent, it will have to pass with a greater majority,” Albiol added, referring to the outcome of the disputed referendum.

Catalonia accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy, and there is widespread anxiety about financial fallout from a continued independence push. Hundreds of corporations have moved or plan to move their headquarters out of Barcelona, worried about potential unrest and the fact that an independent Catalonia would need to apply separately for European Union membership, a process that could take years.

Sunday’s rally was organized by a grassroots group called Societat Civil Catalana, whose leader, Alex Ramos, said pro-unity forces had not awakened early enough to the prospect of a direct and damaging confrontation between Catalan separatist leaders and the central government.

“We have organized ourselves late,” he acknowledged. “But we are here to show that there is a majority of Catalans who are no longer silent.”

Protesters Sunday spoke of painful family rifts created by Spain’s greatest constitutional crisis in decades.

Estrella García, 56, said her husband supports Catalonian independence, while she supports Spanish unity. The difference in ideology has hampered their relationship, she said, to the point where she often walks out of the room when he watches Catalan public television, which she perceives as biased.

“It’s very sad,” she said. “We fight and don’t speak.”

Special correspondent Bernhard reported from Barcelona and staff writer Laura King from Washington. Staff writer Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Barcelona contributed to this report.


11:35 a.m.: This article has been updated to reflect upcoming events on Monday.