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Tensions rise ahead of 'illegal' Catalan referendum

TENSIONS RISE AHEAD OF ILLEGAL CATALAN REFERENDUM

As September draws to an uneasy end in Spain, Oct. 1 looms heavily on the horizon as the date set by the Catalan government for a vote on the creation of a Catalan Republic and secession from Spain.

Yet, with less than 48 hours to go, the governments in Madrid and Barcelona continue on a political crash course.

Spain's central government, led by conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, says the vote simply will not happen. "The referendum was never legal or legitimate, and now it's an impossible pipedream," said Rajoy in an address to the nation last week.

The Catalan government's steps towards the referendum are illegal, according to Spanish law. This month, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended referendum-related legislation passed by the Catalan parliament, majority lead by a pro-separatist coalition, and prosecutors are ordering police to ensure the referendum does not occur.

So far, police have confiscated millions of ballot papers, envelopes, instruction guides and shut down websites related to the referendum.

More than a dozen officials thought to be organizing the referendum were detained, and many have been charged with sedition, misappropriation of funds and disobedience.

The police presence has been doubled in Catalonia, according to Joaquim Forn, Catalan interior minister, and three cruise ships full of police are docked in Barcelona's port.

Spain has taken over Catalonia's budget to prevent spending and police have been ordered to block or close public buildings where the vote is meant to be held on Sunday.

So, will there even be a vote?

When asked by Anadolu Agency: "On a scale of one to 10, how optimistic are you that a vote will happen, and if that vote happens, and 'yes' wins, that Catalonia will declare independence?" Joan Maria Pique, the Catalan government's director for foreign communication, answered "10."

This sentiment echoes the position of the Catalan government, which vows there will be a vote. And Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan government, says Madrid will not be able to stop it.

The government has now launched an app that informs citizens about where to vote and the Catalan police force says its primary duty is to maintain public order, not necessarily to stop the referendum as Spanish coordination demands.

"It's evident that the government's actions have changed some conditions, but what it hasn't changed, in fact what I think has improved, is will of the people to vote," said Puigdemont in an interview on Thursday with Spanish digital media outlet, eldiario.com.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets and declared their support for the referendum, including unions, teachers groups and students. They have been instructed to leave their house early on Sunday morning to wait in line to vote, advised to bring food and water and prepare for what could be a long day.

However, even if voting does occur in certain locations, the government of Spain is likely not to consider it a "referendum." Diplomatic sources from the Spanish government told Anadolu Agency what will happen on Sunday will be a "party" or demonstration, but nothing resembling a legitimate referendum.

And despite the passions provoked on both sides, there has been no violence nor calls to violence, but the tension has turned Catalan independence into a powder keg in Western Europe. And both governments hold an unlit pack of matches.

- COLLISION COURSE

This game of chicken, unflinchingly being played by both governments, began after the 2015 Catalan regional elections when a pro-separatist coalition won a majority of seats in the Catalan Parliament.

Separatists had marketed the election as a vote for independence, and although they lost the popular vote by two percent (winning 48 percent), they consider that an independence referendum is their democratic mandate.

Since then, Spain's central government, which just emerged from a political crisis of its own (10 months without a government until October 2016), has maintained its position that Catalonia is breaking the law, and for that it will face the legal consequences -- enforced by courts, prosecutors and police.

Catalonia's recent surge in separatist sentiment is attributed to a number of political setbacks in recent years, including the defeat of a Statute of Autonomy which would have given the wealthy northeastern region more self-governance.

The statute was approved by both parliaments in Spain and Catalonia, but was later significantly dismantled by the Spanish Constitutional Court after Rajoy's Popular Party lodged a legal challenge against it.

Since then, support for an independent Catalonia surged from 23 percent in 2010, according to the Center for Sociologic Research (CIS) to slightly less than 50 percent, according to recent polls and the Catalan elections.

However, this is not the first time Catalonia has aimed to become independent. In fact, Catalonia has declared itself a republic four times throughout its turbulent 600-year shared history with Spain.

"This has to do with identity more than anything else," says Ignacio Molina, professor and senior analyst at the Elcano think-tank, pointing out that speaking Catalan and being from rural areas are highly correlated with a desire for independence.

Wealthier Catalans are much more likely to support separation than people in lower income brackets, many of whom tend to be immigrants from Spain or elsewhere, he told Anadolu Agency.

- PIPEDREAM?

If Catalan independence wins at the polls (or what is left of them), the Catalan government has planned to almost immediately trigger the process of separation.

The separatist government has set no minimum participation rate, and if the results are considered legitimate, the legislation passed in the Catalan parliament, which has also been suspended by the Constitutional Court, stipulates that independence will be declared within two days, according to Catalan daily La Vanguardia and other Spanish media.

However, since more unionists in Catalonia are boycotting the outlawed referendum, a vote in favor of independence is all but guaranteed. For that reason perhaps, the ruling separatist coalition has been unclear if a declaration of independence would be the guaranteed outcome.

Puigdemont said in an interview with Spanish broadcaster La Sexta on Sunday that a unilateral declaration of independence was not his personal preference, but he did not discard the possibility.

"A unilateral declaration of independence is not on the table, in these moments there is only an itinerary: the referendum Oct. 1," he told eldiario.com on Thursday.

However, more radical members of the governing coalition, such as the far-left CUP party have been more certain.

"The declaration of independence has been incorporated into the laws we passed in the Catalan Parliament," Anna Gabriel, head of the CUP, told La Sexta on Tuesday.

However, besides using the police force to prevent secession, Spain has one more trick up its sleeve: Article 155, which allows the central government to take over Catalonia's autonomy. However, this move, described as a "political atom bomb" could trigger even more backlash in Catalan society.

However, even if there is a declaration of independence, no country in the international community has confirmed it would recognize it as valid. The vast majority of countries including France, the U.S. and Turkey all have said they support a united Spain.

"The markets don't even believe them because they think it would be a disaster for Catalonia and that people don't commit suicide voluntarily," said Luis de Guindos, Spanish economy minister on Catalan broadcaster TV3 on Thursday, referring to the fact that Spanish financial markets have remained stable throughout the turmoil.

Still, millions of Catalans who support independence are convinced otherwise, as they gear up for what will certainly be historic times.

- DIALOGUE

Renewed dialogue and compromise between Spain and Catalonia is key, says researcher Molina, as do most voices across the spectrum.

Molina suggests a new pact, giving Catalonia enhanced autonomy and symbolic recognition. Both Rajoy and Pedro Sanchez, leader of the main opposition agree, but suggest that negotiations can only take place when the Catalan government is acting within the law.

Left-wing party Podemos, which favors a referendum but considers Sunday's vote to be illegitimate, argues that Madrid and Barcelona must agree on a binding referendum to finally settle the issue, similar to what happened in Scotland or Quebec.

However, that would require constitutional changes and is not the desired option for the majority of Spaniards, although a poll conducted for Catalan Radio station RAC1, suggests around 80 percent of Catalans would like to vote legally.

"A referendum in Catalonia would be like a referendum in Cyprus to solve the issue. And why is that hard to solve? Because the population is so divided, the Turkish would vote for Turkey and the Greeks would vote for Greece," said Molina, adding that a referendum would open a "Pandora's box" of independence issues in Spain, and could cause a domino effect internationally.

But amid the spike in both Spanish and Catalan flags draped over balconies throughout the country, new messages asking for communication are also sprouting up in Madrid and Catalonia:

"Parlem?" (Let's talk, in Catalan) asks a white sheet with black writing, hanging off one balcony on Madrid's iconic Gran Via Street. "Hablemos" (let's talk in Spanish) replied another sign in Barcelona this week.

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