October 2017 will go down in Spanish history as a month of stunning political confusion and chaos.
Turmoil surrounding Catalonia’s push for independence from Spain boiled over on Oct. 1, when residents of the autonomous region voted for their long-sought secession in a highly controversial referendum deemed illegal by the Spanish government.
Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont subsequently vowed to continue separation talks with Spain. But the following week, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced he would seek the Senate’s permission to “sack the Catalan president and his government,” sparking massive protests in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital.
The rising tensions between Madrid and Barcelona came to a head on Friday, when Puigdemont made a symbolic independence declaration in a historic display of defiance.
Madrid moved to impose direct rule over the region minutes later, dashing hopes for Catalan sovereignty. Before the day was over, the Spanish government had dissolved Catalonia’s Parliament and revoked its autonomy.
Spain will now have full authority over the region’s economic, financial, tax and budget matters, as well as its police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. A group of pro-independence officers have already refused to follow Spanish orders, including those which would remove Catalan lawmakers from office. Rajoy removed the police chief, Josep Lluís Trapero, on Friday.
An internal police memo obtained by Reuters urged officers to remain neutral.
“Given that there is likely to be an increase in gatherings and rallies of citizens in all the territory and that there are people of different thoughts, we must remember that it is our responsibility to guarantee the security of all and help these to take place without incident,” the anonymous memo said.
“Spain is living through a sad day,” Rajoy said. “We believe it is urgent to listen to Catalan citizens, to all of them, so that they can decide their future and nobody can act outside the law on their behalf.”
Other European leaders have spoken out to advocate for a peaceful end to the hostilities.
“For [the European Union], nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor,” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. “I hope the Spanish government favors force of argument, not argument of force.”
Rajoy vowed to hold regional elections on Dec. 21 to replace Puigdemont’s administration. As Reuters reported, a recent opinion poll from the newspaper El Periódico suggested such a vote would likely have a similar outcome to the last snap election in 2015, when a coalition of pro-separatist parties formed a minority government.
As Spain plunges deeper into constitutional crisis, it is unclear how Catalonia’s pro-secession population will respond. The Catalan National Assembly issued a widespread call for nonviolent civil disobedience, and urged civil servants to disregard orders from Madrid.
In a video message on Saturday, Puigdemont called for “democratic opposition” to the central government’s takeover.
“We must do so resisting repression and threats, without ever abandoning, at any time, civic and peaceful conduct,” he said. “We will continue to work to build a free country, to ensure we have a society with less injustice, more equality, more solidarity and more fraternity with all the peoples of the world, starting with the peoples of Spain with whom we want to remain connected through respect and mutual recognition.”
Several thousand people gathered for a pro-unity rally in Madrid on Saturday.
Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets against unarmed Catalans in an attempt to prevent them from voting in the outlawed Oct. 1 referendum, leading to fears that confrontations between Spanish authorities and independence supporters could once again turn violent.
Rebellion is punishable by up to 30 years in jail under Spanish law, but the Spanish government said it was not planning to make any arrests. Madrid has also abandoned highly controversial plans to take control of certain Catalan media outlets.
This article has been updated with information on Puigdemont’s Saturday message and an anonymous internal police memo.