Spain Vs. Catalonia: As Tensions Rise Over Catalan Independence Vote, Will Violence Erupt?

Students wear Catalan separatist flags during a demonstration in favor of the banned October 1 independence referendum in Barcelona on September 28. The graffiti on the wall reads, "We will vote!" Jon Nazca/Reuters

It's crunch time in Catalonia. What began as a heated political debate over whether the northeastern Spanish province should secede from the rest of the country has devolved into a full-blown constitutional and political crisis, with central and regional government locking horns over a referendum planned for Sunday.

Demonstrators have filled the streets of Barcelona, the region's capital. Spain has deployed police forces to the province and instructed law enforcement to do all it can to stop the referendum, which the central government says is illegal. The government in Catalonia—one of Spain's 17 autonomous regions—insists it is not breaking the law in calling the vote. But as October 1 approaches tensions are rising. Pro-independence websites have been blocked. Catalan government officials have been arrested.

Both sides agree that the picture right now is bleak. "At this moment, the problem that we have is not about independence," says Sergi Marcén, head of the pro-independence Catalan government's London delegation. "In Catalonia we are in a state of emergency." Santiago Fisas, on the Spanish side, a lawmaker in the European Parliament for the country's ruling center-right People's Party (PP), says the region is now in "a situation of a coup d'état. Of course without weapons, without tanks, but it's bad."

As we head toward the planned, banned referendum, it's not clear what exactly will happen. The authorities are doing all they can to prevent a the vote taking place, but influential pro-independence campaign group the Catalan National Assembly has nonetheless urged supporters to turn up to polling stations even if they are blockaded by police.

As the atmosphere reaches a boiling point, just how serious can things get? Is this a civil war in the making or just a political disagreement ready to fizzle out?

The answer, says Jose Javier Olivas Osuna from the London School of Economics, is somewhere between the two. "I don't think there's the potential for armed conflict," he says. But there is, he believes, the potential for violence between civilians, if riots or violent demonstrations break out over the weekend.

That could be exacerbated by the presence of out-of-town police officers. The Spanish government has chartered cruise ships to house an additional 6,000 police. Recent demonstrations were prompted partly by the arrest of Catalan government officials by officers from the Guardia Civil, a national police force. Similar activity at the weekend could spark a backlash.

There is further uncertainty over the position of the Mossos d'Esquadra, the Catalan regional police force. The central Spanish interior ministry has claimed control over it, but regional police chief Josep Luis Trapero originally refused to accept the order. Osuna says there's a chance that the Mossos will be unwilling to prevent protesters from occupying buildings or otherwise pursuing direct action: "People are going to go take over things in a peaceful way," he says, "and then the Mossos will be there, around."

The Spanish government believes it has little choice but to block the referendum. Spain's constitution, which came in when the country moved from dictatorship to democracy in 1978, was approved by the whole country, including Catalan voters, and affirms "the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation." In early September, Spain's constitutional court suspended the two laws the Catalan government passed to plan the referendum. "The constitution is binding them," says Osuna, adding that any Spanish government would have likely sought to block a vote from happening. The constitution can technically be amended, but the process is arduous and considered something of a political taboo.

The Spanish government took some time to acknowledge the depth of pro-independence feeling in Catalonia, and as such has had trouble communicating its side of the story, especially in the international media. Fisas agrees that central government took too long to respond to the pro-independence voices gaining traction among the public. "For my party and the Socialist Party [historically the other main party of government], sometimes they don't understand, and thought that it was a small problem that could be solved with time. No, that is not a small problem that could be solved with time."

The Catalan government, meanwhile, says it is a passive, peaceful victim of central government oppression. "The Catalan people [are] really peaceful," Marcén, the Catalan delegate, says. "[The Spanish government] are trying to provoke something, some violence, but the Catalan people, we don't want violence. We are awaiting these police with flowers."

U.N. human rights experts issued a statement Thursday urging the Spanish government to respect "the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association," warning that the arrest of politicians and the charging of protest leaders with sedition "appear to violate fundamental individual rights."

Meanwhile, Spain's ruling party is keen to emphasize the divisions within the independence movement in Catalonia. The Catalan government is made up of a coalition between the center-right Catalan European Democratic Party and the center-left Republican Left of Catalonia. But another pro-independence party, represented in the parliament and in local politics though not the government, is the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a coalition of more hard-left groups and individuals.

"CUP, for them, the important thing is not the independence of Catalonia; [it is] revolution," says Fisas, the PP lawmaker, who says it is that party that makes him fear this weekend could descend into violence. There also have been local news reports of foreign anarchists arriving in the city, raising fears they could hijack peaceful protests and try to make them more aggressive.

The Catalan government and mainstream pro-independence groups have urged their supporters to act peacefully. "Peaceful resistance, zero violence... If you can't access the voting stations, by no means should you respond with violence," an internal Catalan National Assembly document seen by Reuters advised members. "Above all, bear in mind this is not a demonstration but a giant queue. The picture of millions of people queuing with a ballot paper in their hand will be more impressive."

Even once this weekend is over, it's far from clear how the tensions will be resolved.

As was the case in a previous (also centrally unrecognized) referendum in 2014, a vote on Sunday would likely deliver a landslide in favor of independence, but only because anti-independence parties and groups mostly abstain from participating. Support among independence across the Catalan population is in a sizable minority, at 41 percent. But it could grow, both if the Catalan government attracts sympathy by portraying itself as the victim of oppression, and as a younger generation educated largely in the Catalan language comes of age.

Fisas believes the Spanish government must open a dialogue with the Catalans, stopping short of offering a referendum, which he says is not constitutionally possible, but making clear it is willing to consider other possible concessions: new fiscal powers, or a new special status for Catalonia within Spain, for example. But his proposals are very much a personal initiative; he has yet to convince his party to commit to talks.

Spain is far from descending into full-scale conflict. But the total polarization and frenetic pace of the Catalan independence debate has the potential to prove seriously destabilizing for years to come.