On Sunday, September 17, Juan Ignacio Zoido, Spain’s Twitter-happy minister of the interior, posted a strange video on his feed. The 24-second clip showed scores of boxes the authorities had seized, most still in their original packaging, located in a nondescript warehouse. Had they found drugs? No. Money? Also no. As the camera approached, it showed a poster with “Sí” in bold, block letters. The Spanish police, it turned out, had confiscated 1.3 million posters, fliers, and pamphlets calling for a “Yes” vote in the upcoming Catalan referendum on independence, which is scheduled to take place across the region on October 1. Hours later, Interior Ministry officials posted a DEA-style picture on Twitter of their entire loot.
The police confiscations indicate the degree to which tensions between the central government in Madrid and Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona, known as the Generalitat, have escalated in recent weeks. As it turned out, they were only the first salvo in a series of draconian measures that have left many Catalans and Spaniards reeling, pushing the country to the edge of its most serious constitutional crisis since the end of the Franco dictatorship.
Once Catalonia announced the referendum in early September, Madrid immediately launched an appeal with the country’s Constitutional Court, which then proceeded to suspend the measures while it considered their legality—a process that can take many months. Spain’s 1978 Constitution grants the region limited autonomy, including the right to its own parliament, language, and police force, but also declares Spain “indivisible.” As such, there are no provisions for regional secession, and referenda of any kind can only be issued by the central state, for the entire state.
President of the Generalitat Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders have declared their intention to proceed with the October 1 referendum anyway. According to leaders in Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s administration, the Catalan president and his cabinet’s brazen acts of disobedience may be punished with stiff fines and prison sentences, including years of disbarment from active politics. (Some of them have been prosecuted for conducting a similar referendum in 2014.)
“We will apply the law in its full force,” Rajoy, the conservative leader of Spain’s Popular Party (PP), announced in early September. The key word, it turns out, was “force.” On September 13 and again on September 16, the national police shuttered Catalonia’s official referendum website. On September 14, the Supreme Court of Catalonia ordered the national police to compile a list of media organizations that were running referendum ads, marking them as possible targets for criminal proceedings. On September 19, the Spanish Finance Ministry took over the Catalan treasury; it even ordered that banks block the credit cards of the Generalitat in compliance with the national court’s suspension of the referendum. On September 20, Madrid announced that it was sending some 4,000 riot police to Catalonia to help “maintain order” in the run-up to the referendum. (Given the lack of housing, they are being lodged in several chartered cruise ships anchored in Catalan harbors; the fact that one of them features gigantic images of Looney Tunes characters has provided some comic relief.)