MADRID — For Mariano Rajoy, it's as if October 1 never happened. The Spanish Prime Minister insisted that his government was simply implementing Spain's democratic constitution in sending gendarmes to stop an illegal, separatist referendum organized by the Catalan regional authority on Sunday.
But October 1 may go down as a turning point in Spanish, and perhaps even European, history, as pictures spread of citizens being beaten and dragged away by policemen intent on stopping them from voting. The Catalan regional government reported more than 800 injuries, while announcing some 90% of those who voted favored secession.
The impression given was of a member state of the European Union looking clumsy as best, and even brutal and helpless, in the face of growing separatist sentiment in its richest region. La Vanguardia, the top daily in the Catalan capital of Barcelona, wrote that the conflict over the independence movement "will only get worse."
La Vanguardia, Oct. 2, 2017
Across the rest of Spain, the media had sought in recent weeks — in a curious convergence of postures — to downplay the importance of the separatist challenge mounted in Catalonia. Like Spain's parties, the conservative Popular Party, the Socialists and centrist Citizens who have failed to effectively unite on the issue in spite of representing the vast majority of Spaniards, the press and media have also seen how little influence they have now on the voting public.
The Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez expressed his support for the "rule of law, in spite of this government," following the vote, but refused to grant the Rajoy government his unqualified support. He was showing again his party's bewilderment at the scope and nature of the Catalan challenge, but also the unpopularity of the Rajoy government beyond its loyalist voters. The Socialists' feeble response to the Catalan issue is not unlike the Labour Party's response in the UK to the challenge of Brexit.
Nevertheless, the same party almost prevented the situation coming to this impasse. El País suggested Monday that going back to the Estatut, or statute of autonomy the last Socialist government had agreed on with the Catalans, and which the conservatives have effectively quashed, could be a way of out of the political pig's ear.
El País, a centrist paper, has otherwise moved closer to the government's positions on Catalonia. It reported that "abstention had won" the day, while many media cited the Catalan government's declaration that 90% of Catalans had voted to separate from Spain. The conservative daily El Mundoreported the Catalan president's intention to declare independence "within days."
Pictures of scuffling and verbal confrontations, and even standoffs between local and national policemen, spread quickly across the media and social networks, showing how the referendum has divided the civil service, amplifying the unease this crisis is causing inside and beyond Spain.
Le Monde observed that Spain and the Catalan region were "diving into the unknown." The daily also pointed out that Europeans were "put ill at ease" by the pictures of violence in Barcelona and elsewhere, and that European Union institutions had not yet commented on the events. The EU has clearly stated its respect for the existing territorial and constitutional makeup in Spain, but any Spanish conservative might have noted that the block had taken very few, vigorous postures against the Catalans. The hesitant response is perhaps as dangerous as the brazen challenge the Catalans have mounted against the current shape of the Europe.
Outside the Old Continent, a commentator in Colombia's El Espectador observed that the picture of disarray emerging from Spain was yet another example of the poisonous power of social networking sites, where "there is neither God nor law, no order or control or any way of differentiating between fake and real." Mexican daily Milenio largely dismissed the Catalan cause, citing Rajoy's claim that the "law had been upheld," while Excelsior, another top daily in Mexico, suggested that Rajoy was largely to blame for refusing to sit and talk with the relevant parties in Catalonia.