Rajoy’s Legal Defenses Breached as Mas Unleashes Voters – Businessweek

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Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s plan
to use the Spanish constitution to stop Catalans from voting on
independence failed yesterday as regional officials defied the
government, the state prosecutor and the nation’s highest court
to hold the ballot.

Catalan President Artur Mas took responsibility for the
vote and challenged federal authorities to sanction him.
Regional police ignored orders from the state prosecutor to
identify officials responsible for opening polling sites.

Separatist sentiment in Catalonia, a culturally and
linguistically distinct region in northeastern Spain, has surged
in the last four years, spurred by dissatisfaction with high
unemployment and cuts in public services. While the vote has no
legal validity, Mas aims to use it to force Rajoy into
negotiating a path to independence.

The ballot takes place as the Spanish political
establishment faces its biggest crisis since the return of
democracy 36 years ago. Unemployment is at 24 percent, the
second-highest in Europe after Greece, and corruption
allegations have eroded the government’s moral authority.

Rajoy had previously said the courts and the police would
prevent a vote. Yet when more than 1,000 polling stations opened
across the region yesterday, the prime minister demurred to
avoid driving more Catalans into the separatist camp.

Not Interfering

“Were he to insist now on investigation of the volunteers
manning the poll booths, he will have overplayed his hand and
that will reinforce the sense of victimization,” Sebastian Balfour, professor emeritus of contemporary Spanish studies at
the London School of Economics, said in a telephone interview.
“Over the last few days he’s finally played a cleverer
political line, which is not to interfere.”

Rajoy is fighting battles on several fronts; His
government’s popularity is plummeting and his party faces
allegations that officials were taking bribes in return for
contracts while the prime minister has forced the rest of Spain
to swallow the harshest budget cuts in four decades. Mas
sidestepped two rulings by the Constitutional Court to deliver
the vote to Catalans, although it was stripped of legal validity
by Rajoy’s legal maneuvers.

“This isn’t a referendum or a consultation or anything
like it,” Rajoy said.

Still, Spain’s state prosecutor Eduardo Torres-Dulce last
night ordered regional police to find out who was responsible
for opening up the public buildings used for polling. The police
won’t identify people overseeing the voting, said a spokesman
for the Catalan government, who asked not to be identified,
citing government policy. Mas said he and his government took
full responsibility for the voting.

‘Let Down’

“It’s really disappointing to see the government doing
nothing to enforce the Constitutional Court rulings and the
orders of the prosecutor,” said Alfredo Perdiguero, secretary
general of a national police officers’ union known as SIPE.
“Most of Spaniards, who don’t like the separatists’ defiance,
are being let down today.”

Catalan Civil Society, a campaign group which opposes
independence, called on the prime minister to ensure that the
law was enforced.

Spain is facing a “constitutional moment,” according to
Jeff Miley, a lecturer in sociology at the University of
Cambridge who focuses on Catalan nationalism. That’s a reference
to Yale Law School professor Bruce Ackerman’s theory that at
times of political crisis the electorate can produce
constitutional change through informal means.

Constitution Strained

In Spain’s case, it’s the 1978 constitution that held the
country together after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco that is being strained by the Catalans’ demands. Under
that framework, sovereignty rests with all the Spanish people so
it’s not possible for the Catalans to decide on their own to
break away; that would require a national vote.

Still, support for independence has surged in recent years
in the region of 7.4 million in the northeastern corner of the
Spanish peninsula. Forty-five percent of respondents said they’d
back independence in a survey by the Catalan government pollster
last month. That compares with 28 percent when Rajoy took office
in 2011. An overwhelming majority want the right to decide their
future on their own.

As Catalans look to separatism as the solution to a five-year slump that drove unemployment in their region as high as 25
percent last year, voters in the rest of Spain are turning to
the anti-establishment Podemos party, which favors a program of
public investment to create jobs. Podemos, which was set up less
than a year ago, took the lead in two separate polls last week
pushing Rajoy’s People’s Party into third place.

The prime minister’s weakness on a national level is making
it harder for him to pursue a pragmatic solution with the
Catalans as he faces pressure to adopt populist stance to shore
up the support of his party’s traditional voters, Miley said.

“The PP is split between people behind the scenes who know
the way out is to cut a deal and those who say the hard-line
political strategy is what works for us,” he said in a
telephone interview.

To contact the reporters on this story:
Ben Sills in Madrid at
Esteban Duarte in Madrid at

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Alan Crawford at
Maura Reynolds, Brendan Murray

Rajoy’s Legal Defenses Breached as Mas Unleashes Voters – Businessweek