MADRID/BARCELONA, SPAIN – As weekend routines of normalcy prevailed in Catalonia, the first test of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s decision to take over the breakaway region approached, with many having to choose between compliance and defiance.
When schools and government offices open Monday, teachers and civil servants will decide whether to follow the ousted Catalan leaders’ calls to resist their Spanish masters or acquiesce to the new reality. A smooth transition in the Catalan police force, with the new chief accepting Madrid’s rule, marked an initial success for Rajoy.
“The more moderate and pragmatic elements probably realize they’re not going to get very far,” said Caroline Gray, a lecturer in politics and Spanish at Aston University in the U.K. who specializes in nationalist movements. “The more radical elements, however, are in the parallel universe of the new republic — and that disconnect worries me. The situation could turn unpredictable if Spain moves in to take control.”
Carles Puigdemont, who was fired by Rajoy as the region’s president after Friday’s declaration of independence, called for “democratic opposition” and peaceful resistance. A nationalist leader, Jordi Sanchez, issued a statement from jail advocating “Gandhi-style resistance.”
The Catalan government is no more in the eyes of Spain, and indeed the European Union. Right after Catalan lawmakers victoriously sang their anthem, Rajoy used the power granted to him by the Senate to start bringing to an end the country’s worst constitutional crisis in decades.
Rajoy dissolved the Catalan parliament and delegated his deputy, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, to take on the role of head of the Catalan regional government. Elections, which Puigdemont had wanted to call to defuse the situation only to balk as the separatist hard core engulfed him, were set for Dec. 21.
In the hours that followed, it was business as usual in Barcelona: no visible show of force from authorities, open shops packed with customers and swarms of tourists down the central artery of La Rambla. The red-and-gold Spanish flag was atop City Hall and the Catalan regional government building.
Meantime, Spanish television showed Puigdemont in a coffee bar in his hometown of Girona during his three-minute recorded statement Saturday afternoon.
Girona will host Real Madrid for a soccer game on Sunday, with the coach’s pre-game comments focused on the game itself.
“For us it is a fiesta where the best or one of the best clubs in the world can come and play one-to-one with the team of all the people of Girona,” said the team’s manager Pablo Machin, who is Spanish and not Catalan.
At midday, demonstrators in Madrid will march in favor of national unity.
And while Puigdemont called for human shields to protect the government building in the days leading up to the declaration of independence, some of the thickest crowds in Barcelona on Saturday were at the Zara clothing store.
Politically, Puigdemont and his allies remained isolated and face potential arrest in coming days. The chief prosecutor signaled he would seek rebellion charges against the former Catalan president.
The government in Madrid declined to respond to Puigdemont’s comments on Saturday. Rajoy’s PP party said on Twitter that his vow was “very serious” and that the “irresponsibility of Puigdemont has no limit.”
The regional economy, which accounts for about a fifth of Spanish gross domestic product, is also under threat as more companies up sticks amid the threat of civil unrest. A business of German insurance giant Allianz AG on Friday added its name to the list of hundreds shifting out of Catalonia.
“It’s an enormous mess and utterly incomprehensible,” said Jordi Alberich, director-general of Cercle d’Economia, a Barcelona-based business association. “The strategy seems to be to make this the biggest crisis possible so that the world will have to intervene. But I am convinced there is a clear majority of people who want a calm solution.”
The phalanx of pro-independence activists and demonstrators is certainly unlikely to take Spain’s dramatic intervention lying down.
Thousands of people gathered in the square late Friday where the regional government palace is located, some of them holding separatist flags and chanting slogans such as “Freedom!” A group extended the yellow-red-and-blue flag with white star from the National Police barracks nearby.
For many Catalans, the turbulent events of the past week were just sinking in as they braced for the inevitable reprisals. But for some, politics was a sideshow.
“I have bills to pay and two daughters,” said Pere Garcia, 52, who mans a stall in the center of Barcelona. “Politics won’t pay bills. I still have to go to work whether this is Spain or an independent republic.”