2017 Spanish constitutional crisis

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2017 Spanish constitutional crisis
Part of the 2008–present Spanish crisis and the 2012–present Catalan independence movement
Localización de Cataluña.svg
Location of Catalonia within Spain.
Date 6 September 2017 – present
(1 month, 1 week and 3 days)
Location Spain, primarily Catalonia
Caused by
Methods Demonstrations, civil disobedience, civil resistance, occupations, general strikes


  • Referendum held despite suspension; hundreds injured during police crackdown on polling day.
  • Legal actions initiated against members of Catalan government and Parliament by Spanish judiciary; financial and police intervention of Catalonia by the Spanish government.
  • Street protests throughout Catalonia; regionwide general strike on 3 October. Demonstrations throughout Spain in support and against the Spanish government's actions.
  • Unilateral independence declaration put off by Catalan government.
  • Spanish government's moves towards triggering article 155 and suspend Catalonia's autonomy.
Parties to the civil conflict
Lead figures

Police detachment in Catalonia:

Catalan police force:

  • Injured: 431 policemen[5]
  • Injured: 893 (in Catalonia)[6]
    3 (in Madrid)[7]
  • Arrested: 18 (in Catalonia)
    1 (in Madrid)[7]

The 2017 Spanish constitutional crisis[8] is an ongoing political conflict between the Government of Spain and the Generalitat of Catalonia over the issue of the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, starting after the law intending to allow such a referendum was denounced by the Spanish government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and subsequently suspended by the Constitutional Court until it ruled on the issue.[9][10] The Catalan government under President Carles Puigdemont announced that neither central Spanish authorities nor the courts would halt their plans and that it intended to hold the vote anyway, sparking a legal backlash that quickly spread from the Spanish and Catalan governments to Catalan municipalities—as local mayors were urged by the Generalitat to provide logistical support and help for the electoral process to be carried out—as well as to the Constitutional Court, the High Court of Justice of Catalonia and state prosecutors.[9][11][12]

By 15 September, as pro–Catalan independence parties began their referendum campaigns, the Spanish government had launched an all-out legal offensive to thwart the upcoming vote, including threats of a financial takeover of much of the Catalan budget, police seizing pro-referendum posters, pamphlets and leaflets which had been regarded as illegal and criminal investigations ordered on the over 700 local mayors who had publicly agreed to help stage the referendum.[13][14] Tensions between the two sides reached a critical point after Spanish police raided the Catalan government headquarters in Barcelona on 20 September, at the start of Operation Anubis, and arrested 13 senior Catalan officials, with some international media describing the events as "one of the worst political crises in modern Spanish history".[15] The referendum was termed as a "coup attempt against Spanish democracy" and "against Europe" by several Spanish politicians.[16][17]


Recent increase in support for Catalan independence has its roots in a Constitutional Court ruling in 2010, which struck down parts of the regional 2006 Statute of Autonomy that granted new powers of self-rule to the region. The ruling came after four years of deliberation concerning a constitutional appeal filed by the conservative People's Party (PP) under Mariano Rajoy—then the country's second-largest party, in opposition to the government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Spanish Socialist Workers' Party—and was met with anger and street protests in Catalonia.[18][19] Shortly afterward the PP took power in Spain, and after a massive independence demonstration took place in Barcelona on 11 September 2012—Catalonia's National Day—the Catalan government under Artur Mas called a snap regional election and set out to initiate Catalonia's process towards independence.[20]

After a pro-independence coalition formed by the Junts pel Sí alliance and the Popular Unity Candidacy won a slim majority in the Parliament in the 2015 regional election, Carles Puigdemont replaced Mas as President of the Generalitat. Puigdemont promised to organise a binding independence referendum based on results from a multi-question, non-binding vote in 2014, when about 80% of those who voted were believed to have backed independence for the region, and up to 91.8% supported Catalonia becoming a state—albeit on an estimated turnout around or below 40%.[21] The Catalan government invoked the right of people to self-determination and Catalonia's political, economical and cultural background to back up its proposal for a referendum on Catalan independence.[22][23] The Government of Spain, now with Mariano Rajoy as Prime Minister, opposed such a vote, arguing that any referendum on Catalan independence would go against the country's 1978 Constitution, as it made no provision for a vote on self-determination.[24]

On 9 June 2017, Puigdemont announced that the planned independence referendum would be held on 1 October. The Catalan government criticised the attitude of the Spanish government in refusing to negotiate a referendum and accused it of behaving undemocratically.[25]


Referendum suspended[edit]

On 6 September 2017, the ruling Junts pel Sí (JxSí) coalition and its parliamentary partner, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), passed a controversial law—the Law on a Self-determination Referendum on the Independence of Catalonia—in the Parliament of Catalonia that was to provide the legal framework for the intended independence referendum scheduled for 1 October. The way in which the law had been pushed through Parliament also became an issue of controversy. Catalan opposition parties accused JxSí and CUP of fast-tracking the law through parliament by altering the day's agenda to introduce the issue, violating their parliamentary rights by skipping legally-required steps for bills to go through before being put up to vote. Members from JxSí acknowledged it was not their preferred method, but justified it in that it was the only way to get the bill on the floor without being blocked and that it was not "any ordinary law". Shortly after the parliamentary vote, in which most of the opposition MPs walked out from the chamber without voting the bill, the Catalan regional government signed the decree calling for the referendum.[26][27]

The People's Party-led Spanish government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced that it would appeal the bill to the Constitutional Court, which agreed to hear all four of its unconstitutionality appeals and subsequently suspended the law and the referendum until it was to rule upon the matter. Despite the referendum suspension, the Catalan government announced it would proceed with the vote anyway.[28][29] This prompted Attorney General José Manuel Maza to ask security forces to investigate on possible preparations from the Catalan government to hold the vote, as well as announcing he would present criminal charges against members of both the regional parliament and government for voting and signing off the referendum. The national government proceeded to deploy a series of legal measures intended to nullify the referendum, while also warning local councils in Catalonia to either impede or paralyse efforts to carry out the vote.[9][26] Previously, local mayors had been given 48 hours by the regional government to confirm the availability of polling stations for 1 October.[30][31] On 7 September and under a similar procedure as the day previously, pro-independence lawmakers in the Parliament of Catalonia passed the legal framework that was to prevail the Spanish one should a majority vote for the 'Yes' to independence choice.[28]

Within the next two days, nearly 74% of Catalan municipalities—comprising about 43% of the Catalan population—had agreed to provide the needed polling stations for the referendum, whereas many of the most-populated urban areas—representing 24% of Catalan inhabitants—had voiced their opposition to the vote.[32] The largest city and capital of Catalonia, Barcelona—accounting for about 20% of the region's population—was caught in the middle, with its local mayor, Ada Colau, refusing to make a statement whether the municipality would provide logistic support to the referendum or not while rejecting putting public servants at risk; she, however, voiced her support for the people's right to vote in a fair and legal referendum.[33][34] Concurrently, President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, Vice-President Oriol Junqueras, the entire Catalan government as well as parliamentary officials allowing the referendum law to be put to vote in Parliament—including Parliament Speaker Carme Forcadell—faced charges of disobedience, misusing public funds and making deliberately unlawful decisions as elected officials as the High Court of Justice of Catalonia agreed to hear the criminal complaints filled by state prosecutors.[11][35]

Judicial and police action[edit]

A decision on 13 September from Spain's public prosecutors to order a criminal probe of all local mayors who had publicly announced they would help stage the independence referendum—totalling over 700—came the day after the Constitutional Court had accepted the Spanish government's request to suspend the second of the two laws that had been approved by the seccessionist majority in the Catalan parliament the previous week. The probe meant that prosecutors could choose to present criminal charges—or even arrest, if failing to answer the summons—local mayors who disobeyed the Constitutional Court's ruling. As part of a series of moves to block the Catalan referendum, prosecutors had also instructed police officials to seize ballot boxes, election flyers and other items that could be of use in the illegal vote, whereas the Constitutional Court had instructed regional government officials to show how they were preventing the vote from going ahead within a 48-hour deadline.[36][37] In response, the Catalan government sent a letter to Treasury Minister Cristóbal Montoro announcing that it would stop sending weekly financial accounts to Spain's central government, a previously-established obligation that was meant to verify whether the region was using public money for the promotion of its independence drive as well as a requirement for the region's access to a funding programme to autonomous communities established in 2012.[38] The Spanish government then proceeded to take direct control of most of Catalonia's invoice payments.[39][40]

Protests in Barcelona after the arrest of fourteen Catalan government officials on 20 September.

In a search on 19 September, Spanish police seized significant election material which had been in store by referendum organizers at the offices of a private delivery company in Terrassa. These included voting cards contained in envelopes with the Catalan government's logo.[41] The next day, the Civil Guard raided Generalitat offices and arrested fourteen senior officials from the Catalan government—most notably, these included Josep Maria Jové (ca), deputy to regional Vice-President Oriol Junqueras.[42][43] This came after mayors from towns supporting the referendum were questioned in court by state prosecutors.[44] Regional premier Carles Puigdemont condemned the actions as "anti-democratic and totalitarian", accusing the Spanish government of 'de facto' imposing a state of emergency and of suspending Catalonia's autonomy after it took effective control over Catalan finances.[45] Public protests sparked in Barcelona after news of the arrests emerged, with left-wing political party Podemos and Barcelona mayor Ada Colau joining the growing criticism on Mariano Rajoy's government crackdown on public servants, dubbing it as an "authoritarian regression". The previous day, the Congress of Deputies had voted down a motion from Ciudadanos to support the Spanish government's heavy-handed response to the referendum, which was rejected by 166 votes to 158.[46][24][15] Rajoy defended his government's actions in that "What we're seeing in Catalonia is an attempt to eliminate the constitution and the autonomous statute of Catalonia... Logically, the state has to react. There is no democratic state in the world that would accept what these people are trying to do. They've been warned and they know the referendum can't take place".[24] Rajoy also called for the Catalonia government to give up its "escalation of radicalism and disobedience", calling for them to "Go back to the law and democracy" and dubbing the referendum a "chimera", as tens of thousands gathered in the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities to protest police actions.[47][48] The Spanish government did not rule out invoking Section 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which would allow the central government to adopt "the necessary measures to compel regional authorities to obey the law"—in practice, allowing for the autonomy's effective suspension and direct rule of the region.[15]

On 21 September, the Catalan government acknowledged that the raid and arrests in the previous day severely hampered the referendum's logistics by preventing any alternative election data centre to be established in time for the vote to take place.[49] Nonetheless, Catalan Vice-President Junqueras called for people to turn out and mobilise on 1 October, turning the social response into a "censure motion to Rajoy", stating that "If there is any possibility of change in Spain, democracy must triumph in Catalonia".[50][51] As street protests continued throughout Catalonia, additional police reinforcements were sent by the Spanish government to block any moves to hold the referendum on 1 October.[52][53] Spanish prosecutors formally accused some protesters in Barcelona of sedition, after several Civil Guard patrol cars had been vandalised on Wednesday night.[54] By 23 September, the Spanish government announced that the Mossos d'Esquadra—the regional police force—were to be subordinated to a single command dependent of the Spanish government and that the Interior Ministry would assume co-ordination over all security forces in Catalonia.[55] The previous day, several hundred students had announced a permanent occupation of the historic building of the University of Barcelona, protesting the state's actions.[56][57][58]

Referendum and subsequent events[edit]

Demonstration in Barcelona during the general strike held in Catalonia on 3 October 2017.

Despite the suspension, the Catalan referendum was held on 1 October 2017, as scheduled by the Generalitat. Over 12,000 officers from the National Police Corps and the Civil Guard were deployed throughout Catalonia in an effort to close off polling stations and seize all election material to prevent the vote from taking place.[2] The Spanish government was forced to call off police raids after clashes with protesters resulted in over 800 injured and a negligible effect on the electoral process.[59] Reports from the violence spread internationally, receiving a mostly negative response from the media and several national governments, with Spanish police forces criticised for their heavy-handed crackdown on the referendum.[60][61] The events of 1 October sparked a public outcry in Catalonia, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets to protest Spanish police violence.[62]

On 3 October 2017, as huge protest rallies and a general strike took place in Catalonia, King Felipe VI delivered an unusually strongly worded televised address in which he condemned the referendum organizers for acting "outside the law", accusing them of "unacceptable disloyalty" and of "eroding the harmony and co-existence within Catalan society itself". He also warned the referendum could put the economy of the entire north-east region of Spain at risk.[62][63][64] Reactions to the King's speech were mixed. Party officials from the PP and Ciudadanos praised the King's "commitment to legality",[65] whereas leaders from Unidos Podemos and Catalunya en Comú criticised it as "unworthy and irresponsible", paving the way for a harsh intervention in Catalan autonomy.[66] PSOE's leaders expressed support for the King's words in public, but were reported to be privately dissatisfied that the King had not made any call to encourage understanding or dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments.[67] On 5 October the Constitutional Court of Spain suspended a future parliamentary session (scheduled for 9 October) that was planned in order to push for a Declaration of Independence.[68]

On 5 October, Banco Sabadell, the second-largest bank based in Catalonia, announced its decision to move its legal headquarters out of the region amid economic uncertainty over the future of Catalonia's political situation ahead of a projected unilateral declaration of independence the ensuing week, which had seen sharp falls in the group's share prices the previous day and rating agencies downgrading the region. Concurrently, CaixaBank, the biggest bank in the region and the third largest in Spain, also announced it was considering redomiciling outside Catalonia.[69][70][71] This sparked a massive business exit in the ensuing hours, with companies such as Abertis, Gas Natural, Grifols, Fersa Energias Renovables, Agbar, Freixenet, Codorníu, Idilia Foods, San Miguel Beer and Planeta Group also announcing or considering their intention to move their HQs out of Catalonia. The Spanish government announced on Friday 6 October that it would issue a decree allowing companies based in Catalonia to move out of the region without holding a shareholders meeting.[72][73][74][75] Simultaenously, far-right groups increasingly took to the streets throughout Spain in a quest to defend Spanish unity, with some gatherings leading to violent scuffles in Barcelona and Valencia. This sparked concerns among analysts that the Catalan crisis could lead to a rise of the far-right in Spain after decades on the margins.[76] The Mossos d'Esquadra were put under investigation for disobedience, accused of not complying with a command from the High Court of Justice of Catalonia to prevent the referendum and with their pasivity allowing polling stations to open.[77][78][79]

In an ambiguous speech during a parliamentary session in the Parliament of Catalonia on 10 October, Puigdemont declared that "Catalonia had earned the right to be an independent state" and that he defended "the mandate of the people of Catalonia to become an independent republic". However, he immediately announced that parliament should suspend a formal declaration of independence in order to pursue dialogue with the Spanish government. Puigdemont and other pro-independence deputies then signed a symbolic declaration of independence with no legal effect.[80] Puigdemont's move came after pressure resulting from the business exit on the previous days as well as pleas from Barcelona's mayor Ada Colau and European Council President Donald Tusk urging him to step back from declaring independence.[81] This was met with disappointment from thousands of pro-independence supporters who had gathered nearby to watch the session on giant screens,[82] as well as criticism from the CUP, who voiced their discontent at Puigdemont's decision not to proclaim a Catalan republic right away and did not rule out abandoning the Parliament until the signed declaration of independence was effective.[83]

On 11 October, after an extraordinary cabinet meeting intended to address the events on the previous day, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced he was formally requiring the Catalan government to confirm whether it had declared or not independence before 16 October at 10 am, with a further 3-day deadline until 19 October to revoke all deemed illegal acts if an affirmative answer—or no answer at all—was obtained.[84] This requirement was a formal requisite needed to trigger article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, a so-called "nuclear option" that would allow the Spanish government to suspend Catalonia's political autonomy and impose direct rule from Madrid.[85][86][87] Pressure mounted within the pro-independence coalition as the CUP demanded an unambiguous affirmation of Catalan independence, threatening to withdraw its parliamentary support from Puigdemont's government if he rescinded his independence claim.[76] In his formal response to Rajoy's requirement hurrying the initial five-day deadline, Puigdemont failed to clarify whether independence had been declared and instead called for negotiations over the following two months.[88][89] The Spanish government replied that this was not a valid response to its requirement and doubted that Puigdemont's offer for dialogue was sincere due to his lack of "clarity".[90][91] The refusal from the Catalan government to either confirm or deny independence triggered a second deadline for them to backtrack before direct rule was imposed.[92][93]


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