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A week ago, Spain marked its national holiday in the usual fashion. King Felipe VI presided over a military parade in Madrid that delighted Spanish nationalists, who appear to have grown in numbers in recent years as the country faces a growing challenge to its unity from Catalonia.

The centrifugal forces threatening the country’s future were evident two days later, after the Spanish Supreme Court convicted nine former Catalonian leaders on charges of sedition, sentencing them to prison terms of between nine and 13 years. Their crimes included organizing a 2017 referendum on Catalonian independence and allocating public funds to the effort.

La sentencia, as it is known, provoked outrage among Catalonians’ current crop of secessionist leaders. Students went on strike, shutting down the main streets around the Universitat de Barcelona for several hours each day this week. Nighttime protests organized by groups calling for a Catalonian republic turned messy and chaotic, adding a dangerous new dimension to independence demonstrations that until this week had remained resolutely non-violent.

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The sentencing of the nine politicians and civil-society leaders for what they and their supporters consider to have been the exercise of their democratic rights has injected the independence cause with a new sense of urgency. Catalonian secessionists have come to see the Spanish Constitution as a straitjacket imposed on their distinct society that has been weaponized by politicians in Madrid unwilling to consider any form of further decentralization.

Separatist demonstrators raise their hands during a protest on Paseo de Gracia avenue in Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 17, 2019.


In a way, Spain today looks a lot like the Canada of 1990. La sentencia may go down as the Spanish equivalent of the collapse of the Meech Lake constitutional accord, which was a shot of adrenalin for Quebec’s independence movement. Ottawa struggled to come up with a response to Quebec’s traditional demands that didn’t provoke a backlash in the rest of the country. Quebeckers came within a whisker of voting to leave Canada altogether in 1995.

Canada managed to pull through the crisis. Quebec sovereigntists overplayed their hand in the post-referendum period, exhausting even many of their own supporters with schemes to drum up the “winning conditions” for yet another kick at the can. The 1998 Supreme Court reference on Quebec secession and the subsequent federal Clarity Act defined the terms of negotiation for any future attempt to break up the federation. There was plenty of disagreement over what level of support would constitute the “clear majority to a clear question” that the court decreed would be needed to negotiate Quebec’s departure in the future. But Quebeckers may have settled the matter by making it clear ever since that they do not want another referendum.

Spain now is where Canada was in the pre-Clarity Act era – except that none of its national leaders is interested in lending the slightest hint of legitimacy to the Catalonian secessionist movement by recognizing the region’s right to self-determination. They prefer to take a legalistic approach to Catalonia’s demands for more autonomy, fearful that any concession would provoke a backlash in the rest of Spain outside the Basque country, whose residents share many of the same gripes as Catalonians about a central government that sucks their regions dry.

Instead, Spanish politicians, especially those on the right, paint Catalonian secessionist leaders as radicals and anarchists, or the antithesis of democrats. They insist that this week’s violence, which Catalonia’s secessionist President Quim Torra initially refused to condemn, lends credence to such claims. People’s Party Leader Pablo Casado and Ciudadanos (Citizens) Leader Albert Rivera have both called on acting Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez to invoke special powers under the Constitution to take control of the Catalonian government, as Madrid briefly did following an illegal unilateral declaration of independence by the regional parliament in 2017.

The entry onto the political scene of Vox, a far-right party that has drawn support away from the centre-right People’s Party, has forced the latter to ratchet up its nationalist rhetoric. Vox spurns any dialogue with Catalonia’s leaders and has called on Madrid to show zero tolerance toward separatists.

Mr. Sanchez has promised “firmness and moderation” in dealing with the post-sentencing violence in Catalonia. But he will be under increasing pressure in coming days to escalate Madrid’s response if the violence continues and if the Catalonian parliament, the Generalitat, further challenges his authority.

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One wrong move could be fatal to either side. Spaniards will go to the polls in their fourth national election in the last four years on Nov. 10. The Socialists won a plurality of seats in the last vote, in April, but were unable to form a government. Mr. Sanchez had sought to form a progressive coalition but was unwilling to cede key cabinet posts to members of the far-left Podemos party, which favours allowing Catalonia to hold a legal referendum on independence.

The stakes in next month’s national vote have been driven infinitely higher by la sentencia and its fallout. There is no guarantee that Spain will get through its unity crisis in one piece.

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