By Prabasi Nepali
On October 1, the regional autonomous government of Catalonia held a referendum on total independence from Spain. The central government in Madrid regarded this as illegal. Of the 43 percent of Catalans who reportedly voted, 90 percent were in favour of independence. However, most anti-independence voters boycotted the ballot. Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents have their own language and culture, but are divided on whether to break away from the rest of Spain.
Catalonia’s regional president Carles Puigdemont says his autonomous administration has a mandate to declare independence from what he says was an overwhelming “Yes” vote on October 1, marred by a heavy-handed police crackdown on voters. Many voters who oppose independence stayed away from the referendum that was declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. The very low turnout calls into question the very validity of the referendum. Spain’s head of state, King Felipe VI weighed in and categorically denounced Catalan President Puigdemont and other separatist leaders who had organized the referendum as having “broken the democratic principles of the rule of law” and showed “disrespect to the powers of the state.”
Last Saturday, the central government in Madrid announced that it was suspending Catalonia’s autonomous status after the region’s leader warned he may declare independence, heralding an unprecedented escalation of the country’s worst constitutional crisis in decades. Madrid had given Puigdemont an ultimatum until Thursday to announce whether or not he was declaring a breakaway state in the autonomous region, but the regional leader under intense pressure domestically and internationally, prevaricated. In the meantime, Spanish PrimeMinister warned he would trigger Article 155 of Spain’s constitution (to “restore legality” in the region) – allowing it to impose direct rule over the wealthy north-eastern region bordering France – unless Barcelona (the regional capital) backed down. This article had never been applied before.
Puigdemont had countered in a letter to Rajoy that Catalan lawmakers could vote to declare independence unilaterally if Madrid triggered Article 155: “If the central government persists in preventing dialogue and continuing repression, Catalonia’s parliament could proceed. .to vote for a formal declaration of independence”, adding that an ambiguous “suspended” independence declaration he issued last week did not amount to secession. Last Saturday in Madrid PM Mariano Rajoy called an emergency cabinet meeting to set in motion Article 155 and to specify how it will take control of the region.
There are now fears that such a move, allowing the central government to potentially suspend the autonomous government in Barcelona and take over its police force, could spark unrest in a region where even Catalans who oppose independence cherish their autonomy highly. Article 155 allows the central government to impose direct rule, but does not give the government the power to fully suspend autonomy. Spain’s King Felipe VI intervened a second time in the Catalonia secession crisis. He said forcefully that Catalonia “is and will remain” an essential part of the country, and that the Catalan government was causing a rift and Spain would solve the problem through democratic institutions.
Madrid has now taken drastic steps to stop the region from breaking away by dissolving its separatist government and forcing snap regional elections within six months as a way of diffusing the state of extreme tension. However, there is no guarantee that such a strategy would provide a clear solution to the damaging crisis; moreover, it is a double-edged sword. Already on Saturday, there were massive street protests in Barcelona against any form of direct rule; more can be expected in all parts of the region. Pro-independence forces could also boycott any election imposed on the region, rendering it a farce.
The pro-independence forces could also turn the tables on Madrid in an imposed regional election. They could style the fresh election as one for a “constituent assembly’ for a new republic as the next stage in the secessionists’ road map. If all parties in the autonomous region participated, voters would be bound to construe the election as a de facto referendum on full-blown independence. This time around, a more convincing separatist majority could very well emerge, forcing the Madrid government into a major dilemma. The vital point is whether Catalonia would/could be a viable country?
US proposes US-India Axis to counter Rising China
The United States Secretary of State (SoS) Rex Tillerson vowed last week that the US would work with India in preference to China over the next century to promote a “free and open” Asia-Pacific region led by prosperous democracies, including also Japan and Australia. First, this was an overt recognition of India as America’s strategic partner in the long term. Second, this was an endorsement of India as the predominant power in South Asia – stretching from Iran in the west to Myanmar in the south-east. This will have ramifications for all the countries of the region. As a corollary of the foregoing, third, the US acknowledges India’s security interests in the region vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. This also means that the US has basically given up on Pakistan as a ‘major non-NATO ally’ and considers this country basically within China’s sphere of influence. In substance, the US now embraces India’s position in the simmering Sino-Indian and Indo-Pakistan border/territorial conflicts. Specifically, the US encourages India’s role in Afghanistan and rejects Pakistan’s search for ‘strategic depth’. In Nepal’s immediate neighbourhood, the US tacitly acknowledges India’s role as the ‘protecting power’ in Bhutan vis-à-vis China in the Sino-Bhutan border disputes, including the ‘Doklam Plateau’. This precludes any direct Sino-Bhutanese negotiation, or the establishment of bilateral diplomatic relations any time soon. Fourth, the US embraces India as a predominant power in the Indian Ocean to control the strategic sea routes to the Persian Gulf, the Suez Canal (through the Red Sea), the Malacca Straits to the Pacific Ocean, and also to South Africa and Australia. India’s role in the Pacific will thus also be enhanced. SoS Tillerson was enunciating a new US policy of a mini American-Indian axis, but also a grand coalition of the US, India, Japan and Australia to basically ‘contain’ China.
The timing of SoS Tillerson’s unexpectedly sharp (indirect) message to China is significant. He delivered it on the same day President Xi Jinping opened the five-yearly congress of the dominating Communist Party which signals either a change of leadership at the very top, or a confirmation of the current one for a further five-year term. President Xi not only secured his long-term control of what is already one of the most powerful Chinese leaderships in history, he did so rivaling that of Mao Zedong and Deng Xioping. The Chinese can only interpret Tillerson’s address as extremely provocative.
So Rex Tillerson’sbullish speech was definitely designed to set the stage for a crucial visit this week to China’s main Asian rival India, and to lay out a vision for a 100-year “strategic partnership” between Washington and New Delhi. He also pit the US and India –the world’s “two greatest democracies”– with China, which he said was undermining the “rules-based international order”, conveniently forgetting that his own boss was doing the same on many fronts, and calling him a ‘moron’ secretly! Washington and New Delhi have been building stronger ties for some time, but Tillerson made one of the clearest cases that the “shared values” underpinning the relationship make the two countries ideal partners: “The United States and India are increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence” and “share a vision for the future.” Is India about to abandon its foreign policy of avoiding ‘entangling alliances’?
The US State Department made it clear that Tillerson’s speech was both a warning and a rebuke to China. The idea of a “New Pacific” was now a priority for the Trump administration. In concrete terms, this would mean a four-way arrangement of the US, India, Japan and Australia to “anchor” the huge region and set standards for trade and security. The new greater axis promised prosperity and security in a free and open “Indo-Pacific”. Has a new regional concept been born?
Grave Spanish Constitutional Crisis: Catalonia May Secede
By Prabasi Nepali