Catalan Separatists Struggle for Momentum Amid Legal Crackdown

(Bloomberg) -- The separatists aiming to lead a Catalan breakaway from the rest of Spain next month are losing momentum as a legal offensive against their plans for an illegal referendum deters moderates.

An annual demonstration in the regional capital Barcelona, a rallying point for separatists, failed to match the attendance of recent years after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned that anyone helping to stage the ballot set for Oct. 1 risks criminal prosecution.

Catalan Separatists Struggle for Momentum Amid Legal Crackdown

While estimates of the number of demonstrators attending a pro-independence rally in the regional capital on Monday varied wildly, they agreed that attendance was down on previous years, even as hundreds of thousands filled the center of Barcelona with separatists flags.

Faced with the biggest constitutional crisis since the 1981 coup, Rajoy is trying to stop the vote without unleashing the most drastic tools at his disposal, which might drive waverers into the separatist camp. Instead, there are signs that his more attritional approach may be paying dividends.

Legal Threat

Spain’s chief prosecutor last week warned that anyone helping to organize the referendum will risk criminal charges. He’s already preparing action against senior officials including Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, and on Friday Spanish police raided a printing works suspected of helping to prepare ballot papers.

Barcelona police said about a million people turned out, an increase on last year’s 875,000, when protests were spread around the region, but down from 1.8 million in 2014, the last time separatists geared up for a potential vote. Catalan Civil Society, an activist group which opposes secession, put the figure at 225,000 down from 292,000 last year and 530,000 in 2015.

“Let’s forget about what they say and look at the facts,” said Juan Carlos Girauta, a lawmaker in Madrid from the anti-independence party Ciudadanos. “Attendance at the demonstration this year was around half of what it was. Less than a month before they are supposed to be holding a referendum, that tells you everything.”

Outside of the vocal minority, support for independence in Catalonia has declined over the past four years as the economic recovery drains away moderates. Just 35 percent said Catalonia should be independent in a July survey by the Catalan government’s polling agency.

Determined to Vote

All the same, demonstrators on the streets of Barcelona showed little sign that their movement is flagging. Volunteers collected donations to cover fines levied on officials who staged an illegal vote in 2014, and loud speakers along the route blared out dedicated shows from Catalonia’s publicly-owned radio station. Temporary restrooms were set up on every other block.

“I’m convinced this will be the last time,” said Josep Pascual, a 66-year-old former primary school teacher from Lleida. “And if it’s not I will be here next year.”

Some carried banners urging Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau to open up polling stations in the city for the plebiscite, despite the threat of legal action against local officials.

Of the 948 municipalities across the region, 787 are backing independence, though Barcelona has so far refused to support the vote. Colau said Sept. 8 she wouldn’t allow the use of the city’s voting centers unless public employees get assurances they’re protected from any legal consequences of working on the referendum.

Spain’s top court has repeatedly ruled that any attempt to hold a referendum in Catalonia would be illegal, and last week the government asked the judges to warn more than 1,000 officials across the region of their legal duty to prevent any vote taking place. The separatists though, remain determined to carry on regardless.

“The Constitutional Court rulings don’t apply to us any more,” Jordi Sanchez, head of the separatist group that organized the demonstration, told supporters. “We have the legitimacy to carry on.”