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Catalonia’s independence vote: What you need to know

As the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona cast votes for or against independence from Spain, secessionist supporters watched outside and celebrated the outcome. (Video: Raul Gallego Abellan/The Washington Post)

This post has been updated.

Spain is in a political crisis.

On Oct. 1, the Catalonia region voted to secede. Spanish courts ruled the outcome illegal. And Friday, the Spanish Senate took the unprecedented and extraordinary step of announcing that Madrid would move to seize control of the region. Just minutes before, the Catalan Parliament had declared its independence from Spain.

It was an exceptional end to a month-long political struggle. But it marked a beginning, too — of something. Spain had never before invoked Article 155 of its constitution, allowing it to suspend Catalonia's political autonomy, and what comes next is not clear.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said in the past that he would remove Catalonia's regional president, Carles Puigdemont, from office, along with his separatist administration. He said, too, that he would take control of the region's autonomous police force. Rajoy said he would push for new elections within six months.

"The word dialogue is a lovely word. It creates good feelings," Rajoy said Friday. "But dialogue has two enemies: those who abuse, ignore and forget the laws, and those who only want to listen to themselves, who do not want to understand the other party."

Catalan leaders, meanwhile, are defiant. "We have won the freedom to build a new country,” Catalonia's regional vice president, Oriol Junqueras, tweeted moments after the independence vote. In Barcelona, chants of "Independence!" and "Democracy" echoed throughout a parliamentary antechamber.

How did we get here, and what happens now?

How did Catalonia’s independence movement get started?

Catalonia is in northeastern Spain. Barcelona is the region’s capital.

For “independistas,” the fight for freedom has been a three-century project, one that can be traced back to 1714, when Philip V of Spain captured Barcelona. (Even today, pro-independence Catalonians insult Spanish loyalists by calling them “botiflers,” or allies of Philip V.)

Since then, Catalan nationalists have consistently pursued some degree of autonomy from Spain. By 1932, the region's leaders had declared a Catalan Republic, and the Spanish government agreed on a state of autonomy.

But when Gen. Francisco Franco came to power in 1939, those gains were lost. Franco systematically repressed all efforts toward Catalan nationalism. Under his dictatorship, the New York Times wrote, “the government tried to stamp out all Catalan institutions and the language, and thousands of people were executed in purges. Virtually no Catalan family emerged from that period unscarred.”

After Franco died in 1975, the drive for independence started again in earnest. In 2006, Spain granted Catalonia “nation” status and taxation power. But Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down that move in 2010, arguing that while Catalans were a “nationality,” Catalonia was not a “nation.” More than 1 million Catalans protested the finding, to no avail.

Today, Catalonia enjoys more control over its regional finances than most other parts of Spain. But that isn’t enough for many residents. As the Times article explained, “Many Catalans have grown to adulthood believing that they were, simply, not Spanish.”

There’s another issue: Catalonia is the richest region in Spain and the most highly industrialized. It houses many of Spain’s metalworking, food-processing, pharmaceutical and chemical facilities. It also boasts a booming tourism industry, thanks to popular spots such as Barcelona. The region has about 16 percent of Spain’s population and accounts for 20 percent of the national economy.

Catalans often complain that they contribute more in taxes to the Spanish government than they get back. In 2014, Catalonia paid about $11.8 billion more to Spain’s tax authorities than it received. But, as the BBC explains, “The complexity of budget transfers makes it hard to judge exactly how much more Catalans contribute in taxes than they get back from investment in services such as schools and hospitals.”

Spain to impose direct rule over Catalonia after region declares independence

There was an independence vote on Oct. 1, right? What happened?

Catalans did go to the polls to vote on independence just a couple of weeks ago. It was a messy affair.

For weeks, Rajoy condemned the vote as illegal. “I say this both calmly and firmly: There will be no referendum; it won’t happen,” the Spanish prime minister said. He and others argued that the vote would undermine the rule of law and set a dangerous precedent. In the lead-up to the vote, Rajoy sent in thousands of troops to seize ballot forms and arrest pro-independence officials. Websites informing Catalans about the election were shut down.

What's happening in Spain and how did we get here? (Video: The Washington Post)

Catalonia’s own police force was ordered to follow the lead of Spain’s paramilitary Civil Guard and to help stop the vote. It was told to clear out all polling stations by 6 a.m. on Oct. 1 and to confiscate ballot boxes.

As you might expect, election day was marred by skirmishes, with police using rubber bullets and truncheons to control the crowds and keep people out of the streets. Hundreds were injured in what the Times described as “one of the gravest tests of Spain’s democracy since the end of the Franco dictatorship.”

Even so, the Catalan government said some 2.3 million people voted, out of about 6 million eligible voters. Of those who turned out, 90 percent voted for independence.

Separatists claimed victory. But Spanish loyalists pointed out that at least 6 in 10 voters stayed home. A protest in favor of Spanish unity last week brought hundreds of thousands of people onto Barcelona’s streets. Many of those in attendance described themselves as the “silent majority.”

‘We don’t know how good we have it here’: Many Catalans don’t want a break with Spain

What happened next?

Shortly after the Catalan vote, Puigdemont, the Catalan president, declared his region’s right to independence from the rest of the country. But in a speech to the regional Parliament, Puigdemont offered, as analysts had predicted, a “toned-down declaration that would leave the door open for negotiations with the national government in Madrid.”

It seemed like a crisis might be averted. But Spain’s prime minister has taken a hard line against the region. Last weekend, his cabinet agreed to implement Article 155, which allows the national government to take over a regional government, including its finances and police.

Catalonia’s regional parliament declared independence from Spain on Oct. 27 in a much disputed vote. (Video: Reuters)

On Friday, the full Spanish Senate approved the moved. This is unprecedented. “Nobody knows what Article 155 means, because no one has ever invoked it before,” Junqueras, the Catalan vice president, told my colleagues. Referring to the central government in Madrid, he said, “They don’t know what they want to do with this.”

Catalonia’s leaders meanwhile, decided to declare their independence officially. In an emotional vote Friday, 70 members of Catalonia's Parliament voted in favor of independence. Ten voted no, and 55 declined to participate, showing the deep divisions that exist on the issue.

After Catalonia declared independence from Spain, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy vowed not to “tolerate that a few people try to liquidate our constitution." (Video: Reuters)

Where does Europe stand?

On Friday, Europe reaffirmed its position: The European Union does not want to get involved, and it defers to Spain. Immediately after the vote for independence, European Council President Donald Tusk, tweeted: “For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favors force of argument, not argument of force.”

British Prime Minister Theresa May said last week that “people should be abiding by the rule of law and uphold the Spanish constitution.”

Of course, secession-leaning politicians across Europe are mostly siding with Catalonia. Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, which itself has pondered leaving the United Kingdom, offered quiet support for the independence effort. And politicians in Flanders who have called for secession from Belgium sympathize with Catalans and wonder if their region might be next.

“There is already a dynamic [toward independence around Europe]. You only have to look at Scotland. It’s an evolution that no European government can avoid,” Jan Peumans, speaker of Belgium’s Flanders regional parliament, told the Associated Press.

In Italy, the far-right Northern League, which wants more autonomy for Italy’s north, spoke out against the arrest of Catalan leaders.

Read more:

Spain asks Catalonia: Did you declare independence or not?

Europe has plenty of secessionist movements like Catalonia. Most don’t want full independence, though.