(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on October 27, 2017 shows a file photo taken on October 02, 2017 of Catalan president Carles Puigdemont (L) during a press conference in Barcelona and a file photo taken on October 27, 2017 of Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy giving a speech during a session of the Upper House of Parliament in Madrid on October 27, 2017. Spain's premier urged senators on October 27, 2017 to adopt radical measures to impose direct rule on rebel Catalonia and depose its president in a bid to halt the region's independence bid. The senate is scheduled to vote on measures to depose Catalonia's secessionist government before the week is out, after the region held an unlawful independence referendum on October 1. The Catalan parliament, where pro-secession parties hold sway, will meet in Barcelona where a proposal to vote on splitting from Spain could work its way onto the floor. / AFP / LLUIS GENE AND OSCAR DEL POZO Image Credit: AFP

Waving their declaration of independence like a red rag to a bull, the Catalan parliament has dared Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to do his worst. But Rajoy, freshly armed with legal authority to impose direct rule, must nevertheless tread carefully or risk disaster. What comes next could make or break Rajoy and his government. But it could also make or break Spain.

Hardliners in Madrid, including members of Rajoy’s ruling People’s party, are champing at the bit. They will now demand a quick end to the protracted Catalan crisis, which has transfixed the entire country since the region’s disputed independence referendum earlier this month.

Ultra-unionists who have long sought to clip the wings of Catalonia’s autonomy will see a chance, and a justification, to bring secessionist leaders crashing down to earth. Their main targets are Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, Oriol Junqueras, his deputy, and Carme Forcadell, speaker of the Catalan assembly. The penalties for rebellion under the Spanish Constitution are harsh. Rajoy’s government has already shown itself willing to wield this weapon, locking up two leading Catalan independence advocates and appearing to throw away the key.

Jordi Sanchez, head of the Catalan National Assembly pressure group, and Jordi Cuixart of Omnium Cultural, were remanded in custody without the possibility of bail last week for alleged sedition. They face up to 15 years in prison. More arrests could now follow among the 70 Catalan assembly members who voted in favour of Friday’s independence declaration. The anonymity surrounding the vote will provide scant protection. The identities of members of Puigdemont’s multi-party alliance, and their partners in the hard-left CUP party, are well-known. Will they go quietly? It seems unlikely at this point, with passions on both sides running hot and high. And will Rajoy, having turned them out of office, try to detain them, too? He has the lawful power to do so, but politically such an order would mark a definitive point of no return.

More arrests will mean more protests about “political prisoners”, at home and from abroad — and a greater prospect of physical, popular resistance on the street. Calls for civil disobedience to Madrid’s orders were quickly heard after the Senate vote to impose direct rule. If he wants to finish it quickly, Rajoy may contemplate additional tough measures including large-scale deployments of the paramilitary Guardia Civil and other security forces, supplanting local police. If unrest threatens Barcelona or other Catalan cities, a curfew could be imposed. The main government buildings and pro-independence media outlets may be seized.

But Rajoy’s more cautious allies in the conservative camp, plus the Socialists, the main national opposition party, will counsel a less dramatic, gradualist response. Any perceived over-reaction by Madrid could inflame the situation, increase international criticism, and push politically undecided Catalans into the hands of the secessionists.

A non-binding referendum in 2014 and surveys of public opinion since then have shown that while most Catalans do not support outright independence, a significant majority is very attached to Catalonia’s autonomous status. They will be dismayed and alarmed by its de facto suspension.

How the Madrid government uses the extraordinary powers it has taken upon itself will be closely watched by Spain’s other autonomous regions, especially the Basques and Galicians. If the secessionists’ claim that Rajoy has enacted a coup gains traction, the result could be a wildfire of unrest spreading across the nation and a consequent constitutional unravelling.

Watching nervously, too, is the rest of Europe, where Catalonia’s travails have highlighted numerous, similar disputes. The secessionists’ appeal on Friday for other countries and the United Nations to recognise their new republic is certain to be ignored. Such popular upheavals are inherently destabilising, and thus frowned upon by established powers.

But if matters get out of hand in Spain in the coming days, the self-serving, non-interventionist stance adopted by European Union states, including Britain, could prove untenable. Rajoy’s biggest nightmare is the possibility, mostly avoided hitherto, that the crisis will turn violent. Blood on the streets of Barcelona, live on global TV, could change everything.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Simon Tisdall is an assistant editor of the Guardian and a foreign affairs columnist.

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