The Null Device
Spain uses force to suppress outbreaks of illegal voting, as Catalonia's secessionist government defies a ban on an independence referendum. Having failed to seize all ballot papers in the days running up to the election, Spain has ordered riot police to fire with rubber bullets on those defying the ban; currently, 460 people are said to have been injured. The optics, as they say in this age, are not good; meanwhile, somewhere in the circle of Hell reserved for tyrants, Generalissimo Franco is rubbing his hands with glee, knowing that his life's work has, in some way, endured.
The optimistic liberal commentariat on Twitter, of course, is adamant that this is the day that Spain's right-of-centre anti-separatist government has lost all democratic legitimacy, and will suffer a crushing judgment from History and or Public Opinion; the corollary being that, however questionable Catalan independence may have been until now, it is as inevitable as, say, the Irish Free State became after the Easter Rising. Though that conclusion neglects a few things: firstly, can a government that uses force against its population automatically be said to have lost in the court of public opinion, in an age when the public looks to Dubai as a model of aspirational glamour and gets its news from the Daily Mail, FOXNews and the like? These days, the idea of “human rights” has fallen from favour somewhat, and is regarded with suspicion, if not outright contempt, by a large proportion of the public, whose rights are assumed to be assured by the natural order of things. (After all, if decent folks' rights are in no danger, the reasoning follows, then “human rights” can only be a scam to take from us and give to those people. If you hear some nice well-meaning liberal talking about “human rights”, check your wallet.) Would your typical person, who's relaxed and comfortable with wearing clothes made by slave labour and holidaying in locations where uppity minorities are kept in their place by the threat of deadly force, judge Mariano Rajoy's Spain to have overstepped the mark? As long as any future settlement ensures that Spain remains a sunny holiday and/or retirement destination, this is fine.
Secondly, Turkey has set a precedent for how a member in good standing of the club of free democracies (which Turkey remains, and will remain as long as it keeps the threatened tidal wave of Islamic refugees from entering Europe) may deal with internal dissent. Turkey, as you will recall, was faced with its own ethnic/linguistic minority—the Kurds, who had been left without a homeland by the Sykes-Picot treaty—who had their own party (the HDP), held mayorships in Kurdish-majority towns, and at the last election, won a large number of seats in the parliament, becoming a de facto liberal opposition to Erdoǧan's authoritarian rule. Erdoǧan responded by escalating tensions, jailing most HDP politicians, dissolving Kurdish-run regional governments and replacing them with non-Kurdish administrators, and, in places, using military force against resistant populations. This, too, was judged to be fine, and in no way inconsistent with Turkey's good standing in the democratic world. And in doing so, it set the baseline for what any other free democracy faced with secessionist dissent may freely do.
There seems to be no way back; the Catalans will not surrender unconditionally and forever rule out independence, as would be the minimum required. Therefore, the only option Madrid has is to decisively crush the secessionist movement and salt the ground to ensure it does not return. In the short term, Madrid will probably impose martial law, possibly backed with a shoot-to-kill curfew, which will be in force until immediate tension dissipates. Voting materials will be seized and destroyed, and any ringleaders still at large and within Spain arrested. (Whether neighbours will honour extradition requests for Catalan nationalist activists remains to be seen; Germany, for one, has been refusing to hand over Turkish dissidents.) In the longer term, there are likely to be sweeping Turkish-style purges of the public service, media and universities, with anyone who liked any Catalan independence materials on Twitter/Facebook likely to face dismissal.
Which leaves the longer term, and the whole question of “Catalonia” in the first place. Does (or should) it exist in any way that, say, “Kurdistan“ or “Palestine” officially don't? Does allowing a regional government to exist, to maintain its own laws and mandate that signage must be in Catalan, undermine national cohesion and sovereignty? A Spanish government seeking to eliminate the possibility of future secession might take a number of courses of action, from demoting Catalan from a first-class language to a vulgar dialect, removing it from place names and official materials and school curricula, up to eliminating the region of Catalonia altogether, subsuming its component parts into neighbouring regions for administrative purposes. (This would also serve as a warning to the Basques not to get any ideas; you have a lot of privileges, it would say; this is what happens to those who abuse them.)
Of course, this is assuming that Spain does prevail. A strategy of raising tensions could escalate into an actual civil war, or if not, then into a guerilla conflict like the Basque one, which could fester on for decades, and interact unpredictably with events abroad (if, say, France goes fascist after the next election, or Russia decides that a frozen conflict in western Europe serves its geopolitical ambitions, or post-Brexit Britain turns it into some kind of jingoistic proxy war over Gibraltar or something, anything could happen).