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Madrid struggles to win hearts in Catalonia PR battle

“Authoritarian repression,” “a violation of our basic rights,” “the fall of democracy.”

While these sound like accusations levelled at a dictatorship, they are in fact words used by Catalonia’s separatist leader Carles Puigdemont to describe the Spanish government’s crackdown on a banned independence referendum he wants to hold anyway on October 1.

These and other declarations have grabbed the headlines as Catalan separatist leaders multiply interviews and statements in an attempt to gain international support for a break with Spain.

Worried that it is being portrayed as the bad guy, Madrid went on the offensive just weeks before the planned vote, with foreign reporters invited to briefings with government figures to get their version of the story across.

On Tuesday, Enric Millo, the central government’s representative in Catalonia, apologised to journalists “because it would have made sense to meet earlier,” before speaking about the situation for more than two hours, refuting claims his government had never tried to negotiate or it was waging “repression.”

– ‘Flat’ narrative –

Polls show that Catalonia is deeply divided over independence, but an overwhelming majority would like to vote in a legal referendum to settle the matter.

The Constitutional Court has ruled it illegal though, hence why Madrid is trying to stop it.

Key members of the team organising the referendum were detained last week and then set free pending further investigation.

This sparked angry protests in Barcelona, other Catalan cities and even Madrid that were relayed on televisions around the world.

Websites promoting the referendum have been shut down.

And thousands of police have been deployed to help guard polling stations and stop people from accessing them on Sunday.

Madrid points out that the decisions have all been taken by judges and prosecutors. .

But still it has been accused of taking “political prisoners” — as declared by Pablo Iglesias, leader of the far-left Podemos party — online censorship and other rights violations.

The problem, says political analyst Ana Salazar, is that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his ministers have focused solely on the illegal nature of the vote, leaving their narrative rather “flat.”

In the meantime, the Catalan executive’s tale includes all the elements of a good story — “victimisation” and a sense they are fighting a “noble cause,” says Salazar.

The Catalan government has not gained the support it needs from foreign leaders, at least publicly.

And the only way it will succeed is by trying to convince them “that the Spanish state is oppressing” the northeastern region, says Salazar.

– ‘Free Tweety’ –

And it’s not only on the foreign front that Madrid is struggling to gain support.

In Catalonia too, resentment is growing.

“They haven’t tried to convince people that they want us to remain with the rest of the country,” complains Eva de las Heras, a 51-year-old Catalan consultant.

She says she was not pro-independence until last week, when the arrests angered her so much she changed her mind.

“People are hurt, this is about pride, about feelings,” she said.

Madrid has also made clumsy moves.

The decision for instance to charter a ferry decked with a giant drawing of Looney Tunes characters including Tweetie Pie to house police sent to Catalonia was met with derision.

The hashtag #FreeTweety became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, and the little yellow bird an emblem for Catalan separatists’ fight to vote.

Analysts say the government has not poured effort into convincing Catalans as it doesn’t want to give an illegal referendum legitimacy by launching a campaign.

As such, the situation is markedly different from last year’s Brexit vote, which London had agreed to.

But Caroline Gray, an expert on nationalist movements in Spain at Aston University, says both those in Britain’s “Remain” camp and Madrid were over-confident.

“The Remain campaign thought they would win the referendum,” she says, and they lost, with Britain choosing to leave the EU.

“Rajoy seems to have the attitude that if I don’t respond to all this, then eventually it will blow over. ‘If I keep saying no, support will die down for independence’.”

But it hasn’t, and fears are growing that the Catalan society will be left damaged.

“Public relations can’t heal a divided region and nor, alas, can Madrid’s fumbling response to the challenge,” The Observer summed up Sunday in an editorial.

“It is time for both sides to pause and ponder the damage. It’s time to pull back.”