On Sunday, several million people may attempt to vote in what is billed as a “binding referendum” on independence, but which the courts have banned.
For the narrow majority of Catalans who reject independence, the choice is terrifying. If they do not all vote and the separatists do, then the latter threaten to declare independence by Tuesday evening – in effect evicting them from their current country. If they do vote, the other side insists they will be acting illegally. Either way, they will be living in a Catalonia that is more polarised than it has been for decades.
For the large minority who want a separate Catalan state, the panorama is just as grim. Separatists are free to argue for independence, but to have it they must also change the Spanish constitution, which means persuading an overwhelming and improbable majority of two-thirds of Spain to back them.
Exactly how the day itself will play out remains a mystery. It looks set to be an exercise in mass civil disobedience in which some may manage to vote, while many others do not.
It may also be extraordinarily civilised, with smiling young people waving ballot papers and elderly separatists wrapped up in colourful flags or dancing sardanas. Human towers, the gravity-defying sport of some Catalans, may also be deployed as reminders of cultural exceptionalism, making it all look like a fun-loving party.
Police are expected to padlock voting centres but if protesters do not use force or break locks, there should be no reaching for batons.
Many will be wearing the uniform of the Catalan Mossos D’Esquadra police force, while civil guard, national and even municipal police forces will also take part. But despite the urgings of overexcited rightwingers elsewhere in Spain, they are likely to be restrained. They must soak up any insults and then return to the cheap tourist hotels where they are being housed, or to a specially hired cruise ship painted with giant Warner Bros cartoon figures, including Tweetie Pie and Daffy Duck, which is moored in Barcelona’s harbour. Most, surely, just want to go home.
It may also all go horribly wrong, with people hurling stones at police while the latter bring out water cannon and bundle protesters into vans. That would receive ample television coverage, even if very few people were involved.
What television pictures will not show are the millions of Catalans sitting at home, wishing that none of this was happening. Nor will we hear from the many Spaniards who hate to see five centuries of coexistence reduced to a simplistic “Catalonia versus Spain”.
On Sunday evening, two sets of politicians will observe the wreckage and declare victory.
The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, and separatist leaders will claim a moral triumph. They will be convinced that they have just won a new generation of Catalans for separatism – creating a majority for the future. Any damage to their own society will be blamed on others.
On the other hand, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will claim to have upheld the law. Other members of his conservative People’s party (PP) will be more boastful, piling on the kind of humiliation that boosts secessionism.
The PP gains barely any votes in Catalonia. In fact, it sparked the current separatist upsurge by successfully asking the constitutional court to cut back a Catalan charter of self-government approved at a legal referendum. Rajoy has ignored the fact that more than 70% of Catalans want a proper, legal referendum to sort it all out. He could deliver that. But opposing it garners more votes in the rest of Spain.