Catalonia’s Independence Drive Is a Critical Stress Test for Spain’s Democracy

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Thousands of people gathered on Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona expecting the results of the referendum on independence. Photo: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The violent response of the Spanish government to Sunday’s independence referendum in Catalonia came as perhaps more of a surprise than it should have. While it’s always shocking to see an ostensibly democratic government behave so aggressively toward its own citizens, the circumstances in which Spain finds itself today make it ripe for the deterioration of democratic norms.

To begin with, Spain has not enjoyed democratic government for very long; in fact, it’s one of the youngest democracies in western Europe. Spain began its transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, and did not complete that process until the early ’80s, so it has only been a fully functioning democracy for about as long as the 36 years Franco reigned. Many Spaniards alive today, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, grew up under fascism, and the country has precious little experience navigating constitutional crises in a democratic context.

A country cobbled together from several medieval kingdoms with their own languages and cultures, Spain has always had a particularly fictive national identity, which Franco’s authoritarian nationalist regime took pains to enforce. Franco canceled the autonomy that had been previously granted to Catalonia and other regions and violently suppressed Spain’s cultural and linguistic diversity, revoking the national status of the Catalan, Galician, and Basque languages and barring them from being used in schools, churches, road signs, or advertising.

After Franco, Catalonia was granted a measure of autonomy under a statute passed in 1979 and updated in 2006, but in 2010, Spain’s constitutional court infuriated Catalans by abolishing 14 articles of the statute and ordering another 27 of them reinterpreted. That decision helped ignite the latest iteration of the separatist movement, leading to waves of mass demonstrations and a referendum on independence in 2014, for which then-leader of the Catalan government Artur Mas was prosecuted. Earlier this year, Mas was sentenced to a fine of 36,500 euros and a two-year ban on participating in politics.

Since Rajoy took office in 2011, his government’s rejection of Catalan independence has done little to stifle the movement; if anything, the more stridently Madrid resists, the more determined the separatist camp seems to become. Mas’s successor Carles Puigdemont is already making hay from the bad optics of Sunday’s police response. The odds that Catalan separatists will give up and go home now on account of a bloody nose are precisely zero, and Rajoy’s strategy of coercion makes outright civil conflict more likely the longer he pursues it.

Knowing that, it may be hard to fathom why Rajoy felt the need to send a militarized police force into polling stations to confiscate ballot boxes and rough up demonstrators when those acts were guaranteed to be recorded and published online immediately. Research on Catalan attitudes toward independence by Artis International suggests that acts of suppression from Madrid only heighten pro-independence sentiment, while on the other hand, the 2014 referendum actually had a cathartic effect and ended up softening those attitudes.

Had Rajoy allowed this year’s referendum to proceed in peace, but negotiated to give voters the option of expanded autonomy within Spain as well as outright independence, he might have defused the situation and created an opportunity for compromise. So why didn’t he?

The likely answer begins with another finding from Artis: that only 23 percent of Spaniards regarded democracy as a sacred value, and that this declining faith in the system stems largely from perceptions of the national government as power hungry and unresponsive. When Rajoy was unable to form a government after a general election in 2015, necessitating another election the following year, many Spaniards simply didn’t care; they no longer saw the central government as a meaningful, much less positive, presence in their lives.

With the Spanish public’s faith in their government declining (sound familiar?), Rajoy and his center-right People’s Party now find themselves with a minority government, a tenuous grip on power, and no real mandate to lead. Rajoy has managed to remain in power thanks largely to a leadership crisis in the Socialist party, but he also faces a new challenger in Podemos, a populist left-wing party founded in 2014 as an alternative to the corrupt and ineffectual Establishment, but that has so far served only as a spoiler for both leading parties in national elections.

What Spanish voters do care about is the economy, which has been depressed since 2008, leading to frighteningly high unemployment rates and the accrual of massive public debt. Indeed, the economy is a major reason why many residents of Catalonia want out of Spain and why Madrid is desperate not to let it go: Catalonia has the highest GDP of any of Spain’s regions, accounting for nearly a fifth of the country’s economic output. It also pays about 20 percent of the country’s taxes, while receiving only 14 percent of national government expenditures. If Spain is struggling now, it will struggle much harder without Catalonia, whereas pro-independence Catalans believe they would be much better off if they didn’t have to send so much of their money to Madrid.

Taken together, these conditions of political and economic stagnation put Spain in an especially fragile state. When the stakes are so high, it’s easy to see how a cornered head of government might resort to authoritarian tactics to prevent his country from fracturing even further. However, Rajoy needs to wrap his head around the fact that Catalonian independence or autonomy is a question of when and how, not if. His choice in the matter is whether to pursue a negotiated compromise while it’s still on the table, or to dig in his heels and send Spain further down the road to partition, or worse, civil war.

Catalonia’s Independence Drive Is a Stress Test for Spain