Menu Close

Catalonia’s referendum unmasks authoritarianism in Spain

For some, Spain’s crackdown on the Catalonian independence vote has raised the specter of the country’s authoritarian past. Reuters/Susana Vera

I have long worried about the rise of authoritarianism in the European Union.

The Spanish government’s violent crackdown during the Catalonia referendum on Oct. 1 is the latest crisis to challenge EU institutions. Several member states are facing serious questions about territorial sovereignty. Just look to the Scottish referendum to leave the U.K. and questions opened up by the Brexit vote over the Irish border.

Catalonia experienced a level of police brutality not often seen in developed democracies. More than 800 people were injured, more than 100 of whom were hospitalized. Yet, in a rare televised appearance, King Felipe VI expressed full support for the Spanish government’s actions.

As a scholar of Spanish politics, I fear this creates the possibility for more repression and even the abolition of Catalonia’s autonomy.

Why has the Spanish government reacted with such a severe crackdown? To answer that question, it might useful to go back more than 40 years.

Franco’s legacy

When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, pro-democracy forces feared a new military coup. So they carefully crafted Spain’s 1978 Constitution to ensure stability, rather than create a radical change from authoritarianism.

The transition to democracy involved increasing political freedom for groups that had opposed Franco and had been persecuted by his dictatorship. But it also incorporated existing authoritarian groups and officials into the state. They included the Francoist military, the church and state structures that existed during the dictatorship – such as the judiciary, the police and the civil service.

Is Spain in danger of returning to the authoritarian days of the Franco dictatorship? Zoeken Fotocollectie, Dutch National Archives, CC BY

The Constitution, and subsequent agreements in 1981 and 1992, organized Spain into 17 autonomous communities. Each has its own executive, legislative and judicial powers. World leaders heralded Spain as an ideal model for peacefully transitioning to democracy. However, its focus on inclusivity, rather than change, meant future demands for self-determination would be shut down. Article 155 of the Constitution states that if an autonomous community operates against the general interest of the state they can be suspended by the Senate.

Spain’s constitutional order

Catalonia, through years of negotiation, has maintained a relatively high level of autonomy from Spain. The Catalan government has authority over health care provision, education, local police and many other areas.

However, since 2010, the Spanish judicial body known as the Constitutional Tribunal has refuted many pieces of legislation approved by the Catalan Parliament. This stands in contrast to the U.S., where the Supreme Court deliberates on constitutional matters. In Spain, the Constitutional Tribunal has overturned political decisions made by the Catalan Parliament, such as the housing emergency and fuel poverty bills and a Catalan statute in 2006. This has strengthened Catalonia’s desire for true independence from Spain.

Often, the Constitutional Tribunal has also acted in accordance with the Spanish Executive Cabinet, leading many to question the separation of powers between the two. Ten members of the 12-person Constitutional Tribunal are political appointees. The other two are appointed by the General Council of Judicial Power – the body in charge of overseeing the judiciary in Spain. The council is also primarily appointed politically. Meanwhile, the Spanish Executive Cabinet has refused, since 2011, to negotiate with their Catalan counterparts on issues to do with more autonomy.

In fact, since 2011, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his government have ruled primarily by decrees, which do not require input from the legislative branch. For example, the first Rajoy government (2011–2015) approved 33.8 percent of its legislation by decrees. Compare this to a figure of 20 percent the previous time the same party was in power (2000-2004).

Further evidence of the authoritarian turn of the Spanish government is the approval of repressive laws such as one known popularly as the Gag Law (“Ley Mordaza” in Spanish) in 2015. The law criminalizes many forms of protest and imposes high fines. The government claimed it would protect public order. This law, and the use of excessive force by police in Spain, has been repeatedly denounced by international organizations such as Amnesty International.

Vanguard of protests

The rift between Catalonia and the state is also rooted in the 2008 world financial crisis, which hit Catalonia and Spain particularly hard. People suffered from housing foreclosures, mass unemployment (consistently over 20 percent since 2011) and deep cuts to public spending. Since 2011, the economic crisis has become a political crisis. Corruption scandals involving the governing party and even the monarchy have caused deep indignation among the population.

The response has often been stronger in Catalonia, where many of anti-austerity movements have originated. They has involved mass demonstrations, occupations of squares and the development of mass social movement groups such as the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages.

Catalans have been protesting regularly. Demonstrations of more than 1 million people have become the norm. On Nov. 9, 2014, Catalonia held a “public consultation” that the Constitutional Tribunal ruled illegal. The poll was meant to be a test-case referendum and attracted more than 2.5 million voters in what can be considered Europe’s largest organized civil disobedience protest.

For many Catalans, the Oct. 1 vote had to be different from the previous one, as they felt it was time to find another way forward given Spain’s refusal to negotiate. The ensuing violence and chaos, which were sparsely reported by Spain’s public TV channels, show a government unwilling to deal with dissent and prepared to violate the democratic institutions of a region and its people. Although the constitution does not grant the right to secede, constitutional change is not unheard of in modern democracies, including Spain.

The EU’s reluctance to get involved has left a vacuum in leadership. The EU has acted in response to other member states resorting to authoritarianism in the EU, such as Hungary. We can now wonder, does the EU’s response to authoritarianism depend on whether the member state is in the west or in the east?

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 182,100 academics and researchers from 4,941 institutions.

Register now