The Catalan crisis has now taken hold of Spanish national politics. What once seemed a regional conflict has exposed cracks in Spain’s democratic facade.
Andrew Dowling, Senior Lecturer in Catalan and Spanish History at Cardiff Univeristy. He is the author of ‘The Rise of Catalan Independence. Spain’s Territorial Crisis’ (Routledge)
The Catalan crisis that grew over the autumn of 2017 has now spread, implicating other areas of the Spanish state. Although the Spanish authorities have obtained a clear victory over the forces of Catalan independence, and have contained the challenge, this has been achieved at a high price. The increasing politicisation of the major institutions of the state is eroding the democratic patina of Spain. Europeanisation and embedding democracy were once the main strategic objectives of Spain after the death of Franco in 1975. For most of the period since then, the country gradually achieved both but the economic crisis since 2008 placed the main institutions of the country under severe strain. Yet, by the general election of June 2016, with the failure of democratic renewal led by Podemos to breakthrough, and the return to power of Spain’s conservatives, the Partido Popular, it seemed the state had managed to successfully resist the call for meaningful reform and change.
However, as relative stabilisation of the political order seemed achieved, the Catalan territorial challenge which began in a serious way in early September 2017 changed the wider political dynamic in Spain. The state authorities in Madrid were taken by surprise by the Catalan challenge, partly because of a major strategic underestimation of both the longevity and capacity for action of the movement for independence. Simply put, Madrid believed that in time the movement for Catalan independence would peak and fade away. Equally, the Catalan secessionist movement greatly over-estimated its own capacity to defeat the Spanish state. In spite of not reaching 50% of the electorate and with an evident absence of international support, the leaders of Catalan independence seemed not only unable to control the wider movement but increasingly naïve about their real capacity for victory. Backing down on public promises was not an option due to inter-party competition amongst the independence forces over who could best maintain authenticity in the eyes of their voters. The Catalan independence movement abused democratic procedures in a tumultuous parliamentary session of 6 and 7 September 2017 with the proposed referendum held just three weeks later, on 1 October, absent of meaningful guarantees or any serious campaign.
These major misjudgements eroded the moral high ground that the independence movement had long held. Whilst this was restored following the violent police action on 1 October 2017, the unilateral declaration of independence squandered international sympathy. Catalonia, together with South Ossetia, became the only known examples in human history of an independence unrecognised by any state or non-state authority. Strategic miscalculations on an enormous scale in both Madrid and Barcelona were followed after 1 October by both sides doubling down on rhetoric. This phase resulted in the unilateral declaration of Catalan independence on 27 October yet within hours saw the abandonment of the country by the Catalan leadership. This vacuum was met by the sacking of the Catalan regional government, the imposition of direct rule from Madrid, and Catalan elections held in late December.
The autumn crisis in Spain has seen two institutions in particular symbolising the ongoing hardening of positions in Spain. The monarchy and the judiciary have become the epicentres of the current crisis of democracy in Spain. In 2014, King Juan Carlos did something few monarchs ever do. He stood down as king of Spain after reckless spending on a safari in Botswana, at a time of harsh austerity, alienated even his sympathisers. Salvation for the institution of the monarchy was supposed to come through his son Felipe VI who, for a time, seemed to embody sufficient change for the monarchy to survive for another generation. The monarch’s intervention on the Catalan question ensured that Felipe became part of the problem, not the solution. In a televised address on 3 October, two days after the globally condemned Spanish police violence, the king, in a belligerent address, condemned the Catalan independence forces, offered no comprehension of why close to half of Catalans are deeply alienated from Spain and, to add insult to injury, had nothing to say to the over 900 individuals injured by the police.
The second and more serious element to the Spanish crisis is the judiciary. This is not just because the law is being used directly by the Partido Popular government to try to uphold the authority of the state. Judiciaries everywhere are of course marked by conservatism, which in many democratic societies can elide into reaction. Judges and legal authorities interpret the law and in recent months in Spain, the most reactionary interpretations have been given to a series of challenges, both major and minor, to state authority. The Catalan revolt of September to December 2017 has resulted in the continued imprisonment of four leading figures: two politicians and two leaders of the civic independence movement. The charges are extremely serious: sedition and rebellion, with if convicted, imprisonment of up to 30 years. The most trumped up charge has been an unstainable one of violence, as the Catalan movement for independence has not caused a single violent incident in its five-year mobilisation.
The authoritarian turn on the part of the Spanish judiciary has now spread to other areas. A Spanish rap artist, Valtonyc, has been condemned to three and a half years prison for crimes including insulting the king of Spain and the promotion of terrorism. The Spanish satirical magazine El Jueves has been condemned in the past year for vilifying the king. These measures of protection of King Felipe are indications of growing state concern at the erosion of the monarchy. There is an increasing criminalisation of behaviour that forms part of the normal activity of parliamentary democracies. Whilst lawyers, judges and senior legal officials are in one sense implementing laws passed, there is growing evidence that the legal authorities are almost always veering towards ultra-reactionary interpretations of the law. The international Spanish art exhibition ARCO prohibited an exhibit on political prisoners in Spain. An individual who wore a red nose and stood next to a Spanish Civil Guard is being charged. Ultra-conservative interpretations of the law are stretching to breaking point notions of the separation of powers in Spain. Critiques of the judiciary, monarchy and police are increasingly being prosecuted whilst activities of the far right, hate crimes against the left and Catalans are routinely ignored. This can be seen for example in the condemnation of the ideology of Catalan independence in recent legal judgements.
Part of the current erosion of civic rights in Spain can be traced back to the law, passed by the Partido Popular in 2015, which created a whole new series of crimes including the disrespecting of the police to punitive fines for the holding of unauthorised demonstrations. Spain’s ruling conservative party is being challenged by a new upstart right party, Ciudadanos. The Partido Popular is also being eroded from within by relentless revelations of corruption. Ciudadanos has perhaps an even more hardline position on national unity and for the foreseeable future, both Spanish conservative parties will seek to outcompete each other over who can best defend Spanish territorial unity. With this party competition, the room for compromise and negotiations with the leaders of Catalan independence has been abandoned. The politics of revenge are currently marking the political culture of Spain. In the absence of willingness to address the Catalan question through meaningful negotiations, the Spanish government has been happy to delegate responsibility to the legal system. This has meant in practice that the legal authorities in Spain are carrying out politics, but by other means. The consequences are the erosion of democratic rights for all Spaniards.