Is Catalonia Testing the Resiliency of Spanish Democracy?

The country has had a highly decentralized government for more than 40 years. The question now is whether it can stay that way.

A man holding a Spanish flag sits on a bench before a pro-union demonstration organized by the Catalan Civil Society in Barcelona, Spain on October 8, 2017.
A man holding a Spanish flag sits on a bench before a pro-union demonstration organized by the Catalan Civil Society in Barcelona, Spain on October 8, 2017. (Eric Gaillard / Reuters )

For many, the police violence that engulfed last week’s referendum for Catalan independence, which left some 800 people injured, did not suggest a strong, modern European democracy capable of dealing with dissent. In fact, for some, the scenes of Spain’s national police confiscating voter ballots and attacking protesters with batons and rubber bullets recalled images of a bygone era—the military rule of dictator Francisco Franco.

Among Spaniards, the days of fascist rule are not some distant chapter of history. Anyone over the age of 50 can likely recall Franco’s suppressive, 39-year reign, which ended with his death in 1975. Catalans were all too familiar with Franco’s authoritarian regime, which sought to stamp out regionalism in the country and foster Spanish national homogeneity by placing all regional and national traditions, including the Catalan language, under strict public censorship.

It was only after Franco died that Spain’s transition to democracy began, ushered in by former King Juan Carlos I, Franco’s successor who oversaw the ratification of the country’s constitution in 1978. But the political transition was far from seamless. In 1981, a group of approximately 200 Spanish Civil Guard members who opposed the changes attempted to seize control of the Spanish parliament as it voted to elect Leopoldo Calvo-Sotelo as the country’s new prime minister. The attempted coup collapsed soon after King Juan Carlos I denounced it in a televised address, reinforcing the strength of Spain’s constitutional monarchy against Francoist survivors trying to steer the country back.

“People feel the coup was the last moment when there was a possibility of turning back into an autocratic regime,” Gonzalo Garland, a professor of economics at IE Business School in Madrid, told me. Spain’s democracy is “young relative to some European countries, but it’s a very strong democracy.”

And while modern day Spain is certainly a far cry from the days of Franco, its strength is now being tested—not least by the contested independence referendum staged by Catalan separatists, who wish to see Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia formally separate from Madrid. Like Spain’s 16 other autonomous regions, Catalonia has its own historical and national heritage, as well as limited self-government in the form of its own regional parliament. But Catalan separatists want the region to be its own sovereign state, independent of Spain—and of the 42 percent of people who cast their ballots in the referendum, an overwhelming 90 percent agreed with them. Polling, however, shows Catalans more divided on the issue, with 41 percent favoring independence, and just under 50 percent remaining opposed.

Though Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister of Spain, has insisted any impending declaration made by Catalonia’s regional government “will have no effect,” the threat of such a move has already prompted many to dub this Spain’s worst constitutional crisis in its more than 40-year democratic history—one that has implications not only for Catalonia, but across Spain’s autonomous regions.

Mary Vincent, a professor of modern European history at the University of Sheffield, said that the debate over the role of Spain’s regional communities and how much autonomy they should have within the country’s highly decentralized national government is as old as Spain’s democracy itself. “The regional question was always the most problematic, the most likely to unravel in terms of the way in which the democratic settlement was set up,” she said. She noted that just as the idea of Spain being anything other than a unitary state “was anathema to the Francoist old guard, particularly the army, it was also inconceivable that the Catalans, and particularly the Basques, would be content with a unitary state.”

Of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, Catalonia and Basque Country enjoy the most autonomy—a set up that has allowed them to retain a degree of self rule over certain aspects of government, such as culture, policing, and transportation. Still, both communities boast their own separatist movements—ones which, despite varying degrees of influence, have sparked doubt over the extent to which regional autonomy is sustainable. “On the one hand, some people say, ‘Well, that’s what was needed,’” Garland said of Spain’s decentralized government. “Others say, ‘Well maybe it was just too much and there’s no cohesion. Where’s the cohesion of a country if in the end everything is so decentralized?’”

Autonomy can be revoked. In an interview with Spanish newspaper El País on Sunday, Rajoy said his government hasn’t ruled out invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which would allow Madrid to retake control of Catalonia using all “measures necessary” in the event an autonomous region “does not fulfill the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution,” including threatening Spain’s indissoluble national unity. Still, invoking Article 155 would be an unprecedented move by the Spanish government, with unpredictable results.

But for all the doubt this current impasse has raised over the future of Spain’s relationship with its autonomous regions, Vincent said warnings of democratic decline are premature. “There is no doubt that Spain is a functioning democratic state,” Vincent said. “Questions around regional representation and the nature of the state are of course not unique to Spain. Britain has had its problems, Belgium has had its problems. What happens next is quite a vexed question but, personally, I do think that the talk of Spain’s democracy being fragile is widely exaggerated ... Talk of this being a return to the Civil War is simply ridiculous. I just don’t see that at all.”