The Catalan Threat to Spanish Democracy
General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship over Spain attempted to bury Catalan nationalism. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain attempted to bury Francoism. With Franco’s remains settled in the Valley of the Fallen, a memorial to his victims and the largest of the 2,000 Franco-era mass graves, Spanish politicians agreed to the informal Pact of Forgetting. They offered amnesty to Franco’s regime and its violent history was erased from political discourse. The pact was designed to help Spain transition to democracy as peacefully as possible. Now, a coalition of three Catalan separatist parties – which represents only 47.7% of the vote but holds a slight majority in a polarized regional government – is showing the fragility of this design. Twice in the past year, historical and modern grievances drove Catalan lawmakers to deliver decisive votes that toppled consecutive Spanish governments. Amid this political wreckage, a dozen Catalan leaders are facing charges of sedition and rebellion for organizing a 2017 independence referendum, leading to a constitutional crisis. Catalan separatists are effectively holding the stability of Spanish democracy hostage.
Franco’s brutal suppression of regionalism serves as the roots of the present strain of Catalan nationalism. Catalonia has never been an independent state, but Catalan nationalism, distinguished by the region’s distinct language and culture, has been an organizing principle for its politicians since the nineteenth century. Franco banned the public use of the Catalan language along with all exclusively Catalan institutions. Catalan nationalists remember Francoism as colonization. These historical grievances have been aggregated with modern claims that the Spanish government siphons off Catalan wealth and undermines the region’s right to self-determination. Dissent came to a head in Catalonia’s unlawful 2017 independence referendum. The government’s heavy-handed response to this referendum has intensified Catalan protests. The subsequent backlash has revived a previously latent Spanish nationalism, giving rise to the Spanish far-right for the first time since Franco’s death. This polarization has made effective democratic governance impossible.
Catalan separatists now value independence over regional autonomy. In February 2019, they rejected Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s budget proposal, forcing snap elections to be held in April 2019. In doing so, Catalan lawmakers rejected the tolerance of the Sanchez government. Instead of deescalating tensions, it seems that Catalans would rather have a hostile government in Madrid that would facilitate a conflict and reinforce their justifications for separating. Polls suggest that a new right-wing coalition government may deliver that contest. It is reasonable to project that a Popular Party-led coalition would include the far-right Vox party. This would place a far-right party in the Spanish government for the first time since Spain’s transition to democracy. It would also position Catalan separatists opposite Vox, which has called to end Spain’s structure of regional autonomy and to criminalize separatist political parties.
Catalan separatists also value independence over democratic institutions. The 2017 independence referendum was an act of contempt against the principal arrangements of the 1978 constitution, which established Spanish democracy and declares the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation.” The legitimacy of judiciary has also been assaulted by Catalan separatists, largely in response to the Spanish government’s bullish pretrial detention of twelve Catalan leaders responsible for the independence referendum. One of the defendants, Jordi Cuixart, said that his trial was evidence that Spain “is a failed state from a democratic point of view.” Carles Puigdemont, the former leader of Catalonia, wrote an article for the Guardian titled, “Spain’s trial of Catalan separatists is an alarming act of state repression.” These attacks on the legitimacy of Spain’s democratic institutions add force to existing dissatisfaction in Spain’s democratic system caused by party corruption and the economic scars of the Great Recession.
Political volatility in Spain is unfortunate but not unusual. The Economist notes that from 1812 to 1975, “Spain saw six different constitutions, seven bloodless military coups, four royal abdications, two dictatorships, and four civil wars.” Spain has been democratic for the last four decades. That democracy is now hostage to Catalan separatists, who weaponize historical and current grievances and threaten to extend the timeline of regime change in Spain beyond 1975. The Spanish government is not blameless but deserves less blame. Catalan separatists, who lack a clear mandate in their own region, are leveraging their positions to undermine the effectiveness and legitimacy of the Spanish government in order to force another independence referendum. Catalan separatists are intentionally preventing the functionality of Spanish democracy for their own benefit.