By Dr Ramon Menéndez Domingo
Spain has 52 provinces and 19 autonomous regions. Each of these regions have their own culture. Some like Catalonia or the Basque area even have their own language, political and legislative institutions. They are partly financially dependent on the central government in Madrid.
Before the Spanish civil war (1936-39), Spain had a democratic republic. It was one of the most progressive republics in Europe. It had universal rights to education, and women had the right to vote, similar to the Weimar Republic in Germany. It respected Spanish cultural diversity, but was disrespectful to the church. This mobilized the Spanish army, traditionally on the side of the church, where the dictator general Franco came from. Since the death of Franco in 1975 and the establishment of democracy in Spain in 1977 (not the democratic republic that was before, but another form of a more moderate democracy), the government has guaranteed the unique cultural identity of each of the various provinces of Spain.
Catalonia is a divided society. Some sectors of its population want the regional government to fight for and proclaim the independency of this autonomous region. Some others prefer advocating for the status quo, where Catalonia is part of Spain, with its current legislation and autonomous power. This article explores the recent illegal proclamation of independence in Catalonia (10th of October 2017) and the political process that followed. I argue that for a dialogue to happen within Spanish institutions the common ground that the rule of law represents should be respected.
How did the current crisis arise?
On the 7th of September 2017, Catalonia’s regional government called a referendum. The proceedings were very convoluted. The opposition ended up abandoning the chamber and the session lasted until the early morning hours of the following day. The pro-independence parties approved the referendum themselves, with a half-emptied chamber. They scheduled the referendum for the 1st of October 2017.
Some citizens of Catalonia voted in this illegal referendum, even though it was framed as a democratic act by the regional government. According to the regional government, about two million out of the seven and a half million citizens living in Catalonia voted. They voted in a very ragtag manner, some of them voting several times, without any type of identity control. The central government gave guidelines to the regional police, with lieutenant Trapero as its head, not to allow opening of the schools where voting in the illegal referendum was going to occur. However, when the national police arrived, most of the schools were open and full of people. This motivated clashes between the national police and pro-independence demonstrators. The regional government estimates that 900 were wounded. The central government estimated that only half that number were wounded. The regional police had collaborated with the regional government in the opening of schools rather than with the central government, challenging the guidelines from the central government. As a result of lieutenant’s Trapero insurrection, the courts ordered lieutenant Zoido to replace him as the head of the local police.
What has been the institutional response?
The referendum generated a lot of strikes and protests in and out of Catalonia. The King of Spain, Felipe VI, made a public call for unity on the 3rd of October. He advocated solving this problem through dialogue and by following the rule of law.
The regional government counted the voting and argued that approximately 90% of the voters voted “yes” to independence, considering this result as legitimate. The regional government head, Carles Puigdemont, proclaimed independence on the 10th of October. He then suspended the proclamation, calling for a dialogue that could take place in the following six months.
Mariano Rajoy, Spanish Prime Minister, and leader of Partido Popular (the Liberal party in Spain), gave Puigdemont an ultimatum. He asked him to confirm if he had proclaimed independence, before he applied constitutional measures. As a result of Puigdemont’s affirmative response, Rajoy applied article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. This enables the central government to suspend the autonomous status of any autonomous region if this region does not follow the rule of law.
The courts have locked up political leaders from the autonomous region, except for Puigdemont and some other members of his party. They have travelled to Belgium seeking political asylum, even though the European court has repeatedly stated its support for the Spanish government. Demonstrations in Catalonia have followed, labelling the politicians arrested as “political prisoners” when they are really being prosecuted for legal and not political reasons. Rajoy has called for new elections for Catalonia, which will take place on the 21st of December 2017.
How should we interpret what has happened?
Spain is not an openly declared federal state, but the autonomous regions have a high degree of self-rule in terms of education, regional police and legislation. If the independence was declared in Catalonia, other nationalistic regions, like the Basque area, could follow, but there is no indication that this would occur. Citizens of the different autonomous regions in Spain do not desire more autonomy than they already have. Only 25% of the total population of Spain would support that autonomous regions could have more autonomy, but even this does not mean independence. This is something that can be tested for Catalonia in the next autonomous regional elections on the 21st of December.
Institutions and change in institutions are always reflective of a wider change on the opinions and attitudes of the population—political changes often constitute the last stage of social change. As such, this crisis gestated in Catalonia for a long time must be respected and understood. But this crisis does not constitute a change yet. It only speaks of the polarization of Catalonia’s society that some sectors of its social elites have instigated. After the autonomous region of Madrid, Catalonia is the second richest region of Spain—it constitutes 20% of Spain’s gross domestic product. Some of its economic, political and cultural elites think that they would be better off without depending on Madrid’s central government. As mentioned above, the Franco regime repressed Catalonia’s cultural identity. These elites still blame the central government for this, even after forty years of democracy in Spain. The referendum has had very negative economic consequences for Catalonia; something that the elites did not expected. Since Puigdemont’s unilateral declaration of independence, approximately 2,000 businesses have relocated to other provinces of Spain outside of Catalonia.
It should be remembered that Spain is a healthy democracy. For the last 40 years, democratic dialogue has been occurring in a peaceful manner. Separation of the three democratic powers (judicial, legislative and executive) is the essence of modern States and the rule of law, which governs in Spain. Puigdemont did not respect any legislative or judicial decisions in Spain and Catalonia, imposing his will for independence through executive power. For a dialogue to happen, assumptions must be made explicit. Unilaterally declaring independence, Puigdemont revealed his assumption, but he did not make it explicit. He called for an impossible dialogue since his assumption (the independence of Catalonia) is not shared by the central government. This assumption is what Spanish politicians needed to debate.
Following the rule of law, democratic elections in Catalonia can bring new hope for a dialogue to happen between the central government and a new regional government. Politicians at the other side of the ideological spectrum—e.g., Puigdemont—see the rule of law as an arbitrary set of norms that is imposed on them. It should be also remembered that the rule of law is not an arbitrary set of norms, but values that free citizens of democratic States share as guarantors of dialogue and mutual understanding. If some elites or sectors of a population do not accept the rule of law, the basis where dialogue can happen, it is very difficult that it actually happens.
~ ~ Dr Ramón Menéndez Domingo obtained his PhD in Sociology at La Trobe University (Australia) in 2016. He is interested in authenticity as a cultural phenomenon. He writes this post as an informed Spanish citizen and not as an expert on this topic. He tweets at: @ramondelatrobe.
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