Crisis in Spain: Madrid Takes Control but Loses the Narrative

5 min read
Photo Credit: F.Pallars / Shutterstock
In seeking to prevent an unconstitutional independence referendum in Catalonia on Sunday, October 1, the Spanish government has not only greatly exacerbated tensions, but also curtailed freedoms of expression and assembly, and even desta

In seeking to prevent an unconstitutional independence referendum in Catalonia on Sunday, October 1, the Spanish government has not only greatly exacerbated tensions, but also curtailed freedoms of expression and assembly, and even destabilized itself. Madrid has emboldened the pro-independence parties, which press ahead with their plans while gaining sympathy, given that the state has demonstrated it is unwilling or unable to offer a political solution, responding only through the courts and now law enforcement. While the referendum seems to have been logistically dismantled, the way this has been done may prevent the central government from ever winning hearts and minds in Catalonia — if it ever planned on trying to do so — thus nourishing the prospects of Catalan independence in the long term.  

Madrid’s efforts to prevent the referendum have included actions that would be considered highly exceptional, if not directly undemocratic, in many constitutional democracies. This began with the seizure of posters announcing the vote and the threat to detain over 700 mayors. Next, the state launched “Operation Anubis,” detaining top Catalan officials and private citizens, raiding offices of the Catalan government, law firms, and private homes, and seizing 10 million printed ballots. The central authorities blocked hundreds of websites, prohibited public events discussing the referendum throughout the rest of Spain, and pressed for sedition charges against civil society leaders organizing peaceful demonstrations. These infringements on the freedoms of expression and association have already been criticized within Spain as well as by Amnesty International. Most importantly, the public perception among many in Catalonia has been that of aggression against the autonomous community’s institutions, reminding some of pre-democratic Spain and pushing many who would have voted “no” – as well as those who might not have participated in such a dubiously organized referendum – to change their minds. In the past two weeks, the amount of people who claim they will vote has gone up by more than 10 percent. 

Who would have thought the next crisis of constitutional democracy in Europe would come from Spain? Truthfully, anyone paying attention anticipated the arrival of what has long been referred to as a choque de trenes (collision of trains).  For years, Catalonia’s government and a majority of its parliament have been trying to hold a referendum.  They are still willing to negotiate the conditions for one (date, formulation, options offered, etc.), but refuse to take any path that doesn’t involve voting on the political status of Catalonia. But the Spanish government has categorically refused to engage. Since 2012, this dynamic has gradually pushed successive Catalan governments towards unilateral action. While most Catalans agree the planned vote was not ideal and would be held in democratically questionable circumstances, 82 percent say that a referendum agreed upon with Madrid is the best way to resolve the situation.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s refusal to acknowledge the political nature of the problem and strategy of dealing with it through judicial action has failed. It has led to the dramatic dispatching of around thousands of Guardia Civil and National Police to Catalonia. But the highly mobilized and motivated pro-independence groups will not be deterred from voting, and the Catalan government still insists a referendum will take place on October 1. If the central government continues to impose the constitution in such a heavy-handed manner, support for independence will grow, and when Catalans are asked to vote in regular elections, the results will be interpreted as a plebiscite. If Madrid ever agrees to hold a referendum, it would be hard to undo the damage done in the past few weeks. Support for independence has rarely surpassed 50 percent (recent polls show 41.1 percent in favor). Until last week, a Spanish government proposing greater autonomy or recognition and campaigning constructively for a “no” to independence would have surely won any referendum, especially if it agreed on a reasonable participation threshold and majority needed for a “yes” to win. The only way the separatist movement could gain sufficient support to prevail is through the overreaction of the central government.

While these developments have only now started to preoccupy Brussels, Europe needs to pay attention not just because of the breach of human rights and democratic values, as expressed by the mayor of Barcelona (a self-described “non-separatist”) in the Guardian and in a letter sent to the mayors of all EU capitals, but because of the instability of the Spanish government itself. Rajoy’s minority government is not only facing massive corruption scandals, with close to 900 People’s Party members under investigation, but its recent actions have led the Basque Nationalist Party to question its support for the government, delaying approval of the budget until 2018. There are also faint but growing calls from Podemos´s leadership to form an alternative coalition government with the Socialist Party and others that might be more accommodating to Catalonia. While this is highly unlikely, the culminating crisis of state — the most important since the attempted coup in 1981 — requires one to contemplate every possible scenario.

According to current discourse, on Sunday, October 1, we will see either people voting in defiance of the central government, or police physically sealing off 2,000 polling places as they have been ordered to do, in front of the more than 3 million people, who claim they will vote regardless of it being prohibited. More likely, it will be something in between, but there will be a major mobilization of people and police and it will be tense. If the vote is effectively impeded, a general strike or some form of permanent mobilization are under consideration, but hints of a possible civil war are unfounded and somewhat irresponsible in an already overwrought political context. Ultimately, while the reaction of the central government and its attempts to impede the referendum might successfully drum up support among its base and deflect from corruption scandals, it has undermined its own stability and the long-term cohesion of the country.