Boston University

Does Spain’s Response to Catalonia Serve as Evidence of Democratic Breakdown?

On October 1, Spain responded to what they deemed an illegal referendum by employing police forces to stop individuals in the region of Catalonia from voting for or against independence from Spain. This is far from the first time Catalonia has held symbolic voting referenda to determine the extent of support for secession; however, this is the first time the Spanish Government’s response has left hundreds of citizens injured at the hands of the police. Despite voter turnout only being forty-two percent, ninety percent of those who cast votes favored independence, yet the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy said about the vote that it “didn’t happen”. Rajoy has also failed to respond to calls for dialogue between the Spanish Government and the regional government in Catalonia by individuals both favoring secession as well as those who support unity. By ignoring the situation Rajoy has decreased government efficacy thus raising doubts as to whether the government will be able to find a solution to the problem posed by Catalonia’s desire for self-determination.

            In a book on democratic breakdown, Linz and Stephan emphasize the importance of the citizens of the state recognizing the legitimacy of the government. Such legitimacy arises when all citizens view the government as the least evil form of government. The push for independence by Catalonians suggest that they believe that self-government would be better than their current situation. The legitimacy of a government isn’t solely a question of the goodness of its form, but also its ability to solve problems that arise within a society and its capacity to achieve desired outcomes. It is the quality of efficacy, as defined by Linz and Stephan, that serves as an Achilles’s heel leaving the legitimacy of Spanish Democracy vulnerable. Spain is proving itself unable to resolve the conflicting interests of the citizens of Catalonia and the Spanish Government. If the referendum occurring on October 1st was the first of its kind in Spanish history, the government might not be faced with a crisis of legitimacy. However, ever since Catalonian autonomy was challenged by the Constitutional Court in 2010, secessionist sympathies have increased and several symbolic votes for independence have taken place. Even more problematic, is the unwillingness of Prime Minister Rajoy to have a productive conversation with the president of the regional Catalonian government. Regardless of whether one supports the separation from Spain or not, their right to express their opinion via a vote is being repressed. The repression of voting rights is one of the most obvious trends in democratic erosion; however, this isn’t sufficient to conclude that Spanish democracy is decaying. Rather, the use of judicial review allowed the Spanish government to conclude that it was justified to declare the referendum illegal because according to the constitution the right to vote in a referendum of such importance should be extended to all Spanish citizens, not just Catalonians.

Spanish Democracy has the ability to strengthen itself by allowing such a national vote to occur. It can be argued that holding a national referendum, regardless of its outcome, is less threatening to democracy than the current trend of ignoring Catalonia’s right to vote and denying the occurrence of a legal referendum. Even if Catalonia were to be granted independence, it is unlikely that Spain would transition from democracy, but if Spain continues to ignore the desires of a whole region, Spanish democracy backsliding could become significant. The Spanish government needs to tread carefully in order to avoid increasing polarization becoming a full blown state of emergency.

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