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.


  1. Victor Brechenmacher

    December 7, 2017 at 5:21 am

    You rightfully point out that, when the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy condemned the Catalan independence vote as illegal, it had the law on its side: Spain’s constitution emphasizes ‘the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation’, and this has been interpreted by the country’s constitutional court to mean that autonomous communities like Catalonia cannot hold unilateral independence referenda, be they binding or symbolic.
    Now, this constitutional principle may well be deeply flawed and have adverse effects on political discourse in Spain. This is because it turns the political project of separatism into an illegal attack on the rule of law, thus creating a situation that favors escalation of disputes at the expense of dialogue. The last few months are a case in point for this dynamic.
    You suggest that Madrid could have addressed this problem by taking Catalan leaders up on their invitation to negotiate following the referendum. However, in doing so, Rajoy would have effectively acquiesced that an illegal referendum could be used to extract potential concessions from Madrid. Besides being a questionable move on principle, this would have sent a clear signal to Catalonia and other regions with separatist aspirations that the rule of law can be transgressed to potential political gain – a dangerous outcome for democracy in Spain. Instead, it appears that the only democratically legitimate path remains to refrain from holding such referenda, or to seek a path to making them legal, e.g. through constitutional reform.

  2. Roxana Sanchez

    December 11, 2017 at 6:02 am

    I agree with you that the repression of the act of voting is alarming, and an indicator of democratic backsliding. It goes against fundamental aspects of democracy especially by Dahl explicitly states “Citizens must be able to formulate their own preferences, signify those preferences through individual or collective action, and have their preferences weighed equally.” Perhaps it is my own ignorance on this issue, but what is not clear to me is how responsive or unresponsive the Spanish government is to the Catalan people.
    The reasons for the succession aren’t clear. It is not clear to me how the Catalan people are not able to have their preferences weighed equally in Spanish politics. Though the objective of succession is clear, the reasons for the succession of Catalunya isn’t– and I think that is what is holding back more attention or support from the international community to put pressure on the Spanish government. There are deep divisive histories that have been generationally passed down, and it seems that the Spanish government has not found a way to reconcile some of that historical resentment with atonement or reparative policy–and thus the ruptures we are witnessing. The Catalan people claim that they are discriminated against and treated less than, which are all valid claims. However, it is hard to institutional find traces of those claims. That is not to say that the claims of the Catalan people aren’t valid, but this lack of clarity in their movement makes it harder to distinguish how institutional of a problem this is and how much the Spanish government is really at fault or has agency. Echoing Victor’s point, protecting overall Spanish democracy may require counterintuitive approaches.

  3. Dorothy Spector

    December 12, 2017 at 5:31 am

    I agree that by imposing brute force on Catalonian citizens in response to Catalonia’s referendum for independence, there is reason to fear democratic backsliding in Spain. The use of police to maintain control over citizens is not a new tactic, but one we have often encountered within corrupt, and authoritarian regimes. Furthermore, I agree the pivotal aspect in the situation is not only voter turnout, but the results gathered from the votes. By finding 90% of the 42% represented population being in favor of independence, it can almost be argued those who did not vote stayed away out of fear of government and the potential for police brutality. Therefore in addition to your point about the situation becoming one where Spain ignores the desires of a whole region, but the risk of erosion comes to the extremes the Spanish government is willing to take if it becomes a matter of oppression. Another factor you may consider significant in this is the role of international players, or lack thereof. With this, Catalonia is relatively alone in their ongoing pursuit of independence, with little to no international acknowledgement or support from the EU. Therefore, if there is no acknowledgment of the situation, it can be perceive there will be no repercussions to Spain either. Consequently, although there has been a trend of voting repression, we will have to wait until the soon approaching elections on December 21st to have more insight on what course of action Spain will take on the situation.

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