American University

The Catalan Threat to Spanish Democracy by Joe Bodnar

General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship 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 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 history was erased from political discourse. This was done to make Spain’s democratic transition as nonconfrontational as possible. Catalan separatists, who represent only 47.7% of the vote but hold a slight majorityin a polarized regional government, are 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. Within this political wreckage, a constitutional crisis is unfolding as a dozen Catalan leaders are facing chargesof sedition and rebellion for organizing a 2017 independence referendum. Catalan separatists are effectively holding the stability of Spanish democracy hostage.

Franco’s violent 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 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 claimsthat 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 complaints. Subsequent backlash has revived a previously latent Spanish nationalism. This polarization has made effective democratic governance impossible.  

Catalan separatists now value independence over regional autonomy. Last month, they rejected Prime Minister Sanchez’s budget proposal, forcing snap elections to be held in April. In doing so, Catalan lawmakers rejected the tolerance of the Sanchez government. Instead of deescalating tensions, it seems that Catalans would rather 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 might 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 Franco’s death. 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 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 judiciary has similarly been abused by Catalan separatists, largely as a result of the Spanish government’s bullish pretrial detention of twelve Catalan leaders responsible for the 2017 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 weight to existing strains. Spain’s judiciary has faced accusations of politicization since the 1980s when reforms by a Socialist government made the selection of the General Council of the Judiciary, the position which appoints judges, subject to congress. These charges, though, are not substantive. Freedom House ranks the independence of Spain’s judiciary highly, awarding it 94 points out of 100 which is above the scores of the U.S., the U.K., and France. Despite these rankings, Eurobarometer shows that perceived judiciary independence in Spain is the sixth lowest in the EU. Catalan assaults on Spain’s judiciary are compounding these negative perceptions and threatening the functionality of an otherwise functional judiciary.

Party corruption, however, is a legitimate force undermining Spain’s democratic system. In a 2017 opinion poll by Eurobarometer, 94% of Spaniards believed political corruption was widespread. Public anger against traditional parties, against economic troubles, against globalization’s challenge to Spanish identity has been institutionalized by parties such as Ciudadanos on the center-right, Podemos on the populist-left, and Vox on the far-right. Political stability is now contingent on coalition politics. Catalan lawmakers are leveraging this system to destabilize Spanish politics until the government allows a legitimate Catalan independence referendum. This disruption prevents the implementation of needed reforms, reduces the government’s responsiveness to citizens, and could weaken confidence in democratic governance.

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 are intentionally weakening Spanish democracy. 

Photo: REUTERS: Enrique Calvo December 20, 2018 06:42am EST


  1. David Couto

    April 19, 2019 at 3:02 am

    You’ve done well to relay the perspectives of Catalans and those who wish to stick with the current constitution of government in Spain. However, your opinion seems one-sided.
    The presence of ethnic and territorial nationalism always includes tension. Don’t let the fear and frustration of Spain’s politics cloud your perspective on Catalan issues. I am sure that you understand the significant differences between those in Catalonia and the rest of Spain. Would you advocate for repressing the non-violent expressions of Catalans? Is an illegitimate referendum a cause for indictments of sedition and rebellion when Catalans didn’t coerce others?
    Catalans may contribute to the ineffectiveness of Spanish democracy, but they did not topple the government. Spanish democracy is not failing. If the referendum had proceeded without interference, it would’ve been an example of democracy at work. Catalans are using legitimate means within the government system to express their concerns. Considering that Spain is a monarchy, it’s territorial claim to Catalonia is supported by the King. Even their constitution seems to forcefully retain Catalonia with the reference to an indissoluble union. Thus, it could be said that Catalans are the actual hostages and maybe Spanish democracy needs to be reformed.

  2. Kennen Sparks

    April 24, 2019 at 12:27 am

    Your blog post on how the Catalonia referendum is affecting the Spanish democracy is very well-written. It outlines very clearly how both sides see each other, yet how the Spanish state deserves less blame, an argument I would agree with. Even before the referendum occurred the central government declared it illegal, a decision the courts upheld, yet the separatists forged ahead regardless. I also agree with your statement on how party corruption is a problem. I would add that the royal family has been touched by corruption is significant, especially since the constitution explicitly puts them in a objective position as unifiers of the state. Your final point of intentionally weakening of the Spanish state is also very poignant: the transition to democracy is still in varying stages across the state and to have the most progressive declare independence sends definite signals.

Leave a Reply