While talk of a referendum regarding Catalonia becoming independent from Spain has been occurring for months, on October 1st, Catalonia finally voted. Madrid did everything in its power in hopes of stopping the vote from happening. These actions included seizing ballots, detaining senior officials organizing the vote, shutting down election websites, and deploying thousands of police personnel to restrict access to voting stations. Despite their efforts, the poll took place, and results displayed a 42.6% voter turnout rate, with 90% of votes in favor of independence from Spain.
Prime Minister Rajoy of Spain and President Puigdemont of Catalonia both describe their platforms as defending democracy, but their definitions of democracy are different. On one hand, Prime Minister Rajoy defines democracy as following the letter of the law. On the other hand, President Puigdemont defines democracy as the right to self-determination and autonomy. Although Spain embodies the characteristics necessary to identify as a democracy, recent events surrounding Catalonia’s referendum regarding secession reveal that Spain is in danger of becoming a victim to democratic erosion.
Spain’s reactions to Catalonia’s decision to proceed with the referendum have been labeled as violent and repressive by the media and intellectuals around the globe. Due to the accessibility of news and media footage, the world has seen real-time footage of the violence and described it as oppressive. A government whose actions oppress its people can be seen as undemocratic; however, regardless of how undemocratic their actions are, by no means does that call for stripping the Spanish government of its label as a democratic entity.
The ability to label an institution or its actions as undemocratic depends on the definition of democracy being used. According to Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition by Robert Dahl, democracy is “the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals.” This definition infers that in order for a government to be considered a democracy, its people must be able to formulate and signify their preferences. This includes having free and fair elections, freedom of expression, and the right to vote. By labeling the referendum as illegal and therefore refusing to recognize its results, Madrid is denying Catalans’ freedoms that should be guaranteed to them granted that Spain is democratic.
Disguising and justifying repressive measures by citing the law, as Madrid has done, is known as “stealth authoritarianism.” This term, coined by Orzan Varol can further be described as legally justifying repressive actions in order to categorize them as legitimate, making these authoritarian practices harder to identify and eliminate.
The Spanish Courts justified their decision to label the referendum as unconstitutional because it would only poll a portion of Spain’s residents. Employing judicial review to further a specific agenda, regardless of the preexisting claims that the decision is undemocratic, is a common mechanism categorized under stealth authoritarianism. The results of the referendum may not be the most accurate representation of what the outcome of this independence movement should be, but the Spanish government’s vocal stance of firmly declining to even participate in this conversation denies them of their freedom of expression.
In the scenario that Catalonia formally declares independence, Spain will most likely invoke Article 155. Article 155, which has never been used before, allows the Spanish government to take control of an autonomous region if it “acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain.” Invoking this article to subdue this well-established movement for independence would allow Madrid to use the rule of law and constitutional legislation to make it difficult to conclude whether the use of Article 155 in this manner is abusive or legitimate. Furthermore, according to President Puigdemont, invoking Article 155 would only strengthen the independence movement.
Another possible route of action that lawmakers in the Spanish administration are considering is dissolving the Catalan parliament and holding regional elections to assemble an entirely new body of members. Doing so would depict executive aggrandizement, which is “when elected executives weaken checks on executive power one by one, undertaking a series of institutional changes that hamper the power of opposition forces to challenge executive preferences.” Executive aggrandizement is a method elected officials can employ to undercut democratic institutions, leading to democratic erosion. The disassembling of institutions that may challenge the executive power is done through legal methods, such as changing the courts. The dismemberment of the current Catalan parliament in order to assemble a new one in its place would be a completely legal way to weaken opposition against Prime Minister Rajoy and his administration.
The Spanish government asserting its authority over Catalonia, however “violent” or “oppressive” as it may seem, doesn’t automatically classify the regime as authoritarian and undemocratic. Nevertheless, their actions in response to this independence movement employ tools that are commonly associated with eroding democracy. Democracy, at its core, is a representative political system with the goal of addressing and resolving relevant issues based on the preferences of its citizens. Instead of trying to suppress this movement, the Spanish government should actively participate in the conversation exploring the overall wishes of the people of Catalan. If both Spanish nationalists and Catalan separatists were to take a step back and go into a series of productive conversations instead of making vague statements and nuclear threats, democratic erosion could be avoided.
Photo by Liz Castro, “Holding Hands for Catalan Independence NYC,” Creative Common Zero License.