For many people in the Catalan region, the central government of Spain is viewed as a foreign institution. In many ways, the Catalans’ views are correct. Catalonia is known to be a cultural and economic “outsider” to the rest of Spain. Since being united with the rest of Spain with King Ferdinand’s marriage in the 1400’s, Catalonia has experienced eras of regional independence and extreme cultural repression. At its worst, Catalans were not able to speak their language, Catalan, and many were persecuted. As a result, there has always been a separatist sentiment in Catalonia, but recent economic conditions have largely increased support for the secessionist movement. The 2008 global economic downturn affected Spain severely, leaving Catalonia to carry much of the country’s economy. In addition, the two dominating political parties in Spain’s central government are not even close to being the dominant parties in Catalonia’s regional government, leading to the low political representation of Catalans in Spain’s central government. These recent conditions increased secessionist sentiments, and on October 1st, 2017, Catalonia voted on a referendum to secede from Spain. Despite Spain’s judicial declaration that the referendum vote was unconstitutional, 43% of the population came out to vote, and the results shocked much of Spain. Catalonia voted overwhelmingly for independence from Spain, with nearly 90% of the voters in favor of independence.
The consequences of the referendum are dire for Spain’s democracy. Spain’s democratic institutions are at risk for deconsolidation, backsliding, and extreme group polarization, all of which are aspects of democratic erosion.
Deconsolidation can take three forms: cultural, constitutional, and behavioral. Cultural deconsolidation takes place when the citizens cease to believe that democracy is the best form of government. There is little evidence of cultural deconsolidation in Catalonia or Spain, as Catalonia’s referendum was held with a free and fair election. However, there may be evidence of constitutional and behavioral deconsolidation. Constitutional deconsolidation occurs when democratic institutions no longer fit “democratic descriptions”. Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, decided to impose “direct rule” to prevent people from voting on the unconstitutional referendum. This included using physical force and violence to prevent people from getting to the polling stations, actions that resemble an oppressive dictator. Of course, Mariano Rajoy is far from a dictator, but his recent actions certainly cannot be declared democratic, and neither can Spain’s democratic institution of free elections, seeing as how he is using violence to discourage voting. Thus, there’s some evidence of constitutional deconsolidation. Finally, there’s behavioral deconsolidation. Behavioral deconsolidation occurs when there is a fraction of the population trying to overthrow the existing regime. Obviously, there’s no popular faction trying to overthrow Spain’s regime, but Catalonia’s recent actions definitely question the legitimacy of the Spanish government in Catalonia. For Catalonia, there’s a sentiment to overthrow the Spanish government’s presence in Catalonia and therefore evidence of behavioral deconsolidation. The combined effects of constitutional and behavioral deconsolidation lead me to believe that there might be some democratic erosion occurring in Spain’s central government.
The signs of deconsolidation might be indicative of some evidence for backsliding from democracy to autocracy. Similar to constitutional deconsolidation, backsliding is often a concern when arbitrary power increased, but is different from constitutional deconsolidation because the result of backsliding is a regime change to autocracy. The process of backsliding can be slow and reversed, so I cannot conclude that Spain will soon be an autocracy yet again. But I believe nevertheless that Spain is on its way to being an autocracy because of the increases in arbitrary power. These increases in arbitrary power can include the denial of free elections and lack of political representation via political parties. The Spanish Prime Minister already denied a free and fair election by making explicit statements denying the legitimacy of any Catalonia election making physical efforts to stop any Catalan from voting. There’s also a lack of political representation for Catalans in the Spanish central government since the two dominant parties in the Spanish government hold less than a majority of the votes in Catalonia. As a result, arbitrary power for the executive has substantially increased because of the Spanish Prime Minister’s actions, reinforcing backsliding and encouraging democratic erosion.
Finally, and perhaps the least studied aspect of the Catalonian conflict is the potential for extreme group polarization. Group polarization is the result of many like-minded people discussing their opinions which creates an “echo chamber” of social pressures for each person to agree with one another. This usually takes place in areas of high population densities, such as urbanized areas. In this case, Catalonia is so culturally and economically different from the rest of Spain that I argue that a sort of “echo chamber” is produced, causing extreme polarization for secessionist sentiments and rejection of Spanish government legitimacy. The fact that Catalans held an election and voted to secede from Spain with 90% approval is evidence that Catalonia has developed an “outgroup complex”, proving they are many like-minded people living in close proximity. This is enough to prove the potential for more extreme polarization in Catalonia. And if Catalonia were to experience even more experience polarization, it could mean increased deconsolidation and backsliding, and eventually more democratic erosion.
The central Spanish government is in a tricky position. On one hand, it is well within its interests to keep Catalonia under its control since Catalonia is important to its economy. On the other hand, it risks undermining the very democratic values it champions. There might not be anything Prime Minister Rajoy can do to save the country at this point, but perhaps if any action would help, PM Rajoy can avoid the double bind by allowing Catalan region to have more independence while still insisting on some Spanish oversight.
- Photo by Liz Castro, “Holding Hands for Catalan Independence NYC”(Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.