In 1978, the death of the execrable dictator Francisco Franco left Spain at a crossroads: either embrace ethnolinguistic regionalism and form several independent states or unite under a common flag. The Spanish people opted for a united peninsula because together meant a stronger country. As a result, a constitutional parliamentary monarchy was established with seventeen autonomous states. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and the Spanish crafters of the constitution produced one of the highest outputting democracies in the world. According to the Freedom House1 and the Economic Intelligence Unit2, which ranks a country on a multitude of democratic indices, Spain routinely scores above the 90-percentile region. However, the climate of robust democracy ended in 2008 with the 2007 financial crisis.
Like the rest of the world, Spain’s economic output decreased because the world economy was in recession. The recession generated less income for Spain, and thereby, the central government had to adopt strict spending cuts. These cuts included a reduction in the annual funding to the seventeen Spanish states. Like most cuts, these cuts were not received well by the public as the cuts meant financial ruin for the average Spanish family. At its height, the spending cuts reduced the Spanish annual budget by 65 billion euros in 2012. The funding for education was lessened by 10 billion euros3. The majority of the education cuts were aimed at the pension and wages of teachers. Other government employees suffered a 5% uniform reduction in wages. The unemployed, which peaked at 26% in January 2013 (and still remains relatively high at 13.6%), lost a bevy of jobless benefits and the cash payments were reduced by 50% after six-month period. In addition, the coal industry, which is dependent on government subsidies, loss their funding, meaning that the whole industry would not continue to be solvent and would become bankrupt. Even worse, an increase in taxes on products and services increased by 21%4. As a result, the cost of living in Spain to an already dwindling Spanish wallet drove many Spanish families into poverty. Putting it mildly, the Spanish people were outraged, and en masse protest ensued. Whether it was the teachers, coal miners, or the unemployed workers, the Spanish people protested but in folly. The cuts had to be made for the survival of Spain, whether people like them or not. However, Catalonian region (located in the northeast) objected to the budget.
The Catalan people objected because one/fifth of Spain’s GDP is as a result of their products and services5. Therefore, according to them, an equivalent of spending resources –one/fifth –should be allocated to Catalonia. In addition, the increase in duties and taxes disproportionately affected the Catalonia region since the region is heavily dependent on the tourism and the hospitality industries. As a result, higher taxes translate into higher costs of tourism, which facilitates vacant hotels, empty restaurants, and idle parks. Unfortunately, the Spanish government refused to amend the budget and the tax increases. Catalan separationist blamed favoritism and ethnolinguistic ties on the budget. Ultimately, this galvanized separationist sentiments across Catalonia.
Beginning in the 2010s, a spate of separationist rallies took place in Catalonia. In 2012, the rally yielded 1.5 million people (approximately 20% of the Catalonian population) The sheer volume of participants and the recent state government’s election of pro-separatist politicians terrified the Spanish federal government. Their ultimate fear was the dissolution of the Spanish state into several independent countries. The Spanish central government reflected their fears with rash policymaking. No longer were democratic precepts revered and respected but routinely infringed upon. Peaceful protesters were met with rubber bullets, large gathering with tear gas. State government officials were disbanded and jailed. Worse yet, the constitution was suspended to give legitimacy towards these anti-democratic government malfeasances in 2017. However, despite the strong governmental reaction, the separationist movement still is widely popular in Catalonia and still threatens the Spanish Crown.
The strong and robust democracy that once was synonymous with Spain has been flickering since 2008. However, Spain has been here before: either fragment and dissolve into several countries or unite under one flag and accept once more democratic principles. If the Spanish people can collectively remember that stronger means together than maybe, just maybe the Spanish people can take the shovel of governance away from usurpation actors and restore the paragon standards of democracy that have served Spain well in the past.
After researching the topic of Catalonia’s separatist movement against the Spanish government, I found that it has been around for nearly a century and has found good reason to oppose the government. In the 20s it was considered its own independent state before being required to unite with Spain some time later even though it had negotiated with Spain for its own independence. As referenced in this post though, these beliefs gained more reasoning after the government refused to change the taxing policies which affected Catalonia worse than most other areas after the 2007 financial crisis. In recent years, Catalonia has attempted a referendum and even a non-binding consultation on the topic of their statehood and possible independence, both of which were both banned by the courts. This goes to show that the Spanish government was not just authoritarian in its actions but was experiencing democratic erosion.
I believe this erosion is a method of democratic backsliding known as Executive Aggrandizement. This is when the democracy is removed internally rather than form a Coup D’état and at a much slower pace by means of executive policy changes. These changes not only change how the government works, but also eliminates the possibility for any opponents to arise through standard democratic methods. This relates to the Catalonian independence movement since the courts were deeming of their completely regular votes, illegal or unconstitutional. Eventually in 2017 the Catalonian parliament approved a resolution for independence despite violating a decision of the Spanish courts.