Under what circumstances does a region have a right to secede from its nation? To what degree can a nation democratically go to keep its regions from seceding? Spain and its famous region to the northeast, Catalonia, have been engaged in this political debate for decades, each side convinced that they are fighting for the benefit of the majority of their people, each side convinced that the other is tyrannical, selfish, and anti-democratic. Throughout its history and still today, the conflict between Catalonia and the rest of Spain has been handled more frequently with force than it has democracy. However, Catalonia has significantly less legal power under the Spanish Constitution than the Spanish government. This has led to Madrid using extreme (and frankly, undemocratic) expressions of power to keep Catalonia’s rebelliousness under control.
Catalonia’s history dates back centuries, but its independent culture didn’t become a source of political contention until 1714. After the Siege of Barcelona, the French Bourbons put Catalonian institutions under direct fire in the name of Spanish unification for the first time, and the tug-of-war for independence has never been fully resolved since. More recently, the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in 1939 brought independence of regions in Spain to the forefront of international attention. While Catalonia had enjoyed relative autonomy under the Republic preceding Franco, the turn of power spurred by Franco’s overhaul of the government during the Spanish Civil War led to a surge of Spanish nationalism that aimed to destroy Catalonia’s independent culture. As Franco’s hold became less militant, Catalonia began to reclaim some of its culture and language.  However, Catalonians feel as though their unique community is repressed by the central Spanish government to this day—a sentiment exacerbated by the events following an independence referendum in 2017.
According to the Spanish Constitution, regions within Spain are permitted autonomy but they cannot threaten the unity of the Spanish nation. Independence of a region, which would break this code of unity, can only be permitted by the Spanish Parliament. Therefore, when the then-President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, decided to hold a legally-binding referendum that would vote on the secession of Catalonia from Spain, the central government pushed back. They sent police forces into the streets of Catalonia to violently disrupt the referendum. They arrested nine leaders of the Catalonian Independence Movement on the grounds of sedition and misuse of public funds, including Oriol Junqueras, the former vice-President of Catalonia. Puigdemont and other leaders fled abroad to evade arrest. Then, when it didn’t look like more could be done to suppress the independence movement, the Spanish Prime Minister threatened to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy as Franco had done in the 1940s by means of Article 155.
Article 155  reads: “Si una Comunidad Autónoma no cumpliere las obligaciones que la Constitución u otras leyes le impongan . . . podrá adoptar las medidas necesarias para obligar a aquélla al cumplimiento forzoso de dichas obligaciones o para la protección del mencionado interés general.” Simply speaking, this translates that if an autonomous community (such as Catalonia) does not comply with Spanish law, any means can be taken to force the rebellious community to comply with the general interest of Spain, given Senate approval. Such a declaration raises a lot of red flags regarding Spanish democracy. In one fell swoop, the Spanish Prime Minister would be allotted the power to withhold legal abilities previously held by Catalonian parliament, fire the members of the Catalonian government and call for a rapid election to refill those positions—all without the consent of the Catalonian people . Is the blatant oppression of a region and the forced destruction of its leadership a breach of the ideals of democracy, if done for the sake of the nation as a whole? Or is it not too different than making decisions based on the will of the majority?
In Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson’s book Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy they argue that in a dictatorship, the only power a citizen has is de facto power—the power of brute force. This is more or less the only leverage that Catalonia has over Madrid: the power of its economy (which makes up 19% of Spanish Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) and the power of its population (housing about 16% of Spanish citizens) . Meanwhile, Madrid has enough de jure (or legal) power to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy—the consequences of which have already been described. The invocation of Article 155 implies that Madrid has the monopolization of de jure power, just as “the elites” do in a dictatorship described by Acemoglu and Robinson.
This is, of course, assuming that the role of “the elites” is being played by the central Spanish government. According to some unionist Catalonians, the true elites in this event are the Catalonian separatists, and the Spanish government’s crackdown is the only democratic function defending unionist citizens. Unionists make up almost 50% of the Catalonian population—a number not represented by the referendum vote which, while overwhelmingly in favor of independence, only accounted for 43% of the population . One Catalonian man, Manuel Valls, points out the elitism in separatist logic and argues that Catalonia’s rejection of Spanish-ness in the name of independence hurts many of its citizens on educational and economic standpoints. For example, forcing Catalonian children with families from other parts of Spain (whose main language is Spanish) to speak the regional tongue in school puts them at a distinct disadvantage; this cultural elitism that honors Catalonian culture to the point of degrading Spanish-ness ostracizes many Catalonians that want to embrace their Spanish roots while living in Catalonia . He calls the secession an “oligarchical and supremacist project”—in this framing, it is the government of Catalonia that is oppressing its unionist population, and Madrid’s harsh reaction to the illegal referendum was to the benefit of the oppressed.
Regardless of how it is justified, I still find that the use of Article 155 goes against the spirit of democracy in spite of its constitutionality. Meanwhile, in spite of its illegality, the independence referendum held in Catalonia was supposedly made to be “free, fair, and competitive” in that it was made available to an informed and inclusive public, in accordance with Robert Dahl’s definition of a polyarchy. The unionists chose to boycott the vote; while this is a legitimate form of protest, it implies that they were given the opportunity to vote and chose not to do so. In Madrid’s replacement of the Catalonian government and incarceration of several referendum leaders, however, no citizen input was truly considered. It is for this reason that, regardless of the morality or intention of either faction, Madrid’s reaction to the 2017 referendum was extreme to a point of anti-democratism.
Robinson, J., & Acemoglu, D. (2005). Our Argument. In Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Economic and Political Origins (pp. 15-47). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dahl, R. A. (2007). Democratization and Public Opposition. In Polyarchy: Participation and opposition (pp. 1-16). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale Univ. Press.