Spain insists that the Francoist era is long gone and buried. Despite the broad recognition of the harm endured under the nacional-sindicalista, Spain is again haunted by the shadow of totalitarianism. With the last Catalonia’s referendum, protests, and accusations of police brutality, how far did Spain go in trampling democracy?
17 autonomous communities in one country might create some challenges for Spain to provide stability and unification without sliding towards totalitarianism. The country’s past, not always bright, seems to be haunting Spain again with the Catalan independence referendum and the brutal turmoil and confrontations that ensued in 2017. Nationalism as a foundation of the Spanish system and institutions seems to aggravate the problem, rendering negotiations between both sides vain, and jeopardizing further territorial and social harmony, which will ultimately lead the country several steps closer towards totalitarianism and autocracy.
In 2017, the Parliament of Catalonia passed the law on the Referendum on Self-determination in Catalonia after a 12-hour-long debate in which the law was passed with 72 votes in favor, 10 abstentions, and 52 parliamentarians refusing to take part and leaving the chamber before the vote took place. Nevertheless, the democratically elected Catalan parliament, made of the coalition JxS and CUP, passed the law resulting in an inevitable clash between the Spanish government and the Catalan parliament and creating a legislative conflict in court as well as a violent demonstration of strength by the Spanish government on the field and finally, a state of chaos in which hundreds of human rights violations were reported and videos of protesters brutalized by the National Police Corps and National Guard were shared.
The number of injured people during the protests reached 893 according to the Catalan government in just one day, and the videos of police officers indiscriminately and violently beating women and peaceful protesters in an oppressive demonstration of strength spread widely across the internet and mass media. The gravity of the situation and the unjustified amount of violence exerted by the Spanish police also generated international condemnation and intense criticism as the videos seemed to emerge from a different era. Jordi Sánchez, head of the Catalan National Assembly said ‘’ This many wounded has not existed in Europe since World War II’’. The brutal handling of the Catalan referendum also put the Spanish government under Amnesty International’s radar. The International NGO tweeted on the 19th of October urging Mariano Rajoy’s government to provide protesters with the necessary protection to express themselves freely and finally reported ‘’ The misuse of force by law enforcement officers must be treated as a crime ‘’, further exposing Spain’s derivation towards oppression and failure to respect fundamental human rights.
The legislative volley did not actually provide the Spanish government with the immunity it intended to use to cover its excessive use of violence. On the contrary, it reinforces the thesis that highlights the regime’s deliberate choice of nationalism over democracy. Despite the Spanish government’s claims regarding the referendum being anti constitutional, therefore null, democracy is universally defined for being fundamentally based on the people’s undeniable rights of self determination and freedom to choose. Consequently, the legal conflict that occured in the Spanish Constitutional Court turns out to be an open conflict between the Spanish constitution and the universal human right of self determination and freedom. The referendum also had 9 Catalan leaders jailed, some of them for 12 years by the Spanish Supreme court. The outcome, denial of Catalonia’s right of self-deter and jailing of democratically elected leaders, might have nullified the referendum, but brought Spain a leap closer to totalitarianism and further polarized an already fragile society.
Spain also relied on the unconditional support it received from its allies, mainly from the European Union in an attempt to justify nullifying the referendum and the disproportionate measures applied in Catalonia. Most of these allies are considered to be decent democracies where human rights are respected to a relatively high extent, which makes this situation complex and irrational. Why would these democracies support such a violent and bloody response? Does the support of these countries legitimate Spain’s excessive use of force and deny the accusations of totalitarianism? The answer lies in these countries’ desire to maintain stability in the region at the expense of human rights and individual freedom. The success of a referendum in Catalonia would inevitably revive barely forgotten similarities in the UK, where Irish unionists would follow Catalonia’s steps. In France, the situation is quite identical with Corsica where there is a strong separatist movement also identically oppressed by France. With the situation explained, one cannot also overlook the rise of the right wing and populism in the western world to comprehend their stance. With Boris Jhonson in the UK, and the rocketing rise of Eric Zemmour in France, European politicians developed a tendency to flirt with the right wing electorate as much as possible in order to appease their radicalism and harvest some votes for the upcoming elections, highlighting that the oppressive stance of Spain is parallel to most of its neighbors rather than incoherent. Believing that the western support received by Spain exempt it from the accusations of oppression and excessive use of force is a failure of understanding that this support is based on common interest and fear of a separatist snowball effect rather than impartiality and justice.
Practically, the oppressive approach of Spain towards the Catalan minority and the laxist reaction of the international community did not actually provide a solution to the conflict, but rather postponed it and polarized the Spanish society. The lack of trust, fear, and sentiment of oppression will only ignite a more intense conflict in the future and will eventually lead the country to a vicious circle of clashes and exponential oppression. The Catalan High Court decision in 2021 to enforce that 25% of the classes in Catalan schools should be taught in Spanish is considered by locals as another transgression against Catalan identity, culture, and language. As a response, the Catalan government urged schools to defy court. Moreover, Catalan former leader Oriol Junqueras first speech out of jail pledged to continue the struggle of independence. These events foreshadow another chapter of a never-ending conflict and a robust proof that oppression and totalitarianism are on the rise and they might provide short term solutions but tend to be more destructive in the long term.
While the Catalan issue has been ongoing for decades, the oppressive approach in handling the 2017 referendum was an alarming indicator of Spain’s ability to drown in totalitarianism and autocracy again, affected by a drastic rise in nationalism sentiments in Europe. By diffusing a separatist snowball effect in Europe, the European Union managed to set in motion a far more fatal snowball effect of oppression and radicalism all over the old continent. Reestablishing dialogue, trying to find mutual interests, and the respect of universal human rights is the only long term approach that has the potential to provide a long term solution to the conflict and ensure that Spain stays on the path of democracy and establishes a more solid democratic culture and institutions.
The creeping nationalism that is rising in the Europe should be taken into account. This rise constitutes as a threat against democracy, which is evident in the Catalan issue. Spain chose nationalism instead of self-determination that hurt its democracy.
Referendum law passed in Parliament (catalannews.com)
Might be used as a link to how the law passed
Police clash with Catalonia referendum voters (cnn.com)
Video about police Brutality
Catalan referendum: How many people were really injured during the Catalan referendum? | Catalonia | Spain | EL PAÍS English Edition (elpais.com)
Source number of injuries
Spain ‘obstructing’ investigation on police violence in Catalonia, says Amnesty (catalannews.com)
Amnesty report – police force -Crime –
Catalan separatists freed from jail pledge to continue struggle – YouTube
Oriol Junqueras speech out of jail to Aljazeera.
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