Members of the Catalan National Assembly, distribute information through the streets of Barcelona asking for the vote in the referendum of independence of Catalonia on October 1. September 17, 2017. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.A reader not familiar with the ins and outs of Spanish and Catalan politics over the last ten years would be surprised at the unusual events happening these days in Catalonia. There is talk of "attacking democracy" and of a "serious breach of constitutional legality", political leaders are being arrested for wanting to organize a referendum, while the police surrounds political parties’ headquarters and searches printing houses and newspapers. All this is happening in Spain, forty years after the recovery of democracy following Franco’s forty-year-long dictatorship, in a country where citizens enjoy by no means negligible levels of economic development and social welfare, the economic and institutional structure of which is fully embedded in the European and global fabric.
How did we get here? Let us spare the details. At the risk of being too schematic, we could say that there is a deficit in Spanish democracy regarding the recognition of its national plurality, and also a widespread perception in Catalan society that the Spanish political system has not been treating them with adequate dignity.
The political regime established in 1978, which has allowed a fully legal and legitimate functioning of Spanish democracy for several decades, has been losing steam. The stern refusal to reform it – for fear of the economic and political elites represented by the two major parties, the People’s Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) – has ended up sounding its death knell.
In the agreement that was reached back then, the existence of an internal national plurality was accepted only in part, but in practice a standardized decentralized system was set up, within the unitary and homogeneous framework of Spain’s singular sovereignty.
There has been some talk that the Spanish system of "Autonomous Communities" is a very decentralized one if you examine the matters which the autonomous governments can decide on. But in that decentralization there is no symbolic, political recognition of the Catalans’, the Basques’ and the Galician’s’ diverse sense of belonging – of the places where language, culture and historical tradition maintain a continuing belongingness.
When three crises coincided in time – the economic one (2007), the political one (the indignados, 2011) and the territorial one (large mobilizations in Catalonia in 2012 after the Constitutional Court’s ruling which overturned what the Catalans had decided in a referendum), the contradictions, cross grievances, and demands for change in the distribution of funding between Autonomous Communities sharpened – and thus provided a favourable ground for the escalation the most salient and complicated stage of which we are now witnessing.
How is one to explain the People’s Party position of sternly refusing to open up any political dialogue? It is obvious that, faced with the Catalan question, it has been in Mr Rajoy’s and the PP’s interest to position themselves as guarantors of institutional stability, national unity and a constitutional legality which does not admit any change whatsoever. On the basis of this position, Mr Rajoy has managed to turn the PP and the government into the axis of the defence of institutional legality, leaving little breathing space to other parties, namely the Citizens’ and the Socialist Party. For Rajoy, the matter is not political but simply legal.
Only Podemos has positioned itself differently, accepting the plurinationality of the Spanish state and proposing that a constituent process be opened to address the serious problem that has been gestated.
From the perspective of Catalan sovereignists, the repeated refusal to consider the possibility of resolving the conflict through a referendum similar to those held in Quebec or Scotland, led to a Catalan parliamentary election in 2014 that was presented as a plebiscite. Its outcome, however, did not help to clarify the situation. Since then, the need to hold a referendum has been repeated incessantly, but this has not found any echo in either Mr. Rajoy’s government or the parliamentary majority in Spanish institutions. Mr. Rajoy has insisted on the idea that there is no democracy outside legality, refusing to accept the view that a democracy is stronger the more dissent it is able to contain, and has offered no alternative to the Catalan sovereignists’ proposal other than they should abide by the established order.
At present, there is nothing to suggest that the referendum on October 1 can be held with a minimum of guarantees, since the constant interference of the Spanish government, constitutional justice and subsequent police activity have made it impossible. But this course of action of the Spanish government and judiciary has placed the issue in a cognitive framework and in an axis of conflict that is no longer that of "centralism versus pro-independence", but rather "authoritarianism versus democracy". And this can lead to a mobilization in Catalonia in favour of democracy far beyond the pro-independence support base.
On October 2, the problem will still be there. From the point of view of the Catalan sovereignists, the achievement will be that the problem will now be inescapable, that it will stay at the centre of the Spanish political scene and thus will necessarily have to be addressed.
From the point of view of Mr Rajoy, the PP and its allies, they will not be able to continue to deny the problem and to respond to it only with legality and repression.
This is a scenario in which it will be necessary to look for a way out which will not imply the total defeat of the other – a scenario in which it will be essential to have the capacity to recognize Spain’s national diversity and to treat with due dignity those who seek to deepen the democratic quality of the Spanish political system.