From a Spaniard: Spain's Constitutional Crisis

Bird's-eye view of pro-referendum demonstration (BBC)

I spent much of October 1st, 2017 with my eyes glued to the television; I was unsettled and apprehensive, angry and flustered. From my couch I was watching my country devolve into a constitutional crisis of proportions unseen since the attempted coup-d’etat in 1981. I watched in disbelief as hundreds of thousands of separatists flooded to ballot stations; I watched in horror as armored police beat civilians; I watched hopelessly as Spain’s young democracy teetered on the edge of the abyss — I was, for the first time, scared for Spain.

Throughout my lifetime, I’ve followed Spanish political affairs — admittedly aloofly until a few years ago; the “Catalonian question” has always been a policy matter of particular salience for me, perhaps due to my allegiance to FC Barcelona. I’ve experienced fervid policy debates, several independence referendums, shaky compromises, and the sinusoidal rise and fall of tensions between the Catalonian regional government and Madrid. Never before had I witnessed such division, chaos, and even hatred as I did last week. Catalonia’s secessionist movement seems reinvigorated by a youthful and disenchanted demographic of Catalonians who, spurred along by Catalonia’s populist leader Carles Puigdemont, seem hard set on achieving independence for the region at any cost. The central government, headed by a weary and tired Mariano Rajoy — whose Partido Popular had just months before managed to muster a meager majority in Parliament through painstaking negotiations — is desperate to conjure some show of strength and national solidarity. The chaos that ensued on October 1st displayed a breaking point of tensions between both sides; national rifts and anxieties were underscored and exacerbated.

So, where do I stand? Firstly, I thought the referendum aggressively pushed forward by Catalonia’s president was divisive and ill-minded. Puigdemont, in his pushing forward the referendum, displayed a cynical disregard for democracy and the rule of law that should be not tolerated of any political actor. He actively undermined the Spanish constitution, ignoring court rulings and cramming illegitimate laws through parliament with slim majorities and insufficient discussion to circumvent the normal legal process to introduce a referendum, using a variety of populist ploys to justify his actions.

The reactions from Madrid were equally unnerving. Put bluntly, the moron who recommended that the central government send national police to beat, shoot and imprison Catalan voters and government officials should be sacked immediately; this heavy handed decision paint Madrid as a dysfunctional pseudo-fascistic state that actively oppressed Catalonian manifestations of democracy. The police response also pushed previously on the fence Catalonians to favor independence. Following the incident, the central government seemed unable to admit wrongdoing in this regard, making few conciliatory remarks and being quick to shirk any responsibility for the chaos. Furthermore, there seemed to be no real attempt from the political establishment to rebuild bridges or commence negotiations. The reaction from Spain’s King, Felipe VI, was particularly disappointing, as his broadcasted message made few and empty-handed calls for solidarity. The recent referendum also seemed to revitalize a fairly dormant sense of Spanish nationalism, one eerily reminiscent of the brand of national pride championed by Francisco Franco, Spain’s former dictator and notorious fascist. The country, it seems, stands as polarized as it has ever been.

Ultimately, however, while Madrid’s response to the crisis was severely flawed in several regards, Catalonian independence should remain out of the question. The consequences such a move would engender would have dire economic and political consequences for Catalonia (who would risk severe economic and political uncertainty), Spain (who would lose their economic powerhouse and risk reinvigorated independence movements in other provinces), and Europe (who would have to deal with increased instability in an increasingly volatile sociopolitical period). This does not mean that things cannot change, however. Catalonia’s calls for greater sociopolitical autonomy should be met; the tax burden should be more equally distributed; and, most importantly, the Spanish identity needs to be redefined. One shouldn’t have to be a Castilian-speaking, flag-waving, nationalist to be considered Spanish. Spaniards, as a collective whole, should work to embrace regional cultural and linguistic differences into the national identity, similar to programs implemented in Canada. Now, Spain needs to do some soul-searching; the time for civil discourse and solidarity is now more than ever.

If you wish to discuss this article or comment on the issue, check out the thread titled "Catalonian Independence" on the Slant Forum.