The Spanish constitutional settlement is in crisis

The Spanish state is falling apart, and the ongoing Catalan uprising is but one manifestation of its collapse.

Catalan protests Reuters
Protesters face police officers as they demonstrate at an airport after a verdict in a trial over a banned independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, October 14, 2019 [File: Albert Gea/Reuters]

Despite two decades of deepening entrenchment on both sides of the Catalan question, Spaniards would be mistaken if they were to welcome the clampdown on the region’s self-determination movement. For, in the fight currently unfolding in the streets of Catalonia, the quality and integrity of Spanish democracy is also at stake.

After two years of pre-trial imprisonment, on Monday the Spanish Supreme Court sentenced the political and civic leaders of Catalonia’s recent bid for self-determination to between nine and 13 years in prison. The harshness of the court’s decision has been justified on the grounds that the actions of the accused amounted to “sedition” -an ambiguous legal notion that targets any form of “public and tumultuous uprising” against the state, whether violent or not. The court’s broad interpretation of what amounts to sedition sets a dark precedent for the right to protest in Spain, already under erosion by the highly repressive “Gag Law” of 2015.

Catalans have not lost their resolve. The long-awaited sentence has been met with a wave of civil disobedience. Responding to the call of an anonymous group, masses of protesters have taken to the streets to stage a “democratic tsunami” that has disrupted critical infrastructure, from highways to high-speed rail lines to Barcelona’s El Prat airport.

Catalan nationhood

The current events are the culmination of more than a decade of escalating tensions around the status of Catalan nationhood within Spain. This issue was left unresolved by the artful ambiguity of the 1978 Constitution, the bedrock of the post-Franco political settlement. However, the meaning of Catalan nationhood was put to the test by the conflict that unfolded around the region’s 2006 statute of devolution, the “estatut”. That year, the Catalan parliament approved a new self-government charter that included a series of preambular references to Catalan nationhood.

It was around the same time that the Partido Popular (PP), the main conservative party in Spain, began to rehearse an electoral strategy premised on polarising relations with the country’s cultural minorities. This strategy involved a tactical retreat from Catalonia and Basque Country, regions where the party’s Francoist origins do not harvest them many votes anyway, to instead galvanise their Spanish nationalist base elsewhere. It was in this context that the PP staged an aggressive campaign against “the estatut” and challenged it in the Constitutional Court.

The Constitutional Court reached its verdict in 2010: it struck down large parts of the Catalan statute, rewriting it almost completely and purging it of all references to Catalan nationhood, however symbolic. In Catalonia, this decision was perceived as nothing short of a breach of the federal settlement that was once foundational to the constitutional order. The reaction was a million-strong protest in Barcelona under the banner: “We are a nation, we decide.”

This sentiment was then exacerbated by the financial crisis. In 2011, mass protests against austerity and corruption swept the country, hailing the values of direct democracy against a detached political class. In Catalonia, these protests combined with pre-existing grievances around “the estatut” and morphed into widespread calls for an independence referendum against an unrepresentative government in Madrid.

The figures are damning: when the infamous statute was first passed in 2006, only 13 percent of Catalans expressed their preference for an independent state. By 2013, this figure had surged to a critical 48 percent.

Escalating tensions

Outside observers are sometimes perplexed by the inability to reach a political solution to the Catalan deadlock, most likely in the form of a negotiated binding referendum like those held in Scotland or Quebec. This is because, over the last decade, Spanish-Catalan relations have become locked in an escalating dynamic from which the elites of neither side can climb down without facing electoral suicide.

The PP government of Mariano Rajoy opted for digging itself in an intransigent stance, in an effort to wait out the storm while blowing the occasional dog whistle to the far-right section of their base. For example, in 2012 the conservative education minister made explicit his intention to “hispanicise” (españolizar) Catalan students, conjuring up memories of linguistic repression under Franco’s dictatorship.

However, far from appeasing Spanish nationalists, this approach simply emboldened them and made them impatient at Rajoy’s hesitance to act against the revolt brewing in Catalonia. Eventually, Rajoy’s inaction spawned him a competitor in the form of the staunch unionist party Ciudadanos, which began to push the PP into a harder line.

Starting in 2014, the Catalan government began to drift towards open insubordination, engaging in a series of escalating actions to force Madrid into referendum negotiations. These included unorthodox plebiscites on the question of independence, steamrolling through parliamentary norms, or passing laws laying down the juridical transition towards an independent republic. The moment of truth came in October 2017, when the Catalan government organised an illegal referendum of self-determination and announced its intention to declare independence unilaterally if need be. The Spanish government did not flinch – instead, they sent a detachment of 10,000 police officers to suppress the democratic revolt.

In the morning of the much-awaited referendum, millions of Catalans turned out amid brutal charges from Spanish security forces. Reminiscent of a not-so-distant authoritarian past, riot police stormed polling stations and yanked the ballot boxes from the hands of those barricaded inside. Shortly after, the Spanish government proceeded to suspend Catalan devolution and round up the organisers of the referendum.

Morbid symptoms

Since then, the dynamic of escalation has not subsided. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the PP’s current leader, Pablo Casado, found it timely to remind Catalan leaders of the fate of Lluis Companys, the region’s president during the 1930’s, who in 1940 was arrested by Nazi troops before being tortured and executed by Franco’s regime. In the meantime, yet another competitor has spawned to the right of the PP, the far-right Vox, whose irruption has only accelerated the “race to the right” around the Catalan question.

By contrast, the issue of Catalan self-determination has split the left in opposing directions. The centre-left Partido Socialista (PSOE), in power since 2018, entertained the idea of accepting Spain’s “plurinationality” for a short period of time. But after the breakdown of government negotiations with the far-left Podemos, the only Spanish party advocating for a negotiated referendum, PSOE has swung back towards an uncompromising unionist stance, threatening any further insubordination with more repression. PSOE’s recent lurch to the right is an effort to attract Spanish nationalist votes in an upcoming snap election, something that makes unlikely the prospect of issuing a government pardon for the Catalan leaders.

The authoritarian responses of the Spanish ruling class should be seen as attempts to paper over what are in fact deep structural cracks in the state’s edifice. The political settlement that in 1978 laid down the current foundations of the Spanish state is falling apart, and the ongoing Catalan uprising is but one manifestation of its collapse, though undoubtedly the most urgent and evident.

Over the last decade, all attempts to buttress the regime have only managed to stabilise the social order for brief periods. But the signs of decay keep resurfacing: from the indignados to Podemos, to the Catalan revolt, to Vox. Short of a sweeping recomposition of the state, a momentous task that the Spanish ruling class seems incapable of undertaking the unmistakable symptoms of regime crisis will continue to flare up for the foreseeable future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.