Sergi Pardos-Prado

An interesting pattern emerges in memoirs of writers who experienced episodes of major political violence like civil or international wars: almost nobody saw it coming. One could feel that rhetoric was heating up, that positions were becoming incomprehensibly polarised. But the feeling that ‘the worst’ could never happen to us, not in our time, seemed to be quite widespread. Democratic and civil rights are sometimes given for granted. Public opinion tends to disregard signs of democratic regression. This is perhaps why the images of the Spanish police violently repressing peaceful voters of all ages last Sunday in Catalonia feel so profoundly surreal, unexpected, and frightening.

The current conflict between Spain and Catalonia is a clash between two fundamentally different conceptions of democracy. One the one hand, the constitutionalist view argues that the legitimacy of the state relies on legal frameworks adopted via democratically institutionalised channels. According to this view, the function of the state is to provide security, stability, and public goods. This view, with distant echoes in Hobbesian and Weberian conceptions of the state, regards the provision of stability as superior to the potential chaos of volatile minority demands in public opinion. The main arguments used by this view is that Spain has scored comparatively well in economic and political development indexes so far, and that the Spanish Constitution voted in 1978 got overwhelming public support, also in Catalonia.

The second view is a bottom-up or strictly liberal conception of democracy. This view sees the legitimacy of the law as a function of the fluctuating nature of the people’s will, and not pre-existing to that will. It regards the protection of minorities and individual rights of expression and self-determination as superior to the role of the state in providing stability. This view has gained strength over the last years: 70-80% of Catalans (depending on the poll) support the idea of a legal referendum on independence, which would require modifying the constitution (as it has been previously done concerning other minor issues). This view does not regret the 1978 vote, but argues that constitutional pacts need to be updated generationally, and that 40 years is a reasonable time. Especially since the 1978 vote came after four decades of dictatorship, and was essentially a choice between democracy or nothing.

The polarisation between the constitutional and self-determination perspectives has increased for two main reasons. First, a perception of Spanish intransigence to accommodate Catalan demands, and a subsequent feeling of betrayal. The Catalan Parliament sought a federal update of the constitutional pact in 2005 via established procedures, and approved the reform of the region's statute on autonomy with 89% of the votes. This reform involved 2 key issues: a new body to directly collect regional taxes (similar to what already exists for the Basque and Navarrese regions, and other federal countries), and a symbolic recognition of Catalonia as a nation. The conservative party (PP) started a campaign against the Catalan law, and the governing socialist party at the time (PSOE) watered down the deal in the Spanish Parliament. The new but less ambitious law was sealed in a regional referendum in 2006, in a climate of slight political disaffection. Some core principles of the statute approved by the Catalan Parliament and the 2006 referendum were subsequently banned in 2010 by a still controversial sentence of the Constitutional Court. Accurately or not, this process was perceived by increasing numbers of Catalans as a signal that a federal arrangement was not possible, and that both Spanish mainstream parties and a politicised constitutional court were for the first time united in an antagonising camp.

The second reason for the increase in support for Catalan self-determination lies on the dramatic consequences of the global financial crisis and a myriad of notorious corruption scandals affecting the whole political spectrum. While unemployment levels skyrocketed and prominent public officials and members of the royal family were sitting in court, some citizens who had never felt strongly Catalan genuinely believed that secession could be a way out. This functional support for independence re-activated older narratives about Spain being an underperforming and dubiously democratic state, which were particularly hurtful for some segments in Spanish public opinion.

Despite political decentralization being very high in Spain, regions have limited powers to raise and handle tax revenue. Comparative research shows that the mismatch between full political responsibility to manage public services (like health and education) without the power for regions to raise and handle their own financial resources is correlated with negative macro-economic outcomes. This mismatch, also called fiscal vertical imbalance, is above the OECD average in Spain, and almost 30% superior than other decentralised countries like Germany, Switzerland, the US, and Canada. It also allows regional elites to credibly blame the central government for not allocating resources fairly or efficiently across regions. However, support for a proper fiscal federal arrangement is inexistent among mainstream national parties, and very limited in Spanish public opinion.

After a majority of seats and 48% of the popular vote in the last regional election, and the impossibility to negotiate a legal referendum, the strategy of the independence movement relies on two fronts: gathering more public support for secession beyond 50%, and force international mediation. Last Sunday’s referendum was technically illegal, but managed to internationally frame the Spanish government as an actor ready to ban popular votes, and to brutally repress the old and the young for casting a ballot.

With the response of the European Commission avoiding the condemnation of state violence and backing a political actor who is not up for dialogue, the incentive for the independence movement now is not to lose credibility and to keep pushing its strategy forward. An imminent unilateral declaration of independence triggering the suspension of autonomy and the arrest of public officials to accelerate international involvement is a likely scenario. The cost, however, could be more physical repression or weakening the scarce international sympathies that secession movements generate in Western democracies. An alternative scenario is to call early regional elections. This could avoid more repression and loss of international sympathies, but could lose momentum and allow other issues to get into the agenda and blur the interpretation of the electoral result.

The rationale of the Spanish government strategy is harder to interpret. Why allow international journalists to capture disturbing images of repression rather than simply ignoring the result of an illegal referendum with likely low turnout? Spanish elites assume that the Catalan median voter is silent, does not favour independence, and is risk averse. They also perceive the movement as internally divided and likely to weaken with further economic growth. Given the strong support of Spanish public opinion for the legal approach and its previous success containing Basque nationalism, the cost of repressing by law a structurally feeble movement once and for all could be lower than allowing it to progressively grow.

Strategic calculi aside, photographs that could have been taken in the 1930s scattered across the front pages of major international newspapers could not have been more shameful. The moral implications of what happened on Sunday will be difficult to forget for young generations of voters, and cannot have pushed a short-term solution further away.


Sergi Pardos-Prado is Associate Professor and Fellow in Politics at Merton College, Oxford. He tweets@ @sergipardos.