In Alejandro Amenábar’s 2019 film on the Spanish Civil War, Mientras dure la guerra (“While at War”), a melancholic Francisco Franco ruminates that “España es asi; siempre a la gresca” (“Spain is like that; always a brawl”). Given the current state of the country’s politics and intense protests numbering in the hundreds of thousands that have rocked it for the better part of the past few weeks, it appears the observation still holds almost a century later.
At the time of the writing, the country faces a real risk of being torn apart. The current row primarily revolves around the fallout of the general election held earlier this year, which failed to deliver a clear majority for any political party. This led to an extended period of negotiations and political maneuvering to form a coalition government. Seeking to break this state of affairs, the country’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, did what is being described as either “a coup d’etat,” or “the ultimate gamble,” or both, depending on where one stands politically. This effort and the resulting situation carry significant implications not only for Spain but also for Western democracies more broadly.
The Catalonia Issue
It is more accurate to say that the current crisis really began five years ago, in 2017. At that time, the government of the northeastern region of Catalonia held a referendum on whether it should separate from Spain. For uninformed outside observers, this may appear to be an unusual but not necessarily radical development; are not self-determination and the consent of the governed the very foundation of a democracy? If many Catalans feel that they ought to have a vote on whether to remain a part of Spain or become their own nation, shouldn’t they have that right?
The issue, as many political scientists and foreign affairs experts will point out, is that such decisions cannot be made alone; they must occur in a broader national context. If Catalans have a say, don’t other Spaniards as well, including and especially those who live in Catalonia?
It is with these sorts of complicated regional dynamics and questions of national identity in mind that Spain’s Constitution was carefully written in 1978. In this document, the very first article states quite clearly that “National sovereignty is vested in the Spanish people” as a unified whole. Yet this unity encounters a nuanced counterpoint in the second article, which acknowledges the aspirations for autonomy among Spain’s diverse regions, albeit noting that “the Constitution is based in the indissoluble unity of the nation, common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards” (emphasis mine).
Further intricacy is added by article ninety-two, which opens the door to plebiscites for decisions of grave importance—which presumably includes the question of whether a particular region of the country should be able to attain independence. However, this is hedged with checks and balances: initiating such referendums is contingent upon the combined agreement of the monarchy, the prime minister, and the country’s parliament.
It is on this point that Catalonia’s government, acting on a promise made during the 2015 regional elections to push for a referendum, erred. The government under then-regional president Carles Puigdemont opted for a unilateral referendum rather than one authorized by Spain’s king, prime minister, and parliament. In effect, this meant that the referendum was not only openly illegal per the Constitution but also that the Puigdemont government was committing sedition (as defined in Spain’s legal code). The Puigdemont government went even further, passing a law stating that the referendum would pass with a simple majority, even though Catalonia’s own regional statutes require a two-thirds parliamentary majority for any change to the region’s status. Even the Council of Europe, a nongovernmental human rights organization that Puigdemont consulted, indicated that a referendum had to legally be done “in full compliance with the constitution.”
Nonetheless, Puigdemont and his government proceeded. A not insignificant number of Catalan government figures, including several cabinet ministers, the chief of police, and various others, who opposed going forward with an illegal unilateral referendum either resigned or were fired.
In the end, though the vote came out overwhelmingly in favor of independence, it could hardly be argued as the firm basis for such a decision: turnout was merely 43 percent, as most of the region’s inhabitants (including unionists in favor of maintaining Spanish unity) boycotted the vote. Furthermore, the vote’s legitimacy was further marred by the fact that various polling stations were closed by the police, either federal (acting under the orders of Madrid) or regional (in response to conflicting directives).
In response to the Catalonian government’s illegal and openly seditious behavior, Madrid imposed direct rule on the region and arrested hundreds of pro-independence figures for sedition. Puigdemont himself fled to Brussels, set up a self-styled “Catalonian government-in-exile,” and attempted to rile up support from European states to the purported Catalan cause. The EU and its various constituent countries quickly came down on the side of Madrid, primarily by broadly noting that this was a domestic political matter that must be settled per the laws and Constitution of Spain. This was undoubtedly the correct response; to condone a unilateral and dubious referendum of this sort would establish a terrifying precedent in international relations. Had the EU and the international community backed Puigdemont, they would have effectively condoned such exercises being carried out in the future. Given Russia’s “annexation” of Ukraine’s provinces of Donbas and Luhansk, which was also based on similarly dubious referendums, this is something that must be avoided.
However, Brussels—once again taking the view that it would be best not to get involved in a domestic political affair involving national self-determination—permitted Puigdemont to stay in Belgium and spared him extradition, thus allowing him to remain politically active, become an elected European parliamentarian (MEP) after the 2019 elections, and mastermind the creation of a new, pro-independence political party, Together for Catalonia (Junts), in 2020.
This brings us back to the present. Following the general elections in July of this year, the main parties involved in negotiations to form a new government are the left-wing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), led by Pedro Sánchez, and the right-wing People’s Party (PP) led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo. The election saw the PSOE perform unexpectedly well, while the PP, despite winning the most seats, fell well short of a majority. Contrary to expectations, both the PP and the hard-right party VOX, which was expected to perform well and form a coalition government, underperformed.
The resulting situation, where neither the political Left nor Right blocs had enough seats to form a coalition government, left Junts—a separatist party with a still man wanted for sedition and openly violating the Spanish Constitution—as the kingmaker in government formation negotiations. Puigdemont’s ask was simple: amnesty for himself and his supporters. Until now, almost no one in the Spanish political mainstream considered this. Sanchez himself said, prior to the election, that any amnesty for those arrested for sedition would be “unacceptable.”
This is all the more reason why the news announced on October 28 has enraged a great deal of Spanish society: Sánchez declared that he would grant Junts and the other pro-Catalan independence party in his coalition, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) major concessions in order to form a coalition government. These concessions include not only amnesty for Puigdemont and his supporters but also for other pro-independence Catalonian activists and operators on trial for terrorism (for blocking highways and shutting down Barcelona’s airport following the Spanish high court’s ruling charging Puigdemont and company with sedition and embezzlement).
It is this proposal that has turned hundreds of thousands onto the streets. For the country’s political Right, this deal is a de facto coup in that such a deal effectively pardons open and wanton violations of the Spanish Constitution and forgoes another election (the reasonable recourse in a politically deadlocked situation such as this one) for the sake of political expedience.
The political center appears sympathetic to this view, if not in concurrence; polling shows that “more than two-thirds of Spaniards are opposed to an amnesty.” Judicial bodies and associations have voiced a “near unanimous” rejection of the deal. The president of the International Bar Association, himself a Spaniard, warned that Sánchez’s gamble “will severely erode the rule of law in Spain.” Miriam González Durántez, an international lawyer and founder of España Mejor (“a non-partisan organization to counteract political disengagement and polarization”), took to the pages of the Financial Times to denounce the deal as one that “breaches fundamental tenets of the rule of law that should be upheld, not undermined, in a mature democracy.” Even amongst the Left and within the PSOE itself, there is unease and internal division over the deal, with political figures what effects the deal could have both for Spain and for their own careers.
Spain, in short, is facing its worst political crisis since the death of Franco.
“Democracy” for Whom?
As of the time of writing, Sánchez seems to have pulled off the impossible. The country’s parliament has invested him as prime minister, breaking the post-election deadlock.