Spain: Catalan crisis spotlights Europe’s anti-democratic slide
Independence supporters march during a demonstration in downtown Barcelona, Oct. 2. Catalan leaders accused Spanish police of brutality and repression while the Spanish government praised the security forces for behaving firmly. | Felipe Dana / AP

Paramilitary riot police deployed by the central state. Rubber-coated bullets and percussion grenades. Over 900 injured. Blood-splattered elderly women. Ballot boxes seized and polling places stormed.

The Catalonian independence referendum last Sunday is a watershed in Europe.

The repression ordered by right-wing Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy immediately summoned up memories of the brutality of the years of the Francisco Franco dictatorship, which ended following his death in 1975 and a transition to parliamentary democracy.

Designed to brutalize the core of the Catalan independence movement and to intimidate others from voting—whether yes or no—Rajoy’s repression has transformed a contested question of regional secession into a deeper clash between authoritarianism and democracy.

Some 2.3 million—or 42 percent of the electorate—did manage to vote, and over 90 percent of them said yes to the Catalan regional government declaring independence from Spain.

Strikes, stay-aways, and a retail shutdown spread across Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia on Tuesday in protest at Sunday’s brutality, with left-wing activists raising calls for popular assemblies and radical change.

The response from Rajoy’s minority government in Madrid was contemptuous. He dismissed the referendum, a remarkable organizational feat, as a “mere dramatization” and praised the Guardia Civil national police for acting “serenely.”

President of of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, hinted at taking the referendum result to the regional parliament, with its pro-independence majority, to act upon this week.

He also appealed for mediation with Madrid, through the European Union as interlocutors. But the European Commission on Monday threw its support wholly behind the Spanish government, saying: “Under the Spanish constitution, yesterday’s vote in Catalonia was not legal.

“For the European Commission, as President [Jean-Claude] Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.”

It went on to declare for the “unity and stability” of the Spanish state and, rather than condemning the repression, voiced abstract pieties about violence in general.

In Britain, the Foreign Office made no reference to violence, and only affirmed that it sees the Rajoy government as a strong ally.

It was in marked contrast to left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, who both condemned the repression on Sunday.

On the other side of the Atlantic, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared at a joint press conference with Rajoy on September 26, before the referendum, where he declared that Catalan succession would be “foolish.”

Previously the United States’ official position was non-committal, holding that it was an internal matter to be decided in Spain. But Trump staked out support for Rajoy and the central government, saying, “I’m for a united Spain,” and claimed that if “accurate” polls were carried out, “you’d find out people of Catalonia love their country, they love Spain.”

The contrasting political responses are a reflection of how the Catalan independence issue is now bound up with the much wider clash between popular democratic sentiment and increasing authoritarianism across Europe.

It is precisely because the Rajoy government refused to allow a referendum legally under Spanish law that the Catalan regional government was forced to organize its own.

And it has been on account of the refusal of right-wing governments, and of the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), in Madrid to accommodate calls for greater autonomous powers for the Catalan administration that demands for independence have grown.

A 2006 law to extend those powers was partially struck down and then not implemented. On taking office in 2011, in the depths of the Eurozone crisis, Rajoy spurned any move to compromise with Catalan aspirations.

Public opinion in Catalonia is divided on actually declaring independence. But there is overwhelming opposition to the repression and for the right to self-determination, which means being allowed to vote on it.

The hard line taken by Rajoy, leading to dramatic escalation, is deeply rooted. The constitution he and his EU backers appeal to is from 1978.

It is less than democratic and made major concessions to the old Francoist right as a price for a transition to democracy that would leave their power and wealthy interests as little touched as possible.

One feature was to grant some autonomy for minority nations in the Spanish state but to declare the inviolable unity of Spain and make it impossible, in practice, to have a legal referendum on secession.

Another was to keep the monarchy that Franco had re-established as a focus for continuity of reactionary, militarist, and monarchist forces that had run Spain since the end of the civil war in 1939.

The arrangement held for decades. The center-left PSOE provided an incorporating mechanism bringing the militant labor movement of the 1970s under control.

The right-wing People’s Party (PP) held together the descendants of Francoism with modern neoliberal business interests. The two parties dominated—with alliances with regional parties—and entry into the EU and NATO was meant to copper-fasten a “normal” European twin-party system.

Then came the Great Recession of 2008 and with it the eruption of movements against austerity.

One casualty—as in Greece, which also underwent a similar transition to truncated democracy in the 1970s—was the apparently stable two-party system.

Both the PP and PSOE lost huge support with the rise of the anti-system Podemos party, its imitation on the right, Ciudadanos, and radical regional parties, such as those powering the independence movement in Catalonia.

A second was the unravelling of the constitutional settlement of 1978. A massive corruption scandal surrounding the royal family four years ago peeled away the constitutional gilding to reveal something of the corrupt vested interests it protected.

This is what lies behind the repressive line taken by Rajoy, with all its risks and escalation of the conflict.

If he were instead to seek a new relationship with a more autonomous Catalonia—through the talks that some centrist European figures are calling for—it would threaten to unpick the whole post-Franco settlement.

And that was meant to contain not only national frictions in Spain, but the clashes of class and mass political forces that shaped Spanish history in the 1930s and mid-1970s.

It was also designed to keep the historic far-right within the bounds of the parliamentarist PP. Rajoy’s repression—also meted out to those elsewhere in Spain who support the right of the Catalans to hold a vote—has already given license to hard-right Spanish chauvinists, and even fascists, to organize.

The crisis is not going away, whether or not Puigdemont opts for a declaration of independence or some process of mediation emerges this week.

It is symptomatic of processes across Europe. For two years, there has been rhetoric from Brussels about the anti-democratic outrages of the right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary.

The implication was that this was an Eastern European problem.

But France is still under a state of emergency. Emmanuel Macron will this month try to incorporate those authoritarian measures into ordinary French law. And legislation by presidential decree, not National Assembly vote, has become normalized in Paris.

On Sunday, Oct. 1, a Spanish riot police shoots rubber bullet at voters trying to reach a polling station in Barcelona. | Emilio Morenatti / AP

The turn to authoritarian methods is a response to popular democratic feeling for radical change from the failed neoliberal model across Europe.

That brought an elected left government in Greece and a massive rejection of austerity in another national referendum two years ago. Both were crushed and overturned by undemocratic concentrations of power.

That is what is at stake over Catalonia for any on the left, of the labor movement, or just plain consistent democrats.

There are people on the left in Spain, including Catalonia, who are for independence and others against. That is a matter of debate on the left.

But what cannot be up for debate is defending democracy, the right to vote on self-determination, and the principle that a nation that oppresses another—as Spanish police have done in Barcelona—cannot itself be free.

This article originally appeared in Morning Star and is supplemented with information from the Associated Press.


CONTRIBUTOR

Kevin Ovenden
Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a longstanding socialist activist and writer in Britain who has closely followed politics, society and culture for over twenty-five years. He writes particularly on racism, the politics of the Middle East and the crisis of the Eurozone. He is a national officer of both the Stop the War Coalition and of Unite Against Fascism. He led five blockade-busting aid convoys to Gaza and is on the executive committee of the International Campaign to Return to Palestine.

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