A Spanish coup in Catalonia

François Diaz-Maurin is a nuclear security visiting scholar at FSI’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He spent the last seven years at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain studying environmental science and technology.

Following a highly-politicized debate from abroad is always emotional when it gets to your country. In this article, I provide an account of the current situation over the self-determination referendum in Catalonia, which is becoming more than a simple political debate. Then, I argue that the situation in Catalonia is only the tip of the iceberg of a broader phenomenon toward more direct democracies.

BARCELONA, SPAIN — SEPTEMBER 11: People march during a demonstration celebrating the Catalan National Day in Barcelona, Spain. The Spanish Northeastern autonomous region celebrates its National Day on September 11, marked by the secession referendum of October 1 which was approved by the Catalan Parliament and banned by the Spanish Government. Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images.

Tensions between Spain’s central government in Madrid and the regional Catalan government in Barcelona are escalating as the referendum for Catalonia’s independence approaches. The October 1 referendum is considered illegal and unconstitutional by the Spanish government, and Madrid has been using all its power to prevent it from being held.

Last week, the Spanish national police, known as the Guardia Civil, seized more than 100,000 pro-referendum posters that were hidden around Barcelona. Advertising the referendum is prohibited by the Spanish government, and the official website has been banned, forcing the Govern to use “mirror websites” hosted outside of Spain.

Dozens of mayors received a summons as part of a criminal probe ordered last week by Spain’s public prosecutor, the Fiscalía Superior. More than 700 mayors who support holding the referendum may face arrest.

The Road to the Coup

On Wednesday of last week, the Guardia Civil and the Fiscalía Superior conducted a coordinated series of police operations. Several regional government buildings were investigated, including the Catalan Ministry of the Economy, and 14 senior Catalan officials were arrested. On the same evening, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, called on the Catalan separatist government to end the “escalation of radicalism and disobedience.” Tensions between Madrid and Barcelona reached a new high.

Displeased that the Catalan government decided to continue with the referendum, the Fiscalía Superior sent ordinary citizens notifications of convocation before the tribunal. Those sharing information about the referendum on the web were accused of disobedience and conspiracy involving the state.

On Saturday, the Spanish government announced that a colonel of the Guardia Civil would take control of the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan autonomous police. From Catalonia’s perspective, this constitutes a coup d’état. Catalan Minister of Interior Joaquim Forn immediately responded that the Mossos would not accept this. He was followed by the president of the Govern, Carles Puigdemont, who said, “the Spanish government has overtaken the red line that separated it from authoritarian and repressive regimes.” What had been a legal battle between Madrid and Barcelona became an issue of national security.

From cities around Spain, rallies have been organized by activist groups to support Catalonia’s sovereignty. Pro-independence Catalans received support from many observers and elected officials around the world as they watched the events unfold.


Madrid and Barcelona accuse each other of radicalism, though how the Catalan government can be considered radical is unclear.

The independence movement is making the Spanish government uneasy, but the road to referendum has been long and dominated by democratic processes. The vote was announced by the Govern immediately after the 2015 elections, when a majority of Catalans indicated that they wanted a referendum in 2017. Independence was never sure though, as only 40 percent of Catalans favor it, and Spain never agreed to negotiate.

Though Catalonia has experienced repression since the Spanish Civil War, the independence movement has focused on peaceful protests. By continuing to organize a vote, the Govern has used a strategy of civil disobedience as it did during Catalonia’s last attempted referendum in 2014.

BARCELONA, SPAIN — SEPTEMBER 24: Carnations are seen on a wall next to pro-referendum posters during a Catalan Pro-Independence meeting in Barcelona, Spain. Spain’s government announced measures to exert more control over the Catalan Autonomous Police, Mossos d’Esquadra. More than 4,000 members of the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard are being deployed in Catalonia, accommodated on three ferry boats moored at Barcelona and Tarragona ports. Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images.

Last week’s police operations reveal a radicalization of Spanish power.

The Fiscalía Superior sent a letter warning the Govern that Madrid will send more police forces to stop the October 1 referendum. The famous joke that Spain would march with tanks on Barcelona one day may well come true.

Last weekend, in Barcelona and other cities of Catalonia, groups of Spanish nationalists organized counter-protests in support of the Guardia Civil. However, the tolerance of the Guardia Civil to fascist groups, illustrated once again last week by officers applauding a man doing the Nazi salute on one of those protests, is not a good sign for democracy.

Looking Ahead

Whatever one may think of Catalonia’s independence, the question of redistributing political power to lower levels is a legitimate one. In almost all Western countries, the paradigm of the welfare state is fading. Nations are no longer able to guarantee progress for all. Austerity measures in Spain after the economic crisis of 2008 make this clear.

In such a deadlocked situation, one may look at processes ongoing in nature to understand what is at play. When subject to a situation of stress (like climate change), many species have the ability to shrink their body size in order to survive and keep their options as widely open as possible. Societies are no different. After almost a decade of economic recession, with no bright future envisioned, a society like Catalonia may seek better control of their institutions by shrinking their size. This is happening in other countries as well. For example, the (failed) constitutional reform of 2010–2013 in Iceland shows that populations are calling for more direct democracy. What is more democratic than organizing a referendum?

The former Regent of Spain, General Espartero, famously said, “You have to bomb Barcelona at least once every 50 years.” We are approaching the 50 year mark. To avoid another conflict, it is essential that the Spanish government let the October 1 referendum be held and that Catalans decide their own future.

Faculty views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.



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