Imagine a world in which, in one of the world’s most developed and socially liberal countries, a region’s declaration for independence is met with police brutality and complete removal of that region’s autonomy. It almost sounds like something you would see in a dystopian novel. Sadly, this is now the reality that we live in. After Catalonia’s successful independence referendum on October 1, the Spanish government chose to crack down on the region and sack its government. Even though it is true that the referendum was technically illegal, Spain’s response has shown that their government is more than willing to restrict the democratic ideas of the Catalan independence movement, which is incredibly concerning.
This Catalan independence movement was by no means something new—Catalonia has a long history of a desire for independence, and is historically and culturally different from the rest of Spain. In part, this is why Spain’s reaction was so perplexing. Obviously, Spain has plenty of reasons to keep Catalonia, most notably including its very successful economy, and it is firmly illegal in the Spanish constitution for regions to declare independence. However, there is no justification for the use of armed forces just to keep polling stations closed. If Spain wanted to keep this matter under wraps, they should have simply disregarded the referendum results. For example, they could have made the case that voter turnout (at 43%) was too low, and thus the vote was illegitimate. This has been done before, and it certainly would have been a better move than forcible prevention of voting in the first place.
It is fully understandable that independence for Catalonia would come at a huge expense to Spain. But really, this issue is more than just a question of the effects that independence could have on finances and geopolitical relations. The issue goes all the way back to the fundamentals of democracy and how we view it. When we look back on history, we see independence movements as a kind of proof that democracy always corresponds with triumph. Nobody ever looks back and says that the American Revolution hurt us by allowing us to self-govern. Meanwhile, one can look back on the history of Spain itself and see that the current Spanish leadership isn’t in great company in its desire to silence Catalonia; the last administration to impose major restrictions on the region was that of the dictator Francisco Franco, who isn’t exactly revered in modern circles. This is not at all to say that Mariano Rajoy is the next Franco, but it is still important to note that the same kinds of policies we could potentially see go into effect in Spain are not rooted in democracy. Rather, they are rooted in dictatorship and repression.
The use of police forces to restrict a democratic voting process and the sacking of the Catalan government have shown that the Spanish government is not afraid to use whatever means necessary to keep Catalonia a part of their nation. However, this same aggression will most likely energize more people to the cause of independence. Soon, we will see the final repercussions of these actions, in which an agitated and united region will confront a nation that has denied them of their rights. As long as Spain continues to repress the Catalan region, they cannot say that they truly support the democratic expression of all of their citizens.