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Old sins cast long shadows: Repressing ballots with batons in Catalonia

The Oct. 1 referendum on Catalan independence made headlines, but not because of its result. As CNN reported, “some 893 people were injured as riot police raided polling stations, dragged away voters, and fired rubber bullets during clashes.” International media published videos showing Spanish policemen beating people up, from teenagers to old ladies. Nonetheless, about 43 percent of Catalans managed to vote, and among those, 92 percent voted to secede from Spain. Three of the four main Spanish political parties, making up 70 percent of the members of Parliament in Madrid, failed to condemn police brutality. The Spanish government condoned it by calling it “proportionate.”

In my recent article, I tried to explain why the Catalan government was so stubborn about holding a self-determination referendum and why the Spanish government was so adamant to forbid it. Many observers expected the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to continue to use non-violent repressive measures to impede the vote. Few expected these high levels of police brutality. In light of them, friends and colleagues asked me: “Why did Spanish police repress peaceful voters so violently? Isn’t Spain a democracy?” And “what will happen next?”


Bewilderment at the violent repression stems from an unduly optimistic view of Spanish democracy. Some forget that Franco’s repressive regime ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975, 30 years after fascism had been defeated elsewhere in Europe. A proto-fascist regime also ruled Spain in the 1920s. Before then, Spain’s political history combines absolutist monarchs such as Charles V and Ferdinand VII with periods of oligarchic rule. These periods were characterized, among other things, by the repression of minorities such as Catalans, Basques, and non-Catholics. If practice makes perfect, Spain is short of democratic practice. On the upside, this makes Spain’s 40-year largely democratic run quite remarkable. On the downside, majority rule is but one central aspect of democratic rule.

In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill argued that two fundamental components of democracy need to be carefully balanced: the will of the majority and the rights of minorities. Considering only the first risks a “tyranny of the majority.” In devising rules, he said, the majority should consider whether they would accept such rules were they instead the minority. In practice, the majority considers whether it should accommodate the minority (when some political logic, such as the need to build a coalition, favors a compromise), ignore the minority (in the hope that it will eventually accept the status quo), or repress the minority (with the goal of inducing acquiescence by squashing dissent).

Disregarding the rights of minorities can be advantageous for the majority. For one thing, the majority can extract economic rents from minorities. For another, the majority does not have to alter its cultural, economic, or other policies. Many governments and empires throughout history have followed this approach. However, repeatedly ignoring the demands of a minority has a key shortcoming: it prevents learning from and engaging with the minority’s viewpoints. After 150 years asking for a federal-type bargain and hoping for Spain to become more modern and tolerant, many Catalans appear to have run out of patience. In a time when democracy and dialogue are the norm in Europe, Spain’s uncompromising political culture appears ill-suited to deal (peacefully, at least) with the 80 percent of Catalans that support an independence referendum — irrespective of their stance on it.

Historical baggage notwithstanding, why didn’t Rajoy limit himself to non-violent legal repression against Catalan leaders? He may believe that a strict interpretation of the Constitution combined with hard repression is the way to show Catalans who is in charge. Many Spanish conservatives that grew up before 1975 were socialized into such a mentality. Rajoy’s mentor, Manuel Fraga, was a minister under Franco in the 1960s. Amidst complaints of police repression, Fraga infamously said: “The street is mine!” In other words, demonstrate at your own risk. On Oct. 1, his mentee let Catalans vote at their own risk.

Rajoy may have also balanced the pros and cons of using police force. For the cons, Spain’s international image took a hit. Using batons against ballots is not the paragon of democratic tolerance. Also, Rajoy antagonized some Catalans even further. For the pros, he may have instilled fear in other Catalans — if not personal fear, fear of the political and economic instability that Spanish repression may generate. Also, by condemning and violently disrupting the referendum, he reduced turnout to about 43 percent. Sardonically, the Spanish government can now claim that we do not know whether most Catalans want to secede from Spain. Finally, if Rajoy anticipated that the European Union cabinet and the German and French leaders, Angela Merkel and Macron, would fail to explicitly condemn the violence, he was right. The top EU leaders did not dare to criticize a pro-EU ally like Spain, even if Catalonia has always been unambiguously pro-EU. Some hoped that EU leaders would place human rights above political considerations and rise to the occasion. With a few exceptions, they did not. Negative international press and over 800 wounded notwithstanding, the Spanish government came out mostly unscathed.

What will happen next? A majority of MPs in the Catalan Parliament (53 percent) were elected on explicitly pro-independence platforms in 2015, and they passed a law binding them to obey the results of the referendum. However, Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, put independence on hold on Tuesday to give dialogue with Spain yet another chance. The Spanish government rejects any sort of dialogue, so the international mediation that the Catalan government desires is unlikely unless conflict escalation threatens the EU’s economic or political stability. In that extreme case, EU leaders might pressure Rajoy to sit at the table. For now, the Spanish government threatens to suspend the regional government and imprison Puigdemont. More repression may subdue some Catalans through fear, but it may lead an ever-larger number of them to favor independence. One wishes that Spain had the democratic culture of Britain, which agreed to Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014. But you cannot make a silk purse out of a pig’s ear. Or, as the Spanish saying goes, “You cannot ask for pears to an elm tree.”


Joan Ricart-Huguet is a graduate student in the Department of Politics from Catalonia. He can be reached at

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