By Alfonso Goizueta Alfaro, a first year History and International Relations Undergraduate at King’s College London, and author of the diplomatic history book “Limitando el Poder, 1871-1939: Historia de la Diplomacia Occidental”
The world was shocked on October 1st: many people were because the images of police charges against voters in Catalonia; Spain was because of the disloyal and rebellious course that a democratic institution, the Generalitat of Catalonia, had chosen to follow, stepping outside of any legal parameters. The world was shocked on October 1st: many people were because the images of police charges against voters in Catalonia; Spain was because of the disloyal and rebellious course that a democratic institution, the Generalitat of Catalonia, had chosen to follow, stepping outside of any legal parameters. The independence referendum held by the Catalonian regional government has been the greatest challenge to Spanish constitutionalism since the failed military coup of February 1981: held without any guarantees or electoral census, the referendum wasn’t an expression of democracy but of disloyalty and treachery. The referendum, and the later proclamation of independence in Catalonia, was the sad finale of coup d’état organised by democratic leaders. Yet this coup, disguised with democratic principles, goes far beyond October 1st: for over a month, democratic boundaries and freedoms were defiled by the regional government and those loyal to it. For over a month, those who claimed to be crusading for democracy, outraged the freedom and the liberties of the citizens of Spain and Catalonia: this is the chronicle of their coup foretold.
The origins of the coup Catalonia is the region with the largest self-government prerogatives in Europe: the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and the Statutes of Catalan Autonomy (1979 and 2006) give the Generalitat (Government) powers over Education, Treasury, Taxation, Commerce, Tourism, Health, Agriculture, Police…; these offices are held by the consellers (councillors or regional ministers). The financial crisis of 2008 hit Spain badly, causing economic and social hardship. Catalonia, the second richest region in the country, also suffered greatly. In a policy of inter-territorial solidarity, Catalans felt their money was being increasingly taxed by the central government and used to support poorer regions of Spain: this was the genesis of the myth of “España nos roba” (Spain steals from us), created by the right-wing nationalistic president, Artur Mas, who was trying to cover up the precarious economic situation and several corruption scandals within his party (CiU). Thus, the sentiment of independentism started to mushroom once again in Catalonia: Mas’ government pledged to call for a referendum of independence with which to break from Spain. The Spanish Constitution provides with legal parameters and procedures to do so was any region to desire its independence: Catalans didn’t proceed by these legal parameters and several times denied debating their project in the Chamber of Deputies. In 2016 the pro-independence coalition Junts Pel Sí won the autonomic elections and, thanks to the parliamentary support of the anti-capitalist party CUP, managed to form a government in Catalonia although Carles Puigdemont, and not Mas, was now in charge. His government started developing an anti-constitutional policy seeking a unilateral declaration of independence in October 2017, after a referendum was held. Amidst the growing tension between Barcelona and Madrid, Puigdemont refused to negotiate with the central government: his unilateral and illegal referendum was the immovable condition for any prior negotiation with Madrid. Spanish government couldn’t accept.
The Parliament of Catalonia after the Autonomic Elections of 2016: Junts Pel Sí had 62 deputies but needed CUP’s support to achieve absolute majority (68). Grey= Junts pel Sí (pro-independence); Yellow = CUP (pro-independence, anti-Capitalist); Blue = PPC (Conservative); Red= PSC (Socialist); Orange= Ciutadans (Centre); Purple=Podem (Extreme Left) (Wikipedia – Parlament de Catalunya, 28/3/2016)
The coup: the laws of Referendum and Political Transience
In early September 2017, Puigdemont and his parliamentary group began their coup, which was to culminate in a Unilateral Declaration of Independence of late October. Using their majority in the Regional Parliament and their control over the Chamber’s presidency (held by Carme Forcadell, member of Junts Pel Sí), Puigdemont started bypassing all of his constitutional obligations: the Parliament’s agenda was subsequently and suddenly changed to the convenience of Junts Pel Sí without informing any of the other parties in the Chamber, on-going commissions regarding Health, Education or other topics were suspended, and government refused to undergo the control of the Chamber – something it is obliged to do weekly. No longer would President Puigdemont answer the questions of the Opposition or intervene in Parliament, always under the aegis of loyal Forcadell. In the meantime, Puigdemont’s government allied with the pro-independence associations (Catalan National Assembly, of which Forcadell was a member, and Omnium Cultural), beginning to use coercive measures to promote independentism among Catalans – the leaders of these associations are currently imprisoned, charged with the crimes of sedition and intimidation. The coup’s machinery began on September 6th, when Mrs Forcadell altered the Parliament’s agenda without informing the Opposition’s deputies: Parliament’s organisms, monopolised by Junts Pel Sí members, approved Forcadell’s petition to change the agenda and vote two laws proposed by the government: the law calling for a referendum on October 1st and the Law of Political Transience, which would proclaim a republic and open a constituent process after the referendum.
The deputies of the Opposition leave the chamber in protest for the illegal modification of the parliamentary agenda. The laws were voted without the Opposition present in the Chamber (El País (6/9/2017) picture by Massimiliano Minocri)
After 40 years of dictatorship, in which the entrance to the Parliament of Catalonia had been walled, Junts Pel Sí had once again expelled democracy from the Chamber. Forcadell went through with the vote; the Opposition’s claims weren’t taken into consideration nor were the Chamber’s letrados (high lawyers) allowed to speak against the presidency’s illegal acts. Parliament’s Regulation was broken; Junts Pel Sí celebrated with a loud applause, claiming to be one step closer to freedom from oppressive and non-democratic Spain. The following days, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared both laws illegal and outside constitutional parameters.
The referendum and beyond: Article 155
Despite the Constitutional Court’s verdict, Puigdemont and his allies continued to organise an illegal referendum using public funds. On October 1st, the referendum was hold without any guarantees or electoral census. Having already been declared illegal by the Constitutional Court, judges ordered National Police officers and Civil Guards to seize the ballot boxes and close the polling stations illegally opened for the referendum. Many mayors of Catalan towns denounced having been threatened to open polling stations in their municipalities. In the meantime, Catalan autonomic police (under Puidgemont’s control) hindered National Police officers’ actions and refused to abide judicial orders: their captain, Major Trapero, ordered them to do so, under pressure from Puigdemont’s government.
The pro-independence associations Puigdemont had been closely working with encouraged violent resistance against police forces. Amidst the chaos, many people took the opportunity to vote several occasions in different polling stations; later that day, the Catalonian government stated that means had been in place to avoid this situation and totally denied it. Once again, the referendum was declared illegal by high judicial organisms. Only Puigdemont and his allies recognised the result. King Philip VI addressed his people on October 3rd and delegitimised the referendum. No country or international institution recognised the results nor Puigdemont’s Declaration of Independence on October 27th. Supported by the Constitution, Mariano Rajoy’s government, after giving Puigdemont several opportunities of coming back to legality, implemented Article 155 which, with the support of the Senate, gave the government full powers to restore legality in a rebellious region. On October 27th, a few hours after the Declaration, Rajoy dismissed Puigdemont and his councillors, taking over the autonomic government and calling an Autonomic Election on December 21st.
The international community supported Rajoy and his government. Soon after their destitution, Puigdemont and four councillors fled to Belgium; the Vice-president and the remaining members of government were imprisoned, accused of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement. Puigdemont’s departure to Belgium accelerated the process by which Justice Lamela ordered the arrest of other government members, fearing they could also flee. The political turmoil unleashed by Puigdemont has had catastrophic effects on Catalonia: not only has the economy suffered from the exodus of over 1000 firms since mid-September, but the society has been morally fractured between those for independence and those against it. In the midst of the crisis, the Catalan economy is growing at a slower rate and the whole of Spain’s economic recovery process has been endangered. Puigdemont had several occasions of withdrawing from his claim and calling and Autonomic election before Article 155 was implemented, yet he rejected these options and fled leaving his colleagues behind. Was this the president supposed to bring prosperity and international recognition to the Catalan Republic? Spain has proved to be a strong democracy in which the rule of law is invincible. Puigdemont’s adventure was born cloven and without any possibility of success. The members of his government now await a firm judicial verdict which could sentence them to thirty years in prison, and he is under an international order of arrest. Illegality after illegality, defiance after defiance, Puigdemont has pledged the greatest challenge to Spanish democracy since Tejero’s military coup in 1981. But, just like him, Puigdemont has failed to break Spanish democracy and its national sovereignty. What he though was a crusade against the oppressive Spanish state turned out to be a chimera: Spanish democracy remains strong and firm against anything which can endanger the rights and liberties of the Spanish people.