The Spanish malaise may be deeper than the economic hole
Earlier this month, the top judicial authorities in Spain forced the resignation of the State’s Chief Prosecutor in Catalonia. This is not an elected official but a public servant appointed from the capital, and the post traditionally goes to a non-Catalan. The latest incumbent was summarily dismissed only hours after remarking in an interview with a news agency that “the people must be given the opportunity to express their wishes”. It sounds mild enough, except that the statement was made in the context of the Catalans’ right to decide about their political future. Perhaps this is why he immediately qualified it adding that he meant “in general, any people”, and only after making clear that there is not in Spain “a legal framework allowing a referendum on independence”. All seemingly aboveboard. And yet, the mere implication that perhaps a way should be found for Catalans to have their say on the matter turned what was essentially a platitude into an inflammatory pronouncement, causing the prosecutor’s fall from grace. So much for the independence of the judiciary – not to mention freedom of speech.
A month before, a retired Spanish army general spoke to a formal gathering of fellow high-ranking officers about the “separatist-secessionist offensive in Catalonia” and reflected on the eventual position that the armed forces should take. “The Fatherland is more important than democracy”, he concluded. “Patriotism is a feeling, and the Constitution is nothing but a law”. The audience greeted with applause what could be easily read as an invitation to flout the laws of the land, or even as a justification for a military coup. Like similar statements made by others in the past, it has produced no significant response from the civilian authorities.
These two events –and the very different official reactions to them– point to fundamental flaws in the workings of a democratic State, and suggest that Spain’s problems may go well beyond the admittedly atrocious economic environment. And the trigger in both cases is the situation in Catalonia.
In Spain today the economy is in dire straits, and there is no real plan for the future that doesn’t involve the State’s continuing plunder of a few productive communities in order to perpetuate itself. Many Catalans believe that the present political arrangement is threatening to ruin their economy, wipe out their culture and ultimately bring about their irrelevance as a nation. Lately the people have become less inhibited in their expressions of discontent with this state of affairs. Their elected leaders too seem to have abandoned their traditional policy of going out of their way to avoid confrontation. Reacting to a widespread popular demand, they have proposed a new course of action that might lead –if the people so decide– to separation from Spain.
The Catalan side would want this to be a negotiated, gradual, peaceful and fully democratic process, and it has offered to discuss the terms with the Spanish government. So far, all overtures have been spurned. The official line in Madrid remains that the law, such as it is, must be strictly adhered to, and a suitably narrow interpretation of the 1978 Constitution is used to reject, among other things, the possibility of asking the Catalan people’s opinion in a referendum.
In the meantime, the newly-found Catalan assertiveness has awakened the worst instincts of a State that feels threatened. While putting on an unfazed front, the Spanish government is using all the tricks in the book to undermine the Catalan administration and to intimidate the Catalan people. The familiar weapon of financial strangulation is now accompanied by a political and judicial offensive against the Catalan institutions of self-government and a media campaign against carefully selected individuals. Moreover, the prosecutor’s peremptory purge shows that the government is determined to silence all expressions of dissent even from its own ranks. And a real or imagined military threat is conveniently kept alive as part of a strategy of fear.
Those watching from outside the latest goings-on in Spain have tended to focus on the economy. A closer look into the political underpinnings of the State might reveal that, even in its present incarnation as an ostensibly democratic country, Spain retains not few of the authoritarian habits of the dictatorship that it grew out of. Indeed, something must be very wrong in a country where a general’s pronouncement amounting to a call for the armed forces to place themselves above the law is overlooked, while stating such a basic principle of democratic governance as the people’s right to express themselves is punished as an act of sedition.