Catalonia's Referendum Unmasks Authoritarianism in Spain

I have long worried about the rise of authoritarianism in the European Union.

The Spanish government’s violent crackdown during the Catalonia referendum on Oct. 1 is the latest crisis to challenge EU institutions. Several member states are facing serious questions about territorial sovereignty. Just look to the Scottish referendum to leave the U.K. and questions opened up by the Brexit vote over the Irish border.

Catalonia experienced a level of police brutality not often seen in developed democracies. More than 800 people were injured, more than 100 of whom were hospitalized. Yet, in a rare televised appearance, King Felipe VI expressed full support for the Spanish government’s actions.

As a scholar of Spanish politics, I fear this creates the possibility for more repression and even the abolition of Catalonia’s autonomy.

Why has the Spanish government reacted with such a severe crackdown? To answer that question, it might useful to go back more than 40 years.

Franco’s Legacy

When Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, pro-democracy forces feared a new military coup. So they carefully crafted Spain’s 1978 Constitution to ensure stability, rather than create a radical change from authoritarianism.

The transition to democracy involved increasing political freedom for groups that had opposed Franco and had been persecuted by his dictatorship. But it also incorporated existing authoritarian groups and officials into the state. They included the Francoist military, the church and state structures that existed during the dictatorship – such as the judiciary, the police and the civil service.

The Constitution, and subsequent agreements in 1981 and 1992, organized Spain into 17 autonomous communities. Each has its own executive, legislative and judicial powers. World leaders heralded Spain as an ideal model for peacefully transitioning to democracy. However, its focus on inclusivity, rather than change, meant future demands for self-determination would be…

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