Spain’s Unfinished Revolution and Its Minorities

Spain’s deeply rooted distrust of popular participation in democratic processes is reminiscent of the swift, top-down transition some forty years ago. As such, it is a painful reminder of Spain’s unfinished revolution.

Spain’s peaceful transition to democracy has been extolled as a model to emulate for democratizing nations across the globe. Following the death of General Franco in 1975, King Juan Carlos transformed the authoritarian regime into a European democracy, and did so without shedding a drop of blood. And yet Spanish democracy nowadays is not without its critics. The Catalan movement for independence unveils just what’s amiss in Spain’s celebrated democratic transition.

In Berlin last week, constitutional scholar Bruce Ackerman singled out the Spanish transition to democracy as one lacking in authenticity and, ultimately, in legitimacy. The transition was negotiated between elites behind closed doors. Franco’s heir, King Juan Carlos, essentially preempted a revolt by coopting opposition leaders Adolfo Suarez and Santiago Carrillo. A new constitution was drafted and passed through a popular referendum in 1978. Unlike the constitutional referenda in Spain’s northern neighbor France, however, the new law of the land was not subject to political debate. The public was never fully mobilized.

This peaceful yet ‘unauthentic’ transition to democracy planted the seeds for grievances from Spain’s regional minorities. In its cultural and linguistic diversity, Spain resembles modern-day Switzerland and Belgium — a fact that Catalans are quick to point out. Yet this heterogeneity is not reflected in the Spanish constitution. The law of 1978 granted minorities broader powers than were in place, including a regional government, a state police force and recognition of minority languages. As has become clear in the decades to follow, and again in recent months, the same constitution also impedes minorities’ right to self-determination.

Spain’s brisk constitutional process did not do justice to its regional minorities. Ethnically diverse democracies often thrive on complex power-sharing arrangements. A number of European countries, including Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and, more recently, Bosnia, can attest to this. History has taught us that in ethnically diverse states, identity ought to take center stage when constitutions are drafted, or significant portions of the population will feel unrepresented and may eventually wish to jump ship, or worse.

The tense standoff between Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the president of Catalunya’s regional government Artur Mas has revealed Spain’s unbudging resistance to a democratic resolution of Catalans’ grievances. Madrid blocked not only the official referendum but also an unofficial consultation on Catalan independence through Spain’s Constitutional Court. (And it takes any opportunity to block social and economic legislation passed by the Catalan government.) Rajoy has refused to negotiate with the Catalan region and has called the recent referendum – which the region held in defiance of the Court’s ruling – an act of political propaganda.

Spain’s intransigence is but a symptom of a deeper problem. Recall the brutal repression of high school students and teachers demonstrating in Valencia three years ago. The use of pain-inducing sound cannons, batons and rubber bullets against peaceful protesters is common practice in Spain. A bill introduced by the conservative Partido Popular in 2013 proposes to fine protesters up to 30.000€ for civil disobedience, videotaping the police or for simply gathering in front of parliament. Excessive use of force against demonstrators and repressive laws that restrict freedom of expression and assembly ignited a public statement by Amnesty International in 2011 (and again in 2013 and 2014). Spain’s deeply rooted distrust of popular participation in democratic processes is reminiscent of the swift, top-down transition some forty years ago. As such, it is a painful reminder of Spain’s unfinished revolution.

While Spain’s elite — and particularly its conservative Partido Popular under Aznar and Rajoy — continues to practice politics old style, a new generation of politically active citizens gives reasons for hope. The peaceful and well-organized referendum in Catalonia last week is the culmination of a years-long grassroots movement, on which Artur Mas piggybacked two years ago. The rise of Podemos in the recent European elections is yet another example of grassroots at work. The far-left party rose not out of the Socialists but out of the indignados movement which itself gave rise to Occupy and numerous other social movements across the globe. A new generation of Spanish citizens is demanding inclusion in its state’s governance.

Modern-day Spain made its first steps to democracy thanks to one leader’s political will. Franco’s heir invited outsider elites to take part in shaping Spain’s future in 1975. It is high time that Spain extend decision-making privileges once again — this time to its citizens. Spanish citizens, Catalans included, should determine their own future — be that a new constitutional arrangement or the breakup of the Spanish monarchy.

Dani Marinova does research on political representation and democratization at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. In 2011-2012 she was a visiting researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and attended several peaceful protests in Catalonia. Read other articles by Dani.