Catalonia to lose freedoms as tensions rise

The chain in Spain: Pro-independence protesters fly the Catalan flag. © Getty

How can Spanish democracy be saved? Catalonia insists on independence. Madrid is preparing to remove the region’s autonomy. The country’s political system faces its biggest test in decades…

The deadline was set for yesterday, 10am. Carles Puigdemont faced an ultimatum: either withdraw his declaration of independence for Catalonia, the region he leads, or suffer the consequences. The appointed time came and went. Puigdemont refused to back down.

Puigdemont has asked for punishment, says Spain’s central government in Madrid. Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, will now call an emergency meeting of his cabinet. He has vowed to impose direct rule on Catalonia. Far from gaining independence, the region looks set to lose the autonomy it has enjoyed for decades.

Since voting for independence in an unauthorised referendum on October 1st, Catalonia has been engaged in a nerve-wracking standoff with Madrid. A return to direct rule would escalate tensions dramatically.

Puigdemont warns that it would be “an error which changes everything”. Many predict that the independence movement could turn violent. Some even fear war.

Though they blame each other for it, the two sides agree on one thing: the country’s democracy is under threat. This danger feels especially real in Spain, whose democratic institutions are only four decades old; dictatorship lasted longer there (along with neighbouring Portugal’s dictatorial regime) than anywhere else in Western Europe.

Both Rajoy and Puigdemont remember the fascist regime of General Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist from 1939 to 1975. Though a fragile democracy had existed in the 1930s, it died in the terrible civil war that propelled Franco to power. The general tolerated no dissent, executing and imprisoning tens of thousands.

After Franco’s death in 1975, his appointed successor King Juan Carlos I took power. But the king surprised the nation by calling for an end to authoritarian rule.

Through careful negotiation with Spain’s various political factions, he oversaw a peaceful transition to democracy. A constitution was drawn up, guaranteeing Catalonia the wide-ranging powers it has enjoyed ever since.

The region’s fight with Madrid is being described as Spain’s biggest crisis since democracy was restored. What is to be done?


Let Catalonia go its own way, say some. Around 90% of Catalans who voted chose independence. Instead of listening to voters, Madrid sent police to beat them up. Now it is threatening to rob them of their voice by imposing direct rule. This is closer to Franco’s brutal fascism than democracy.

On the contrary, reply others. Catalonia’s referendum was illegal under Spain’s constitution. And its result is dubious – Catalans who oppose independence had no say in its preparation, and mostly boycotted it anyway. By ignoring the law, Catalonia has shown that it does not understand how democracy works.

You Decide

  1. Should Catalonia become independent?
  2. Are referendums a good way to settle political issues?


  1. Make a list of features that a perfectly democratic state must have. Compare what you and others wrote. Then discuss: how democratic is your country?
  2. Imagine you have been asked to mediate between Rajoy and Puigdemont. Write down five questions for them with which to begin discussions.

Some People Say...

“Democracy means government by discussion, but it is only effective if you can stop people talking.”

Clement Attlee

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
After the referendum, Puigdemont gave an ambiguous speech in which he declared independence, only to suspend it immediately. Rajoy’s ultimatum was intended to clarify Puigdemont’s position. That has failed. Rajoy’s cabinet will meet tomorrow and decide to reimpose direct rule. However, the senate has to approve this move, meaning nothing will happen right away.
What do we not know?
Exactly how Madrid will regain control of Catalonia. A spokesman said that “the Catalan government would lose many of its powers, though not all. It’s a case of using a scalpel, not an axe.” Some point out that Rajoy could also call an election in Catalonia and hope that pro-independence politicians will be voted out. In any case, the crisis is unlikely to be resolved any time soon.

Word Watch

A region in north-east Spain that accounts for 6.3% of the country’s territory, but 16% of its population and over a fifth of its economy. Its residents speak Catalan as well as Spanish.
In the 1930s
Spain had flirted with democracy once before that, in the 1870s. For most of its history, it was ruled by monarchs.
Civil war
1936-39. Triggered by General Franco’s military revolt, the war was a complex conflict between nationalists (led by Franco) and a loose coalition of mostly left-wing republican forces.
King Juan Carlos I
Juan Carlos was the grandson of Alfonso XIII, the last king to rule before the monarchy was abolished in 1931. His son Felipe is currently king, but monarchs now have no real political power.
Wide-ranging powers
All of Spain’s 17 regions enjoy considerable autonomy. But only three – Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque country – have strong independence movements.
Mostly boycotted
Only 2.3m of Catalonia’s 5.3m eligible voters took part in the referendum. According to the Catalan government, 770,000 votes were lost due to the Spanish police’s interference.

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