Of all the examples that a government facing a separatist movement could follow, Spain seems to have chosen the Serbian one. It has now threatened to shut down the Catalan regional government if it considers the independence referendum result, as Serbia did with the Kosovar government in 1990. Since October 1 it has maintained a massive presence throughout the region—with police sent in from other parts of the country—despite apologizing for this week’s violence. On Thursday it dispatched hundreds of soldiers to the region, also mimicking the Serbian government’s reaction to Kosovo’s declaration. To many Catalans, all of this resembles an external force occupying a territory rather than a legitimate law enforcement presence attempting to maintain the peace.

On the day of the referendum, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy characterized the crackdown that brought about nearly 900 injuries as a liberal move designed to protect Spanish democracy. In reality, however, Madrid looks to be trading peace through consent for peace through indiscriminate mass force. With each flummoxing step in this process, the central government has eroded the confidence many Catalans had in the social contract, and ruined the reputation for peaceful government it has established since the end of General Francisco Franco’s fascist regime.


Through its draconian post-referendum crackdown, Madrid has transferred the allegiance of many Catalans from itself to a disjointed independence movement that, one week ago, looked destined for failure. The Spanish government had a straightforward path ahead of it. The referendum, unconstitutional and widely perceived as illegitimate, came with no legal guarantees. Turnout was only 42 percent. Absent Madrid’s illiberal reaction, it would have been viewed as a possibly cathartic but basically meaningless political act. The world and many Catalans would have ignored it.

But Madrid has botched its response so badly that it has injected life into the movement and made formerly ambivalent parties take sides. Witnessing such a nakedly repressive crackdown and occupation on its own streets, the Catalan regional government has decided to affirm its citizens’ right to vote on independence by officially considering the referendum’s results.

But rather than recognizing his government’s profound mistake and changing course tactically, Rajoy has pressed forward. On the first day of the crackdown, he asserted to Catalans that Spain is “a mature, advanced, kind, and tolerant democracy” as images of police brutality continued to dominate Catalan social media. He also said that Catalan voters had “trespassed the boundaries of democratic custom.” Now the Spanish government seems likely to move forward with the suspension of autonomy in the region, having already decided to block the Catalan parliament’s next session on Monday. These actions would be profoundly damaging to the implied contract between these two levels of government, and between Spain and Catalans at large. Regardless of the constitutionality of the vote on October 1, this overreaction is so extreme that it risks completely undermining the legitimacy of Madrid’s rule of the region in the minds of its people.


Legitimacy is the elusive main ingredient of any democratic government, and it is now at stake in this conflict in a way no observer could have predicted a week ago. In its simplest definition, legitimacy is the right to rule, given by the ruled. At its best, it takes the form of cooperation: different levels of government working together, considering themselves part of the same governing body. It also consists of cooperation between citizens and government: calling the police when one witnesses a crime, paying one’s taxes, and cheering on the national team in the next match. No less important, it is characterized by citizens effortlessly carrying multiple identities while perceiving no conflict between them. One is a Spaniard and a Catalan, and that is not a contradiction.

Spain’s current course of action seems like the death of legitimacy: an overreliance on force to maintain the status quo, and the destruction of valued institutions in that effort. As political scientist Victor Lapuente Giné put it a few days ago, “a modern state depends not on the monopoly of violence, but on the monopoly of legitimacy.” In a democracy, it is the latter that begets the former, not vice versa. In the circumstances that Spain’s government has created for itself, even those most averse to change and politically hesitant can become rebels and resisters.

In the circumstances that Spain’s government has created for itself, even those most averse to change and politically hesitant can become rebels and resisters.

This is why the actions the Spanish government is now taking—threatening to suspend Catalans’ own institutions of self-rule—are so dangerous. Before last week, there were many Catalans who perceived no contradiction in identity. This crackdown and escalation will only cause ever more of them to resent Spanish authority. The most baffling part about this development is that there was never any good reason for it to happen. The government is punishing the many for the deeds of a stubborn few, and is strengthening those few in the process. It is a profound miscalculation.

It is still unclear how the international community will react. EU members have remained silent, but if those newly dispatched soldiers continue the crackdown, that state of affairs will not persist for long. Because the situation more and more resembles a full-scale military occupation rather than the routine administration of a legitimate state’s right of force, some of the more liberal interpreters of international norms may begin treating it as such. This could start to generate pressure for urgent votes to end their silence and officially take a stance in the crisis, perhaps pushing for passive intervention, such as calls for human rights monitors.


Fortunately, the Spanish government can still halt this runaway train. It should honor Catalan President Carles Puigdemont’s call for mediation and dialogue before Parliament’s session, and invest authority in Catalonia’s governing body. Rather than suspending the Catalan parliament, it should assert its recognition of the regional government as a valued and legitimate platform of the people.

If the central government were to negotiate with the Catalan government, it might be able to deescalate matters and reach a binding deal guaranteeing federalism, expanded powers of autonomy, or something similar. A deal the Catalan government agrees to voluntarily would likely be respected by Catalans much more than anything forced by the current state of affairs. Additionally, recognizing the Catalan government as the legitimate speaker for its people would quieten the voice Madrid has given to the independence movement. There is still distance between many in the regional parliament and the independence movement, and between members of the movement itself, and it should work to pry open those gaps. A regional government working as interlocutor between Madrid and the streets of Barcelona is much more desirable than one operating as a loudspeaker for the independentistas.

Rajoy’s bad choices have lifted up the far from universally supported independence movement as the voice of Catalonia, both for many formerly uninterested Catalans and for the growing international audience. The suppression of autonomy is forcing many to choose sides they otherwise would not. Now more than ever, it is crucial for Madrid to soberly consider the consequences of its actions. If Spain were to enter negotiations with the Catalan government voluntarily, and to recognize it in its current form as the legitimate voice of Catalan grievances, there is a good chance that most Catalans would too.

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  • R. JOSEPH HUDDLESTON is a Ph.D. Candidate in Political Science and International Relations at the University of Southern California.
  • More By R. Joseph Huddleston