Spanish Civil Guard officers removing demonstrators outside a polling station in Barcelona, Spain, October 2017.
Susana Vera / REUTERS

Madrid responded to this weekend’s referendum on Catalan independence by sending in thousands of police, who beat up voters and shot nonviolent activists with rubber bullets. It is difficult to picture a more counterproductive course of action. According to the polls, independence was not heavily favored leading up to the referendum and most Catalans already considered the vote illegitimate. The Spanish government could have stuck to a simple playbook: allow the referendum to proceed and affirm the results if it failed and declare them null if it succeeded. This is the example set by Canada in 1995, the United Kingdom in 2014, and Iraq earlier this month. If the Spanish government had downplayed the vote, the world would have quickly forgotten about it. Instead, they have grabbed headlines by breaking the key international norm of tolerating peaceful demonstrations and supporting democratic representation.

A good-faith effort to move toward a federalist system may be one way to take off the pressure.

Indeed, the referendum on October 1 saw the use of repressive tactics normally seen only in authoritarian states. The government moved thousands of police into the region to physically prevent Catalans from voting. Catalan social media is now filled with videos of

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