Search the Site

The Rule of Law in Spain (and its Contradictions)

The Spanish Civil Guard blocks voters outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain (photo source Reuters).

I am a Catalan writer, and have lived in the United Kingdom for the last three years. I was born in Barcelona, where I spent most of my previous life. When Franco died, I was thirteen.

When I was a child, they used to tell us at school that Franco had led the glorious national uprising against the (legitimate) government of the Republic in order to save Spain. That, thanks to Franco, law and order, endangered by (democratically elected) republican politicians had been re-established in Spain. Nothing unusual there. Dictators don’t usually go around saying, “Right, as I don’t like what citizens have voted for, I’ll destroy democracy and impose a dictatorship.” No. Dictators always try to justify themselves in order to safeguard appearances. During the Spanish civil war, Franco invoked the spectre of communism and succeeded in persuading Europe to look the other way. Eighty years later, Mariano Rajoy, the current president of Spain, invokes Spanish law to justify the attacks on democracy that people are experiencing in Catalonia as a “domestic affair” where the international community has no role to play.

Rajoy intends to suspend the autonomy of Catalonia, dissolve the Catalan parliament and call new elections (possibly illegalizing certain parties) while, in Madrid, there are Catalan political prisoners (accused of the curious crime of disruptive yet peaceful sedition), while 12,000 members of the Civil Guard and National Police await orders, garrisoned in dilapidated cruisers in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona. Reality can be tarted up and narrated in many ways—we who spend our days weaving fictions know that only too well—but, beyond rhetorical flourishes and subjective interpretations, there are some facts the democratic countries around us should bear in mind before they give Rajoy carte blanche to “solve” the Catalan problem.

It is a fact that the present Catalan parliament has a majority of members who want independence (elected by a vote with 78 percent participation of the electorate), to which number should be added those who say they are neither for nor against independence but are in favor of Catalans being able to vote in a referendum. It is also a fact that Rajoy’s Popular Party has never won elections in Catalonia, and that in Catalonia the PP has eleven seats (of a total 135) and a single mayor (in Pontons, a village with 232 inhabitants).

In Catalonia, the PP is a party that always loses. Nevertheless, Rajoy invokes the defence of the “rule of law” to justify what can only be described as a coup d’état in Catalonia. In Spanish, the “rule of law” has a stronger resonance: “el imperio de la ley.” And doesn’t Rajoy like that word “imperio”! The suspension of Catalan autonomy implies the dismissal (and possible imprisonment) of the government of the Generalitat, and Madrid assuming control of finances, the autonomous police, the state-run media, etc. According to Rajoy, we Catalans broke the law by holding an illegal referendum, and that enables him to hide behind the phrase he constantly parrots—“outside the law, there is no democracy”—to bring Catalonia to heel as if it were a colony. No matter that Catalonia is a historical nation, with its own language, culture, and institutions of self-government. From a demographical point of view, we Catalans are a minority within the Spanish state, which means that, with our votes, we can never change Spanish law, and, consequently, can never even ask ourselves whether we want to be an independent state.

On October 1, a referendum was held in Catalonia, and over two million people voted in favor of independence. A referendum that could only be held thanks to the disciplined complicity of thousands of citizens who combined to fool the Spanish police and secret services. We Catalans had to hide ballot boxes in private houses, in niches in cemeteries, in the bottom of lifts, in the boots of cars, in false ceilings, among the branches of trees. . . And we had to protect our votes with our bodies, and were bloodied. Yes, on October 1. 2017, the whole of Catalonia acted out an episode of ’Allo ’Allo!, the famous series from the eighties that rehearsed a comic version of a French village’s resistance against the Nazi invasion. It was hilarious, except for the rubber bullets and blows, which really hurt.

That in the twenty-first century Catalans have had to resort to subterfuges in keeping with a TV-comedy series in order to vote should be a cause for concern for those in Europe who pride themselves on being democrats. If the peaceful votes of over two million people go against the Spanish Constitution (a constitution passed in 1978 after forty years of dictatorship, with an army threatening to take up arms and provoke a fresh civil war), it might be reasonable enough to think that what a truly democratic country should do is not send in the riot police to beat up old ladies, but change its laws. However, it is no secret that for many years, Spanish politics has been in the hands of bureaucrats who refuse to act politically. And that is no opinion either: it is a fact.

Rajoy’s government and ministries are full of state attorneys (like the vice-president), property registrars (like Rajoy), lawyers and jurists. These are men and women who, long before they occupied a political post, belonged to the higher echelons of the state bureaucracy, and who think that governing on behalf of their party interests means they only have to apply the law with an iron hand and resort to the Spanish courts. Moreover, it is extraordinary that the man trying to suspend the autonomy of Catalonia and lecture Europe on democracy by invoking “el imperio de la ley” is the president of the most corrupt party in Europe (another fact: take a look at the list of post-holders in the PP who are on trial for corruption). Or that he presides over a government that reprieves those sentenced for corruption, and continues to finance, with public money, the Francisco Franco Foundation.  In Spain, it is perfectly legal to defend fascism; expressing an opinion via the ballot box in Catalonia is quite another matter.

In the twentieth-first century, Europe cannot look the other way, as it did in 1936, simply because it is afraid that other independence movements may spring up within other territories of the European Union. And it cannot be distracted by byzantine legalistic arguments, which is what Rajoy wants: the destruction of democracy in Catalonia in the name of “el imperio de la ley,” which would open the door to a Europe full of tyrants hiding behind arbitrary, anti-democratic laws to impose their dictatorships.


TERESA SOLANA is published by Bitter Lemon Press. Her story “Premiere Nights” is featured in the current issue of the Massachusetts Review.

Join the email list for our latest news