Democracy is killing democracy: The Catalan case

As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt point out in their book “How Democracies Die”, fortunately for us, dictators find it difficult to seize power by force these days. The equilibrium of powers and, most importantly, an active civil society who has usually tasted freedom, are strong dikes that prevent it from happening. In the last 20 years, only when there was a vacuum of power due to a revolution or civil war, dictators were able to reach power.

However, one of the great ironies of how democracies die in our days is that the “defence of democracy” is often used as a pretext for its subversion. Democracies today do not usually die due to military coups; democratic backsliding nowadays begins at the ballot box. Erdogan, Putin, Fujimori, Perón, Chavez, Orban,… every time the existing rules of the game (constitution, electoral regime, separation of powers, etc.) limited the power of dictators, they call “the will of the people”, claiming that laws are subordinated to the citizens and not the other way around. They put a ballot box and use the institutions of democracy to essentially, little by little, kill it.

“This is how we tend to think of democracies dying, at the hands of men with gun. But there is another way to break a democracy. Less dramatic but equally destructive. Democracies may die at the hands not of Generals but elected leaders, who subvert the very process that brought them to power.  “

Levitsky and Zibblat on their book How democracies die

Similar story is currently happening today in Catalonia. Catalan radical pro-independence government faced in 2014 the true reality: it did not have the majority in the Spanish parliament to change the existing “rules of the game”. So, against all warnings made by the judiciary and political powers, the regional government (with a majority of seats -but not votes- in the regional parliament) launched a campaign to unilaterally separate from Spain, trying to solve with illegal ballot boxes what it was unable to solve in legal elections. This was and still is forbidden by the Spanish Constitution, which defends the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as most of the world’s constitutions do.

One of the demonstrations in Catalonia asking for independence. Photo: Reuters.

 “Spain does not let us vote, Spain is a fascist state” is one of the many mottos used by the pro-independence authorities since then. This is not only a simplistic proclaim, it is just not true. Spain is one of the only 20 true democracies in the world. Freedom of speech is not only guaranteed, but carefully protected. Radical separatists have been able to express their political views freely in every atmosphere, have been able to run for elections during the last decades, and have been elected to have a representation in regional and national parliaments. More concretely, since dictator Franco’s death in 1975, Catalans have voted more than 50 times on different elections, on average more than once a year. And worth highlighting that not a single time, pro-separatists’ parties have obtained more votes than pro-remain parties (for example, in last month national elections, pro-independence parties in Catalonia got 42.5% of the votes).

Even with the numbers and laws against it, the Catalan government perpetrated in 2017 a dangerous coup d’état, conceived from the state institutions they headed to undermine, precisely, that state. They stopped governing for all Catalans and started ruling for their supporters, eroding democracy and threatening one of its most valuable pillars: tolerance and respect for different sensitivities. They used the “101 manual” to corrode a democracy: blame an external actor for all the problems (in this case Spanish Government), doubt about freedom of speech and accuse the national press to be manipulated, undermine other state institutions that counter-balance regional powers, accuse political opponents of going against the laws… Finally, they used public money to finance an illegal political campaign and to organise an illegal referendum (October 1st, 2017).

Ad published by Catalonia’s Government asking to vote on the referendum. Source: EFE.

As expected in any democracy, justice acted and politicians in charge of taking those decisions were judged in a transparent (televised), independent, and thorough trial that took more than a year. They were not condemned for thinking differently (otherwise many other politicians and citizens would be in jail), but for committing several felonies they were warned of: sedition, embezzlement, disobedience, and perversion of justice. Spain does not have political prisoners; there are politicians who are in prison for committing several felonies.

Just after this court sentence was released, Catalonia faced and is still facing, an organised and intentionally violent wave of protests, claiming that Spain is an anti-democratic state. Again, a few are using democracy to essentially kill it. As current socialist Prime Minister Sanchez says “the protests do not represent the region’s tolerance and welcoming spirit (…)”. Catalonia region has more independence than any other region in Europe: it controls education, healthcare, some taxes, security, prisons, etc. But still these protesters are trying to do the same that their political parents tried in the past: impose on the streets what they did not achieve in the ballots or in a fair trial.

Neighbours trying to contain the fire provoked by pro-independence protesters. Source: EFE.

Democracy is not only voting, that would be thinking too small. Democracy, sustained on the rule of law, means listening to all citizens, representing everyone’s interests, being solidary. Democracy requires negotiation, compromise, concessions, and yes, dialogue. Democracy is the opposite to nationalism; it is embracing our differences and agreeing on our future, together as a diverse society. Citizens’ problems have never been solved by agitating a flag, no matter from which side.

We are here today because politicians were unable to deal with a political problem that evolved into several judiciary trials. We cannot expect the judges to solve our political mess. The cost of this pro-independence feat is already too high, not only in economic terms (costing millions of euros), but most importantly in social (with members of same families and group of friends in opposite and mutually exclusive “political camps”) and political terms (with extreme parties gaining more support partly thanks to the Catalan situation). We urge sensible politicians to retake the lead and talk about feasible, moderate, and legal solutions to solve this megalomaniac craziness. Catalans, Spaniards, Europeans, we deserve it.

Published by Gonzalo

🌏 From Bilbao, currently living in Madrid | 📖 MBA @INSEAD 19D, MSc in Economics @UNAV | 💡 Passion for politics, economics, and social impact.

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