Democracy defeated the coup

A year on, it is clear that the Catalan parliamentary coup d’état of 2017 has strengthened the Spanish political nation

It is just over a year since the attempt to overturn the constitution – by bypassing the Catalan parliament, stepping on the rights of the representatives of the majority of Catalans, and disregarding the will of all Spanish people to coexist in peace and freedom – was defeated. Undoubtedly this was the most delicate moment that Spanish democracy has passed through since the coup d’état in 1981.

It was not, as some still claim today, a peaceful democratic effort to consult Catalan citizens about their future, but an illegal referendum on self-determination. A referendum based on an express law passed in defiance of the Constitutional Court, with neither mandatory reports of the Counsel of Statutory Guarantees or participation by the opposition. A law disguised as a harmless civic celebration leading to the proclamation of the independence of Catalonia in the 48 hours following a vote held without guarantees or rules for a minimum turnout to consider the result valid and binding. A law by which the parliament, without having passed through the UN General Assembly, the Security Council, and the International Court of Justice granted itself the right to self-determination. A law that postulated itself as unabolishable and “hierarchically superior to all others”, therefore putting itself above the Spanish constitution and the statute of autonomy of Catalonia.

The number of hours dedicated to discussing whether that event was a coup or not is surprising. This is a nominalist, dishonest discussion aimed at generating noise to mask and dilute the seriousness of what happened. It is clear that the secessionists attempted to carry out a coup against democracy, constitution, and coexistence. By doing so from the institutions of self-government using the regional government, the Catalan parliament, the administration, the regional police forces, and schools, and by trying to legalise their coup with a law (actually two laws), there is a distinction between Puigdemont and Junqueras together (on the one hand) and Tejero (on the other) in their means, but not in their ends (to subvert the constitution).

The parliamentary coup d’état (or non-violent self-coup) is nothing new. Many democracies have abolished themselves using parliamentary majorities or popular plebiscites. From the Constituent Assembly in Venezuela, the very existence of which perpetrates a coup d’état every day against the Bolivarian constitution itself, to the demise of the Weimar Republic, which did not require a gun-wielding Hitler to storm into the Reichstag, but instead granted all state powers to the Führer. Let us consider, then, the substance, which is the attempt to abolish the constitution and the statute of autonomy, rather than the technique by which the coup was executed.

If secessionism has been defeated it was not just by luck, but by democratic virtue

Certainly, Carl Schmitt, the states of exception theorist, would have not hesitated to approve of so a perfect coup as that designed by Catalan secessionists. And, certainly, any democrat anywhere in the world would have warned against the aberration of staging such an attack against a democracy on its own behalf. Despite the self-praise for 1 October as the crowning moment of the Catalan democratic path to the republic, no democrat can speak of either “results” or “referendum” in a process whose integrity even international observers invited by the Catalan government certified as unverifiable. But even omitting the non-existence of an independent electoral board or any valid census, every democrat knows that a consultation where the half of the census does not participate, and the half that does participate overwhelmingly supports the option promoted by the Catalan government, is a vote lacking in sufficient consensus and legitimacy.

On the Catalan issue, much remains to be done. The wounds from the deep divide sown in our society will take a long time to heal. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the Catalan crisis has led citizens to strengthen, not weaken, their regard for democracy, constitution, and rule of law. Apart from Podemos and nationalists, most politicians have been able to see this. While opportunist and risky, if the current Socialist government can afford the twisting, gestures, contradictions, altering its narrative and “empathetic” approaches to secessionism is precisely because it knows the latter has been defeated by democracy.

If secessionism has been defeated it was not just by luck, but by democratic virtue. It was so because of the civic courage of hundreds of thousands people that took to the streets to defend our common project. The rest was achieved by our political representatives, who temporarily put their differences and partisan agendas aside, the judges and police and civil guard, acting jointly to enforce the rule of law and democratic institutions, as well as our diplomats who defended the legitimacy of Spain’s position before the world and the justness of the reasoning in Spanish democracy.

The independent media must be honoured as well, since they fulfilled their duty to provide plural factual reporting to refute the fallacies and lies of secessionism, which was able to count not only on the official apparatus of propaganda in the public Catalonia broadcasters and pro-secessionism media, but also on the active support and interference from media in the Russian orbit and their operators in social media, like Julian Assange.

This triumph of democracy is also a triumph of our European partners, from which we have received support and solidarity beyond noisy exceptions whose role was merely to reveal the sweeping support for Spanish democracy abroad. Neighbouring governments and friends understood the need to stop the worst version of nationalism we know: irredentism and chauvinism, which aspire to transform the alleged moral, social, and economic superiority of a group into a right to exclude and discriminate against those who are different and think differently. This was the best international mediation we could have benefited from, from those who declared clearly and unequivocally that they would not tolerate a unilateral illegal secession carried out against the majority of the Spanish people, openly violating the constitution. This refusal by European capitals and institutions also brought down the attempted lethal blow to the 1978 constitution.

For Spanish democracy, 2017 was a traumatic year. For an entire Spanish generation, who did not experience the coup d’état in 1981, or witnessed it from a distance, the dramatic moments of September-October last year will strengthen their sense of belonging to this political community. Now, Felipe VI, like Juan Carlos before him, has faced and overcome a critical democratic constitutional moment. The damage done has led the Spanish people to rediscover the values of coexistence in peace and freedom under the same rules in a democracy where all of us fit in and in a Europe where 40 years since the proclamation of the constitution we are still admired for our civic compromise to the values of an open, democratic, plural society. Secessionism believes it has awakened Spanish nationalism, and thinks that this gives it legitimacy to negotiate on an equal basis, but what it has strengthened instead is the political nation and the sense of belonging to it.


This article was originally published by El Mundo on 7 November. You can read the original (in Spanish) here.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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