On 15 March 2011, Arab Spring demonstrators were marching on the streets of Damascus, Syria, for the first time demanding democratic reforms and the release of political prisoners. It wouldn’t take long for President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces to retaliate by opening fire on the protesters, who shot back for the first time in July.
The manner in which the Spanish government reacted to the ‘illegal’ referendum taking place in Catalonia certainly differed in terms of gravity and motivation from Assad’s response six years earlier. However, despite the numerous differences between the two political structures and social frameworks, both administrations, when seeing their integrity challenged, chose to eventually resort to one thing: violence.
And when state violence replaces political dialogue, the ideological boundaries that outline democracy become blurred. Because democracy, from whichever standpoint you were to look, is a system that encapsulates values such as freedom of speech and thought, the protection of human and civil rights, and the provision of a safe space in which individuals can work freely to achieve their goals. Which is why state-commissioned aggression is naturally correlated to political systems that require it in order to further their power-hoarding interests.
When a regime resorts to violence, it’s a signal of systemic oppression, and not of a functional democracy. That suggests the regime does not value the choices of its people, and it signifies a betrayal of its self-asserted democratic values. And on the day of the referendum, not only did the Spanish government infringe upon some of the most basic of liberal principles, but it put people’s personal safety to risk. In their defence, the Spanish authorities have brought up the issue of the referendum’s legality.
But to say that because the referendum was ‘illegal’ and ‘unconstitutional’ justifies an aggressive resolution on the state’s side is to innocently believe that, firstly, just because something is legal, that makes it inherently good. Naturally, from the state’s point of view, it would be counter-intuitive to offer a legal pathway to a separatist movement, which is why one is not legally available — but that does not make it sacred or untouchable. Laws change. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, it is irresponsible to believe that violence, no matter how severe, is the only way to respond to law breaking. And while it may be a legitimate response to specific criminal activities, do peaceful people trying to express their views through voting really fall into that category?
This is what actually links the way in which the national security operated to the motivation behind it all. What this violent series of events highlights is the Spanish government’s desperation to retain Catalonia at any price. A rational democratic government does not simply charge at its citizens and put them in the hospital. But when everything fails, after seizing 10 million ballots and ballot boxes, arresting Catalan key officials, closing polling stations (and the list can go on), Spanish authorities resorted to brutality.
It comes to show just how important Catalonia is to Spain. Naturally, with it being among the most prosperous areas in the country, generating more than one-fifth of the total GDP, Catalonia felt indispensable. In fact, the Spanish government put so much emphasis on not losing Catalans that it went so far as to authorise them being kicked, punched, and having them be hit with batons. Insofar as instruments of persuasion go, if up to now a significant part of Catalans were unsure of their position towards independence, it is reasonable to believe that the proportions have now been consequently altered.
While Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy considers that police acted with “firmness and serenity”, European Union representatives have been rather shy and hesitant to condemn the Spanish police’s brutality and its overall response has been limited. Thus, from the outside, it felt as if the EU was torn, as if it were stuck, trying to make an impossible choice: to silently condone state violence, or to be seen as indirectly tolerating a separatist movement inside a member state even if, logically, that is not the case.
Democracy is fragile. Firing rubber bullets at your own citizens and dragging them by the hair out of polling stations is not the way to strengthen it. But, somehow, the Spanish government concluded that was the best way to affirm its position, and now, while it tries to pretend nothing wrong has happened, the fractures in Spanish democracy have left a mark that the Catalans, if not the entire international community, will not — and should not — forget anytime soon.