Australian Outlook

In this section

Corruption, Crisis and the Future of Catalonia

18 Jul 2018
By Dr Lara Anderson

Following the tumultuous events of last year’s pro-independence referendum, Spain’s political situation resembles a surreal movie. The Catalan independence question is one of the main issues that Spain’s new prime minister will have to face.

Following on from the tumultuous events of last year’s October 1st pro-independence referendum in Catalonia, Spain’s political situation continues to resemble a surreal Almodóvar movie. Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was voted out of office in a no-confidence motion brought on by a long-running corruption trial involving members of his centre-right party. Taking over as prime minister on 1 June this year was socialist Pedro Sanchez, who argued that the extensive and institutionalised corruption involving the governing conservative party left Rajoy unfit to lead his country. Sanchez won the no-confidence motion against Rajoy with 180 votes in favour, 169 against and one abstention.

Rajoy’s position had become increasingly untenable as a result of the institutionalised corruption of his Government. In the lead up to the vote of no-confidence, Spain’s national court handed down sentences to 29 businesspeople involved in party corruption, as well as to various party officials, with former treasurer Luis Barcenas receiving a sentence of 33 years.

According to the court ruling, Rajoy’s party was guilty of fraud, tax evasion and money laundering. Furthermore, it has recently come to light that Spain’s previous King Juan Carlos de Borbón y Borbón-Dos Sicilias was involved, too, in money laundering. This accusation seriously compromises the future of the Spanish monarchy, given that many Spaniards have only supported this institution on account of a sense of goodwill and gratitude to King Juan Carlos for his pivotal role in helping Spain transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1975.

Also making Rajoy’s position untenable was his authoritarian and uncompromising treatment of the independence movement in the wealthy region of Catalonia. Unsurprisingly, backing Sánchez were two Catalan pro-independence parties, as well as the Basque Nationalist Party; their seats were key to his securing enough parliamentary support. Sánchez’s own political career is the stuff of high drama: after his party lost the previous elections to Rajoy, he was voted out as leader; refusing to go quietly, Sánchez got in his car “to visit every corner of Spain to win back the support of the people and his party”.

The Catalan independence question is, of course, one of the main issues that Spain’s new prime minister will have to face. Although it is expected that Sánchez will approach negotiations with Catalonia’s leaders in a less authoritarian way, the new Spanish government spokesperson Isabel Celaá said Prime Minister Sánchez had already made clear that he would not support the right to self-determination in Catalonia since the constitution does not allow for it.

Hopefully, Sánchez’s negotiations with Catalonia will highlight to him the need to make modifications to Spain’s constitution. Written in 1978, 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of a constitution drafted for a nation transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. The Constitution tried to take into account the differing viewpoints of Spain’s political continuum by balancing national unity with regional diversity. Although this Constitution privileges national unity, it was assumed by its key architects that at some point in the future Spain would become a federal state. The idea of a federation remains, however, hypothetical, as a number of different governing parties have, since 1978, tied Spaniards to the notion of the unity of the Spanish nation by refusing to work towards a new political model. For many Catalans and Basques, the Constitution and the failure of various governments to implement a different political model is seen as an affront because it has diluted historical precedent, as well as their sense of identity and cultural separateness.

Sánchez’s government is made up of more female ministers than male ones with positions such as the positions of Vice-President, Treasurer and Minister of Environment being held by women. The emphasis on gender equity represents an important point of difference with Rajoy’s ministry, which had very little female presence. One of the issues that has been discussed in relation to Catalonia is that the masculine and bellicose style of leadership has only intensified conflict and that a more inclusive, feminine form of dialogue could perhaps be more productive in bringing Spain’s conflicting parts together again.

With Rajoy’s authoritarian style a thing of the past, hopefully Sánchez’s more conciliatory government will find a more peaceful path for Spain that brings the centre and peripheral parts together as a more united whole by allowing for more autonomy in areas such as Catalonia and the Basque country. As Spain celebrates or reflects on the 40th year anniversary of its monumental democratic Constitution, it is important to remember that the notion of national unity to which Spaniards are still tied was imposed on the country during a 36-year long dictatorship. If the current Constitution is to properly serve democratic governance, then breaking away from authoritarian or fascist notions of national identity is essential.

Dr Lara Anderson is convenor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Melbourne.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be reprinted with attribution.