The Ghost of Franco       

Both sides in the standoff over Catalonia are invoking Spain’s authoritarian past. That could be dangerous.

Women hold Spanish, Catalan and European flags during a demonstration against Catalonia's independence in front of the European Parliament building
A young woman holds a pro-independence Catalan estelada flag during the demonstration Saturday in Barcelona to support Catalan separatist group leaders Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart.

Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Barcelona’s Passeig de Gràcia is always crowded on Saturdays, but this past Saturday the wide thoroughfare wasn’t full of the usual shoppers, tourists, and traffic. It was crammed with nearly half a million demonstrators. Hours before, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had announced that he was imposing direct rule on the wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia, which has its own language, cultural identity, and parliament. The dramatic move sent shock waves across the land and beyond. The use of Article 155 of the constitution, which enables the suspension of a region’s autonomy, takes the country into uncharted waters. It has never been invoked in the 40 years since Spain transitioned from Francisco Franco’s dictatorship to democracy.

The move toward direct rule caps off weeks of increasingly heavy-handed actions by Spain’s government in response to Catalonia’s independence referendum, held on Oct. 1. The response from Madrid has included police violence against peaceful protesters, the arrest of protest organizers for “sedition” against the state, and the deployment of 12,000 national Civil Guard members in Catalonia, which has its own regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. For many Catalans, these moves portend a return to the darkest days of Spanish authoritarianism.

Protesters of all ages poured into the streets after Rajoy’s announcement on Saturday—droves of young people, whole families, wide-eyed children, and babies in strollers, along with plenty of elderly folk who remember Franco’s brutal dictatorship (generally dignified and well-dressed, these senior citizens didn’t hesitate to flip the bird at police helicopters whenever they thundered overhead). All around were giant esteladas, the flag made up of the red-and-yellow Catalan stripes plus solitary star to symbolize independence. Chants of “In-de-independencia” rippled through the crowd, along with, “The streets will always be ours,” and “¡Llibertat, llibertat, lliber-tat!” meaning “freedom.”

The latter wasn’t a call for freedom from the Spanish state, but for the liberty of Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, leaders of pro-independence civil associations who were imprisoned for “sedition” after they organized demonstrations that blocked the Civil Guard from arresting Catalan government officials. Saturday’s protest was officially for them, planned well before it was known Article 155 would be declared. For many Catalans, the “two Jordis” have become icons of state repression. Signs held up by demonstrators refer to them as presos politicos. The Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has himself said: “Sadly, we have political prisoners again.”

Political prisoners in Spain—those may sound like strong words, but Rajoy has made it easy for secessionists to portray his government as an authoritarian one stifling basic freedoms. In the face of the Catalan government’s determination to hold an independence referendum without the approval of central government or the courts, the Spanish prime minister could have attempted negotiations. Instead, as the date of the referendum drew near, Rajoy resorted to ever more drastic measures to stop it. Fourteen government officials were arrested, prompting mass demonstrations (leading to the subsequent arrests of the two Jordis). Up to 140 websites promoting the referendum, including the official government website, were blocked. Printers of ballot papers and postal workers distributing them were threatened with arrest.

The referendum went ahead despite all this, but a concerted police operation on the day to confiscate ballot boxes and remove sit-in protesters occupying polling stations led to hundreds of would-be voters being injured, some seriously. Footage broadcast around the globe showed riot police dragging women by their hair and seated protesters being beaten with truncheons, kicked, and jumped on. (Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, claimed in a BBC interview on Sunday that many of the images were false and constituted “fake news.”) Ninety percent of those who managed to place their vote opted for independence, with a turnout of 43 percent. This spurred Puigdemont to declare independence, though he then suspended it to allow for two months of dialogue. Rather than talk, Rajoy gave Puigdemont a deadline to clarify whether or not he had declared independence. When that arbitrary deadline passed, he invoked Article 155.

To hear many independentistas tell it, this is just the latest phase in Spain’s age-old oppression of Catalonia. During Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 until his death in 1975, the region was stripped of its autonomy, the Catalan language was banned, and parents couldn’t even give their children Catalan names. Some of the Spanish government’s comments have only strengthened the perception that this is a return to the dark days of dictatorship.

“History doesn’t have to repeat. Let’s hope that no one declares anything tomorrow, because maybe he who declares [independence] could end up like he who declared 83 years ago,” government spokesman Pablo Casado said on the eve of Puigdemont’s post-referendum address. He was referring to Catalan President Lluís Companys, who was executed by firing squad in 1940 after the Spanish Civil War. Casado seemed to be threatening Puigdemont with the same fate. This shocking remark isn’t a one-off. The ruling Partido Popular has made repeated allusions since this crisis began to the historic need to stamp out Catalan rebelliousness.

On the Catalan side, Puigdemont has branded the Spanish government’s actions as “totalitarian” and “a return to the past.” On Saturday evening, as the crowds thinned and the remaining demonstrators gathered ’round phones to watch his televised address, Puigdemont went further, directly comparing Rajoy’s government to Spain’s former fascist regime. “This is the most serious attack on the institutions and the people of Catalonia since the dictatorship of Franco,” he stated, adding that recent events were an attack on democracy itself.

Are the separatists right to suggest that Spain’s government is turning authoritarian? Mary Vincent, a professor from the U.K.’s University of Sheffield, who has written several books on Spanish history, believes that likening Rajoy’s government to fascists does not stand up to historic scrutiny. “I think comparing the PP to Franco, and the recent actions to Franco’s regime, is wrong. And it’s dangerous,” she says.

PP was founded by one of Franco’s former ministers while the first prime minister of democratic Spain was a former apparatchik of Franco’s. But as Vincent points out: “You could not construct Spanish democracy without people that had been involved in the Franco regime. It was not possible,” she says. “A democracy has to incorporate a spectrum of political opinions, including ones you don’t like.”

At least one area of overlap between PP and past authoritarians is their uncompromising stance toward the idea that regions have the right to secede. The notion that the unitary nature of Spain is untouchable and that it must be defended at all costs is an instinctive reaction from Spanish conservatives. But Rajoy has insisted that he is merely abiding by the Spanish Constitution, which makes no allowances for a region to secede.

It is unsurprising that Catalans would see distressing images of the excessive use of force by police as reminiscent of actions under Franco. But there is an important distinction, according to Vincent. “[The police] were acting under the orders of a constitutional government, not a dying military dictator. The police in the latter stage of the Franco regime could do whatever they wanted. That clearly isn’t the case here,” she says. “If there were torture chambers in the police stations they took people to [on Oct. 1], then maybe they would have a point.”

For many Spaniards outside of Catalonia, the police operation on Oct. 1 was not seen as some authoritarian reflex, but as a justified use of force. “The Spanish state and our security forces have acted and continue to act in accordance with the law and fulfilled their obligation to enforce the law, the constitution, and judicial orders that the independentistas have been violating for weeks, while at the same time demanding unacceptable impunity,” says Luis de la Corte, a professor at the Autonomous University of Madrid who specializes in security and defense. “In the case of total rebellion against the law, no serious state could fail to act.”

Regardless of whether the police operation was in any way justifiable, the memory of those violent images remained fresh in the minds of Catalans as they took to the streets of Barcelona on Saturday. Not all of the protesters were separatists, as evidenced by the handful of red-yellow-and-purple Spanish Republican flags—distinct from the better-known flag representing Spain’s constitutional monarchy—and notable swaths of abstainers during the chants of “Independencia.” But the protesters were united by a sense that their hard-worn regional autonomy and freedoms were under assault.

That’s not to say that there is any kind of consensus in Catalonia. At best, a slim majority backs independence, and as the crisis goes on, tensions have grown between friends and family on either side of the divide. Many moderates find themselves caught in the middle, between the intransigence of two conservative parties—Puigdemont’s separatist party is, like Rajoy’s PP, center right. Both lack majorities in their respective parliaments, and as both are electorally vulnerable, they are arguably playing to their hardcore bases through this crisis. Puigdemont’s references to the Franco era have to be seen in the context of the fight for political survival he faces in future Catalan elections. But he is playing a dangerous game.

“I think it’s dangerous first of all because it ups the ante,” says Vincent. “It makes things even more stark, polarized, and confrontational than they are already.” Implying that the main conservative party in Spain, which has won the largest number of seats in the past two elections, has no democratic credentials is “untenable as a historical and political argument,” Vincent adds.

The careless use of extreme language by both PP and Catalan separatists could have disastrous consequences in a country with a long history of civil conflict. Little more than a month ago, the notion of a civil conflict in Spain was unthinkable, but nerves in Catalonia have been frayed by the near constant helicopter patrols, as well as the sights of riot vans and police holding rifles. Many of these are Civil Guard.

On Saturday, one young protester told me that he couldn’t imagine PP ever going so far as using the army to enforce direct rule but that he no longer thought it impossible that the military could step in of its own accord. “I hope that it won’t be necessary to resort to the armed forces,” comments De la Corte. “I believe and hope that the nonmilitary capabilities of the state will be sufficient to restore constitutional order in Catalonia.”

Vincent sees military intervention as impossible, citing the pacification of the army after nearly four decades of military dictatorship as one of the most remarkable achievements of the transition to democracy. Nevertheless, the atmosphere here has shifted sharply since the crisis began. And if the Mossos, the regional police whose chief stands accused of not doing enough to stop the referendum, refuse to obey Article 155, that would pit the Catalan and national police forces against each other.

The Senate still needs to formally approve Article 155, and Puigdemont may voluntarily call regional elections, which would likely put the brakes on its imposition. But after backing away from an expected appearance before the Spanish Senate on Thursday, there is mounting speculation that he will make a unilateral declaration of independence. If he does, all bets are off.