“Franco has died,” read the tongue-in-cheek headline of the November 11 editorial in El País, Spain’s self-proclaimed newspaper of record. The headline recalled the televised announcement on November 20, 1975, by then prime minister Arias Navarro informing the nation of its leader’s passing—and, unwittingly, of Chevy Chase’s running gag on Saturday Night Live (“Generalissimo Franco is still dead”). The editorial meant to poke fun at foreign commentators who resort to comparisons with the Franco regime to describe the way Spain’s central government has handled Catalonia’s bid for independence. On November 5, Belgium’s former prime minister Elio Di Rupo branded Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy an “authoritarian Francoist” on Twitter. These comparisons are “absurd,” El País wrote, calling Di Rupo’s claim “offensive,” “intolerable,” and equivalent to calling Angela Merkel “a totalitarian Nazi.” “Spain is a mature democracy,” the paper countered, echoing what by now has become Rajoy’s mantra: “España es una gran nación.”
The editorial expressed concern with Spain’s deteriorating image abroad. But its defensive tone also betrayed insecurity. The escalation of the conflict over Catalonia since early September has revealed the depth of Spain’s constitutional crisis, which the central government’s harsh response to the Catalan challenge has only served to deepen. The government’s approach has also undermined judicial independence, eroded civil liberties, and reversed decades’ worth of decentralization. Meanwhile, Rajoy and his party, the conservative Partido Popular (PP), have used the Catalan conflict to their advantage. Over the past two months, the standoff with Catalonia has conveniently served to distract from revelations of rampant corruption in the PP. The Catalan right has borrowed from Rajoy’s playbook, also using the escalation of tensions to whitewash its own history of corruption and enthusiasm for austerity.
But how did we get here? Following Catalonia’s October 1 referendum, a month-long game of chicken between Madrid and Barcelona ensued. The Catalan government threatened to follow through on the vote’s independence promise—43 percent turnout with over 90 percent in favor—unless Madrid sat down at the negotiating table. Madrid, meanwhile, threatened to revoke the region’s self-rule unless Catalonia disavowed the referendum, which Spain’s Constitutional Court had declared illegal. On October 27, after feverish last-ditch attempts to reach a deal failed, things came to a head. The Catalan parliament voted for independence; the Spanish senate approved the imposition of direct rule. Rajoy’s government swiftly dissolved the Catalan parliament, fired President Carles Puigdemont and his cabinet, and called for new regional elections on December 21.
The deposed Puigdemont immediately fled to Brussels with some of the members of his cabinet. In the days that followed, some of the remaining cabinet members, including Vice President Oriol Junqueras, were preventively jailed by the country’s National Criminal Court on charges of rebellion, sedition, and embezzlement, while other members of parliament faced similar charges in the country’s Supreme Court. (Earlier in October, two Catalan civil-society leaders had also been jailed on sedition charges.) Puigdemont, who turned himself over to a Belgian court that is studying a European arrest warrant from Spain, has meanwhile announced that he’ll be a front-runner in the upcoming elections, although he disputes the legality of the manner in which they were called.