Hit & Run

Spain's Crackdown in Catalonia Won't Stop the Push for Self-Determination

If anything, it will make independence more attractive.

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As Catalonia prepares for an October 1 vote on whether to secede from Spain, the government has cracked down on the unauthorized referendum. Yesterday the country's high court announced it had arrested more than a dozen regional officials on charges of disobedience, abuse of power, and embezzlement. (It's unclear whether the embezzlement charges stem from the idea that the vote is a misuse of public money or if there is a claim of broader corruption.)

Catalan leaders say the raids and arrests have undermined the push for independence. But in the end the crackdown may well end up increasing sympathy for the secessionists.

The referendum faced long odds even before the government roadblocks: Polls show only about 40 percent of the region favoring independence. But a majority does want a vote. Spain's effort—animated in large part by a fear that other regions will follow suit with independence votes of their own—could only boost support for self-determination movements.

The doubletalk from the authorities isn't likely to help. "Don't go ahead, you don't have any legitimacy to do it," Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy told Catalans in a televised address. "Go back to the law and democracy. This referendum is a chimera." When you defend a decision to suppress a vote by calling it a return to democracy, who exactly are you going to persuade?

Spanish courts have repeatedly ruled it illegal for Catalonia to hold a referendum on independence, and earlier this month the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the currently scheduled vote so the judges could hear arguments about whether it is constitutional. Catalan officials decided to hold the referendum anyway, whether or not the results would be binding. The national government responded by threatening to arrest 700 regional mayors if they went on with preparations for the voting. This week's crackdown followed.

European Union leaders have backed the Spanish government, though Reuters reports that this "belies some disquiet that his hardline tactics might backfire." Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's pro-independence leader, has urged Spanish and Catalan leaders to resolve their differences at the negotiating table, not with police raids.

We'll see. The case for self-determination is clear enough: By reducing the distance between the governing and the governed, local rule could make officials more responsive and make it harder for majorities to lord over minorities. But local rule also makes central planning more difficult, and so the central planners who claim to be the standard-bearers of democracy tend to oppose it. In Spain, that opposition reveals that they're not so democratic after all.