Tag Archives: Democracy

Spain's anti-terrorist parties law used against Catalan Democrats

Spain's law of political parties, enacted in 2002 to prevent Basque parties linked to terrorism, has been used for the first time to prevent the registration of a political party with an explicitly pro-Catalan independence manifesto. The party formerly known as Convergència was attempting to register its new name – Democratic Party of Catalonia – with the Spanish registrar of political parties. The name itself was also rejected for bearing too close a similarity to the Catalan Democrats party formed out of the ashes of Unió, but this was expected. What wasn't expected was a political reason for refusing to register the party.

The law, voted in with the support of CiU, allowed the courts to ban Batasuna and a range of other attempted Basque left-independence parties on the basis of alleged links with terrorism. In fact, at the time the law was introduced, many felt that it had been created solely for the ETA/Batasuna case and that there was no way that Spain would abuse the legal system to ban legitimate parties (i.e. parties with no links to armed groups).

It states that a party can be made illegal when it threatens democratic principles, particularly by threatening to reduce or destroy the 'state of freedoms' or to make democracy impossible. Specific grounds it cites include (excuse the rough translation):

  • Threatening freedoms and fundamental rights; promoting, justifying or otherwise supporting attacks that threaten death or injury; or excluding or persecuting people on the basis of their ideology, religion or beliefs, nationality, race, sex or sexual orientation.
  • Fomenting, enabling or legitimizing violence as a means of achieving political objectives or to endanger the conditions present for the peaceful exercise of democracy, pluralism and political freedoms.
  • Form part of and provide political support to terrorist organizations with the intention of aiding them to subvert constitutional order or seriously threaten the peace; intending to subject public authorities, specific individuals or parts of society, or society as a whole to a climate of terror; or contributing to the amplification of the effects of acts of terror the fear and intimidation they cause.

However, article 6 of the law states that parties "will align their organization, operation and activity with democratic principles and with the content of the Constitution and the law". And it's this flimsy sentence which the Interior ministry is using to effectively ban the PDC.

It's very clear indeed that the law is aimed at banning political parties which threaten, carry out or justify – by their own acts or via proxies – violence or terrorism. Altering the purpose of this law so that it now covers any party which campaigns for radical change, however peacefully, is confirmation of the PP's disturbingly authoritarian attitude to constitutional democracy.

Legalism and coercion: two problems with Span's approach to Catalonia

As I said in my post the other day, opponents of Catalan independence rarely frame their arguments in terms of the benefits of remaining part of Spain. On the contrary, they're limited to one main argument:

1 Catalan separatism is illegal; and therefore Catalan separatism is undemocratic.

Allow me to present an expanded version: in a constitutional democracy like Spain, the rule of law is paramount. Under the Spanish constitution, Catalonia separating from Spain would be illegal, as would holding a referendum on indepedendence without parliametary approval. Because the Catalan separatist parties insist on pursuing this path without permission and in contravention of the constitution, they are challenging the rule of law. Ergo, they and their supporters are undemocratic.

Read as many PP, PSOE, SCC, Cs, UPyD, central government, foreign office, etc briefings as you like: that is pretty much the only argument ever given against the movement in support of a Catalan referendum. And you can see why: if a thing is illegal and undemocratic, it's bad. It sounds like something from Russia or some ghastly place like that. It doesn't fit with our values.

It's also a nice, short soundbite. If the BBC, FT, Bloomberg, etc ask the Moncloa for a quote on Catalan independence, they only have to say "Mature democracy… rule of law… illegal… undemocratic". I mean, SCC's interminable PDFs pretty much write themselves (you'd almost think it was the same people writing them, but that's by the by). It's an argument which works in today's climate of churnalism, rolling news and short attention spans.

Apart from the fact that I think the Spanish government and their unionist friends should be making the case for staying part of Spain in a positive way, something really irritates me about the 'undemocratic' argument. I think it's because it's based on a combination of a cynically simplistic vision of what democracy is and how it can be practiced, and a highly restrictive and legalistic approach to the constitution which fails to accept the duty in a democracy of ensuring that the law doesn't actively cause political problems to arise. I think this says a lot about Spain in general and about its right wing in particular.

The main problem with this argument is that it reframes Spanish democracy as coercive rather than consensual. When a constitutional democracy acts legally to restrict basic or universal rights against the will of a section of its society, it acts coercively. This coercive nature actually fits with many policies promoted by the current government. From the attempted abortion law reform to the new gagging and anti-protest law to its treatment of Catalonia's right to self determination, you can see a clear pattern. I call this attitude coercive because while the argument is always given (and generally with a nasty smirk) that the constitution provides paths by which the Catalan government could theoretically hold a referendum, in practical terms none of these paths leads anywhere.