What Political Science Tells Us About the Risk of Civil War in Spain

Sara Plana is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at MIT, and former country analyst for the Department of Defense in Washington, DC:

As soon as Friday, the Spanish government could take up arms against its own people. The Spanish parliament is set to approve a call by the central government to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy in response to the region’s successful independence referendum on Oct. 1. The parliament’s vote will kick off Spanish efforts to reassert control over the region—likely by force.

….This is just the latest unsettling sign that the standoff over Catalan independence could ignite wider violence and even civil war. Observers should not fall into the mistake of underestimating the prospects of civil war — as many were wont to do before the last major civil war on the European continent, over twenty years ago in the former Yugoslavia.

….In perhaps the most alarming parallel to Yugoslavia, a number of nations within Spain have separatist aspirations, and an independent Catalonia could be just the first of many dominos to fall.

What Can We Do Now?

Political science not only helps us predict conflict; it also offers insight on how to avoid it.

The Catalan regional government has indicated that it prefers negotiations, giving Spain several opportunities to pump the brakes on the looming conflict. The Spanish government could negotiate some appeasement of Catalonia’s economic grievance over redistribution (the major accelerant of the current independence push). Even many within Basque Country claim that separatist sentiment there has decreased in large part because Spain has successfully assuaged their economic resentment. The central government could also make amends for the recent forceful tactics and reverse the recent exclusionary legal verdicts that have fueled Catalans’ political grievances.

Spain could also forestall violence by avoiding actions that might enhance the security dilemma. Continued repression or heavy-handed governance would only increase Catalans’ perception that they need to defend themselves, which would in turn inspire Spain to do the same, creating a spiral of confrontation that is often hard to reverse….

Good advice that I hope will be heeded.

Source: What Political Science Tells Us About the Risk of Civil War in Spain

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