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Election Caps Turbulent 2017 for Catalonia

20 Dec 2017
By Luke Stegemann
A pro-independence rally in Barcelona

This week, after an acrimonious campaign including allegations of foreign interference, Catalonians are voting in crucial regional elections. While pro-independence parties seek to echo the anti-Francoist freedom fighters of old, is it that simple?

It has been a difficult year for the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia, and even more so for the city of Barcelona. As the pro-independence movement gathered steam, in late summer the city suffered an appalling terrorist attack on the famous boulevard of Las Ramblas.

In October, barely had the city begun to recover when the regional parliament, in irregular circumstances that failed even local Catalonian laws, moved an illegal declaration of independence from Spain: a move made against repeated advice and warnings from the central government of Madrid.

True to its word, the Spanish government then suspended autonomous rule under Article 155 of the constitution. A selection of pro-independence figureheads, including Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) leader and regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras, were imprisoned on charges of sedition and rebellion. Facing the same prospect, Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont fled to Brussels to plead his case temporarily beyond the reach of Spanish law. These events triggered an upturn in anxiety and social and personal chaos as well as a financial disaster that was as destructive as it was unnecessary.

This week Catalonia goes to the polls and Barcelona is in a sombre mood. It is Christmas, and the streets and shops are decked with lights, but the feeling is not the same. This recent independence movement, by no means with majority support among Catalonian citizens, has created deep social fractures, badly undermined the economy and led to a serious slowdown of investment in the region.

Madrid will be hoping the separatist versus unionist deadlock that has plagued the region will be broken by the upcoming elections. There is an anticipated 85 per cent participation rateextraordinarily highthough just how the huge increase in participation will play out has had pundits speculating for weeks. Is this level of interest indicative of a serious popular will for Catalonian independence, or are the often overlooked working class, pro-union Spaniards coming out to vote in numbers in order to protect the integrity of their nation?

All the polls have one thing in common: they point to an unworkable parliamentary impasse with no groupingthose broadly categorised as pro-independence or pro-unionable to muster a working majority. To complicate matters, a party’s constitutional position does not always correspond to an ideological shading: there are both pro- and contra-independence parties on the left and right. Catalan politics is complex; seven parties have a serious chance of affecting the result, and any of the seven might end up part of a coalition of one stripe or another. Catalonia is not bipartisan in the way of nations such as Australia where the Blue/Red division still holds sway.

The Spanish constitution of 1978, which provided the Madrid government with the legal means to overturn home rule, has come in for much criticism over the past two months. It is seen above all by pro-independence supporters as a document that binds Spain to an irrevocable unity and thus thwarts their separatist ambitions. For many others, that is precisely its strongest virtue.

Much has also been made of the fact the constitution was written in the immediate wake of the death of Franco, as if his shadow hung over the document. It is no doubt time for some tweaking of the constitution, but the commonly expressed complaint that ‘what was written 40 years ago no longer represents our current ambitions’ carries within it the notion, surely unsustainable, that national constitutions might be re-written every few decades in order to reflect social trends.

Spanish societyand in this Catalonia is a reflection of the broader nationhas split, not for the first time, down the middle on ideological lines. No holds have been barred by either side in the current escalation of rhetoric. The firm response of Madrid to the separatists’ unilateral and illegal attempt to secede from Spain has fed into the separatists’ sense of persecution and oppression and has fuelled their narrative, at times deeply reactionary and hate-filled, towards Spain.

It all makes for a breathless media spectacle, and Spanish television is no place for the faint-hearted. Various free-to-air commercial stations run endless hours of political debate every day. At any one time, three, four or up to eight heads are talkingopinions in open crossfireinterrupting, declaiming, picking over the body politic. Every possible angle on the question of Catalonia is covered: How to meet such a panoply of demands? How to maintain the territorial integrity of Spain in the face of its biggest challenge for centuries? Who to blame for the financial chaos and the increased personal abuse? How to interpret the deep social fractures, to say nothing of the outbreaks of street violence? How exactly will the numbers stack up, and the pacts play out?

Madrid’s strong response to the secessionist threat allowed many, not least in the international media, to dust off old prejudices about Spain and serve up clichés about the fascist nature of its government. These arguments fly in the face of the astonishing path to democratic modernity made by Spain and its profoundly progressive social changes (many of which, such as marriage equality, came well before Australia).

Meanwhile in Brussels, independence leader Carles Puigdemont has sought to portray himself as an exile from an intolerant state trapped in a Francoist past, seeking to draw parallels with past exiles from various despotic Spanish regimes. This is pure fantasy. Puigdemont’s exile is wholly self-imposed, a theatrical performance that appears to be backfiring. In his absence from the daily cut and thrust of electoral battle, his former coalition partners are seeking alternative leaders. Even if his party does win power and he returns to Spain, Puigdemont faces immediate arrest on sedition charges.

From Brussels, Puigdemont appealed directly to the European Union first for mediation in the conflict and then for recognition of an independent Catalonia. When Europe turned its back, he began to pose the extreme proposition that an independent Catalonia would withdraw from the European Union. In an atmosphere of Brexit, the last thing the EU wants is a resurgence of reactionary small-state nationalisms. Europe has no time or need for the self-sacrifice of Puigdemont. Embarrassingly his nationalist supporters, demonstrating recently in Brussels, were embraced by Belgian groups of the far right.

Rejecting the separatists’ often victimist narrative and focussing instead on the urgent need to restore stability to a seriously tilting Catalonian economy, the front runner in this campaign has been the centrist and pro-union Ciutadans (Citizens Party) led by Inés Arrimadas, a talented and energetic young woman who brings to mind New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. On top of the narrow provincialism of Catalonian nationalists who reject her candidacy partly due to her Andalusian family origins, Arrimadas has weathered a string of sexist and misogynist slurs. Socialist leader Miquel Iceta, an openly gay politician (a rarity in Spain), has also had to cope with highly homophobic remarks from Catalan nationalists, remarks that have marred the campaign and highlighted the deeply personal nature of this conflict.

The horse-trading that will almost certainly follow the election will have as its backdrop a region of seven and a half million people deeply affected by months of uncertainty. Since October, some 3,000 businesses have moved their offices out of Catalonia. Unemployment is up and tourism down (both against the national trend), especially critical at one of the peak tourist seasons of the year. Worst of all is the social fracturing, with inflexible positions adopted on all sides: hardened postures that simply reflect the attitude of political leaders. Countless families and workplaces face Christmas deeply divided.

While many citizens of Cataloniawho come from all over Spain and indeed the worldfavour the right to a referendum on independence, there is no majority desire for Catalonia to split from Spain. As renowned novelist Eduardo Mendoza reminds us, Catalonian nationalism has always been a project of the professional middle classes. The great irony and sadness here is that, with the increase in unemployment and insecurity, it is above all working class peoplethe great majority of whom oppose independencewho will be the first to suffer.

Luke Stegemann is an Australian writer and Hispanist. His recently published work, ‘The Beautiful Obscure’ (Transmission Press), blends art, history, politics and memoir to relate the interweaving cultural histories of Australia and Spain.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.