Wearing a black t-shirt with the Catalan independence flag on it, Basque nationalist MP Sabino Cuadra addressed the Spanish parliament clutching a book of the Spanish Constitution on Wednesday night. Railing against the document’s limitations on regional self-determination, he tore out certain pages: “the solution is for this and this to disappear”. According to Catalan nationalists, if things go their way in a few weeks’ time, they will have a mandate to do in reality what Cuadra did symbolically, and break away from Spain for good.
Catalonia goes to the polls on 27 September for the regional elections. These elections are contested by a confusing array of regional and national parties. However, this time around, Artur Mas, leader of the centre-right nationalist party Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, has managed to group together independence parties from across the political spectrum under one list, Together For Yes. If this coalition wins a majority, Mas says he will negotiate separation from Spain. For him, these elections are a de facto independence referendum, given that the central government and the Constitutional Court forbids a proper one. A referendum held last November, which was non-binding for this reason, showed about 80% support for Catalonia as an independent state.
Polls suggest Together For Yes could get a majority, although even if it is slightly short it can still get the support of another leftist group of nationalists, Popular Unity Candidacy, or the far-left Podemos-backed coalition, Catalonia Yes we Can. Catalan nationalism, more strident its Galician version but untainted with the violence of a terrorist group like ETA in the Basque Country, is in good health. According to a 2014 poll by the Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos, 40% of people in the region considered themselves uniquely Catalan, and another 35% both Spanish and Catalan. Nationalist parties consistently receive over half the vote in regional elections, while Socialists’ Party of Catalonia, the Catalan referent of PSOE, one of the two big parties in Spain, has seen its vote share decrease steadily in regional elections, from 38% in 1999 to 14% in 2012.
What happens if there is a pro-independence vote is the great unknown. Rumours of civil unrest seem sensationalist, yet the region will be entering unchartered territory. Mas has indicated a time limit of 18 months during which time Catalonia would negotiate with the Spanish government over topics such as borders, the energy grid and financial assets. Various warnings have emerged in the past few days about an independent Catalonia being automatically expelled from the EU, NATO, the UN, the IMF and the ECB; even FC Barcelona might not be able to play in the Spanish League. Banks have threatened moving out.
The current raucousness of Catalan nationalism can be seen in the same light as other trends in Spanish and European politics, since a devastating crisis which left over a quarter of Spaniards unemployed. Two new parties, far-left Podemos and centrist Ciudadanos, threaten to break the two-party stranglehold in Spain in this year’s general elections. Barcelona’s new mayor is Podemos-backed Ada Colau. Yet this also is part of a new chapter for Spain in a different way. A political consensus led Spain out of dictatorship and into liberal democracy with stability and peace in the late seventies. In some ways this relative harmony has disappeared this century. This has been evident in the increased interest in books about the Civil War, the controversy over the digging up of Republican war victims, and serious divisions between the two main parties, PSOE and the conservative PP, over issues like involvement in the Iraq War. Now the constitution, carefully negotiated between Franco’s regime and the hitherto underground opposition, as well as the integrity of the country as a whole, is threatened.