When I first arrived in Barcelona this June, I tried to speak Spanish (or Castellano – Castilian – as the locals call it) with people that I met, thinking that it would be easier for people to understand than English or French. However, the first person I met, our taxi driver from the airport to our hotel in the heart of Barcelona, did not want to speak castellano (the language of Castilian imperialists) with me. Rather, he responded in halting but correct English. A few minutes into the ride it became quite evident that not only would he not speak Spanish, but on the passenger seat of his car was a large estelada, the symbol of the Catalonian independence movement. And when my mother asked what the flag was, we were given a nationalist’s version of Catalan history since the Fall of Barcelona in 1714.
1714 is a year of monumental importance to Catalan nationalists. Long story short, the Generalitat de Catalunya, the local administration of Catalonia, picked the wrong side in the Spanish War of Succession, and in 1714, Barcelona fell to the forces of King Felipe V and the Generalitat was abolished. The Fall of Barcelona is commemorated in the nondescript Fossar de les Moreres monument located near the centre of Barcelona, which appears on more than one tourist map as a “Catalan Independence Monument”. I even picked up on the sore wound from the internet passcode at my hotel, which was 1417.
Just over three centuries later, Catalonia has never been closer to becoming independent. The Generalitat, which was briefly restored by the Republican government during the early 1930’s, reemerged again after the end of the Franco régime and has been the functioning regional government ever since. Now, the head of the Generalitat, President Artur Mas, wants to make Catalonia independent.
Why now? The legacy of the Franco régime, when Catalan was barred from newspapers, books, and the streets, have left a bitter taste in the mouths of Catalans who already felt overwhelmed by the castellano-speaking majority culturally and economically. Secondly, although democratic Spain has made great efforts to devolve powers to local autonomous regions, such as Catalonia or the Basque Country, many Catalonians feel that Madrid has still not been sufficiently generous to the region, and the policies that shape Catalonia’s future are still largely being crafted by the Spanish parliament. Furthermore, there is also a general sense that the Spanish government is using Catalan tax dollars to support the rest of the country, which is not as wealthy or prosperous as Catalonia. While the Catalan government held a low-turnout non-binding referendum on independence last year which elicited indignant scoffs from Madrid, Catalan and Spanish politics have moved in a direction that provides an opening for the separatists.
The regional elections to the Generalitat de Catalunya that took place on 27 September resulted in a victory for the nationalists, especially the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes [to independence]) list, a combination of Mas’ own Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (Democratic Convergence of Catalonia), the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia, the leading party of the Catalan nationalist movement of the 1930’s), and smaller nationalist parties. As a whole, separatist parties, while just shy of capturing an absolute majority of the vote, captured an absolute majority of seats in the Generalitat, with Mas’ Junts pel Sí taking 62 of 135 seats, a full 37 seats ahead of the next largest grouping, the liberal, pro-Spanish Ciutadans (Citizens). Whether or not Mas himself returns to power, the bottom line of the election is that with almost 80% turnout, nationalist parties pledging to unilaterally declare independence were triumphant. And that has Madrid rightly concerned.
Meanwhile, the days of the Partido Popular (People’s Party) government in Madrid are numbered. Polls show that in the elections to be held this December, the PP will still be the largest party in the Spanish Cortes Generales, but with well below the number of seats required for an absolute majority. The other three largest parties, the PSOE, the mainstream socialists, Ciudadanos (the Castilian spelling of the aforementioned Ciutadans), and the far-left Podemos, may or may not take an absolute majority between them, but are fractious enough that forming a coalition including all three parties would be nearly impossible. However, they are not inclined to support the Partido Popular either. The most probable result will be either a second election (à la Greece in 2012) or a coalition of some sort that will be so enfeebled by infighting that it will not be able to present a decisive, united front.
And this presents Catalan nationalists with their greatest opportunity. If Madrid becomes mired in gridlock – and worse yet, if the balance of power in Madrid is held by Catalan separatists, as some polls suggest could happen – there is little the Spanish government can do to prevent a unilateral declaration of independence from the Catalan parliament, which would provoke a massive constitutional crisis that would divide Catalonia between Spanish-speakers, Catalan separatists, and Catalan third-way regionalists (who, sadly, did poorly in the elections to the Generalitat).
One of the most notable attributes of the streets of Barcelona these days is the ubiquitous estelada, the starred flag of Catalonian nationalism. The flag hangs from balconies and windows in peaceful defiance of Spanish claims to sovereignty over Catalonia. In one day alone I counted well over sixty flags, compared to just four Spanish flags (one on a bank, two on government buildings, and one lonely Spanish flag draped over the railing of an apartment balcony). Catalan nationalism is not just being pushed by a small minority: it has a deep, broad, and dedicated support base that is too large for Spain to continue to ignore. At a time when the Spanish government will be in its weakest, most fractious state since the restoration of democracy, Catalan nationalists, electorally victorious and with single-minded zealotry, have an opportunity before them that they could have only dreamt of just a few years ago.
No one knows for certain what will happen over the next year, but as of now, I wouldn’t bet against the nationalists. Just over three centuries after Barcelona fell to the forces of Felipe V, Catalonian nationalists have never been closer to being able to build a Catalan nation.