Wednesday, 14 november 2012
The reasons behind the November 25 election and its significance for Catalonia and beyond
Catalans are called to the polls on November 25 to choose a new regional government, but this election is not just a local event. A lot will hang on its outcome, and not only for Catalonia. Whatever Catalans decide may have far-reaching consequences for the future configuration of the Spanish state, or even its continuity. And there could also be significant ramifications for the European project.
International media have been following events in Catalonia with growing interest, especially since the pro-independence rally of last September 11. On that day 1.5 million people marched in Barcelona in a show of national dignity and civic responsibility –not a single incident was reported and not a single pane of glass was broken– and the world suddenly became aware of a conflict that is not characterized by violence or terrorism but driven by the quiet strength of an old nation.
Independence had not always been the preferred political option in Catalonia. At the end of General Franco's dictatorship in the mid-nineteen seventies, most Catalans were hoping they could fit in the new order that was being installed in Spain. Since then, they haven't stopped contributing to the country's prosperity and stability. At the same time, perhaps against their better judgment, they have spent a lot of energy looking for ways to have their national identity recognized without breaking away from the Spanish framework.
One such attempt was the proposed revision of the self-rule charter, the Estatut
, a wearing process started by several Catalan political parties as far back as 2005. After Spain rejected all the essential elements of that proposal in 2010, many Catalans simply despaired about ever being able reach a sensible compromise with the state. And yet, in the summer of 2012, when the wish to part ways with Spain was already becoming widespread, the Catalan leadership chose nevertheless to try one last effort and came up with the blueprint for a new "fiscal pact". This was meant to correct, at least to some extent, the unsustainable imbalance between Catalonia's financial contribution to the central government and the meager resources it gets in return. Only a few days after the September 11 demonstration, Artur Mas, the head of the Catalan government, brought his plan to Madrid, where Spanish President Mariano Rajoy turned it down in no uncertain terms, leaving no room for negotiation and without even the semblance of a justification. These two events in the same week led Mr. Mas to change his approach. He decided to call an early election, giving the people a chance to ratify at the ballot box what had been so clearly expressed on the streets of Barcelona.
Quite surprisingly in a European election these days, the central issue on November 25 won't be the economy, although economic issues will definitely be part of the equation. Catalonia is a productive and viable society, but when it comes to managing public finances there is very little that the Catalan administration can do with the insufficient instruments at its disposal and as long as the central government retains final control over the Catalans' tax money. Under the present fiscal arrangement, investments will only keep diminishing, infrastructures that are already strained will keep crumbling and essential services in health, education and social welfare will remain in jeopardy.
Still, these very real economic grievances should be placed in the context of a more general discontent with the evolution of Spanish political life that has been simmering for many years. Just as they have concluded that their economic viability cannot be guaranteed in the present political setup, Catalans feel they have no future as a people as long as they remain constrained by a nonperforming entity that is sapping much of their strength. What's more, although they are sustaining Spain's well-being with their work and their taxes, they are systematically branded as self-serving and disloyal and made to suffer constant attacks against their culture and their language in the name of superior Spanish values.
This tendency has intensified in recent times. Ever since coming to power, the present government has been striving to reimpose an impossible uniformity. Assimilation policies that were thought to be a thing of the dictatorial past are coming back with a vengeance, with government ministers and ruling-party leaders openly stating the need to "hispanicize" Catalan schoolchildren and to impress upon them the glories of Spain's "three-thousand-year-old [sic] history". This amounts to declaring that the collective identity of Catalans has no place in the ruling party's monolithic design for Spain.
Catalans are simply tired of seeing that Spain hasn't budged one bit in its denial of the country's plurinational character and that it's been repeatedly slamming every possible door in the face of every Catalan proposal towards its recognition. So for them it's really about finding a way to survive as a nation even if it means starting on a path that could lead to separation from the state. This is why Mr. Mas will be seeking in this election a clear mandate to call in a very near future a referendum in which Catalans will be asked if they wish to continue as a Spanish region or to become a new state in Europe.
The international media have been devoting a lot of attention to this issue in the last few weeks, and many foreign observers are making a serious effort to understand the Catalan point of view, to find out the reasons behind this conflict and to explain it to the world in an unprejudiced way.
Over in Madrid, however, opinion-makers in the national media keep misreading and misrepresenting the Catalan situation. After their initial bafflement in the wake of the September 11 demonstration –which proves how far removed they are from the reality on the ground– the Spanish political forces –including most of the opposition as much as the ruling party– have taken an adversarial stance. Beyond generic appeals to the responsibility of Catalan leaders, the government's official position has been squarely to deny the Catalan people the right to express their opinion alleging that a referendum would be illegal under the Spanish constitution.
No practical suggestions have been forthcoming from other quarters, either. Very few in Spain have publicly supported the Catalans' right to decide or denounced the government's undemocratic attitude. Many have kept a guilty silence. Others have voiced the usual token declarations of their high regard for the Catalan people and various platitudes about the virtues of unity and solidarity, while essentially denying any merit to the Catalan position.
So, each in their own way, the government, the opposition and a good share of Spanish society are all refusing to acknowledge that there might be a point to the Catalans' claims and thus precluding any possibility of engaging in a meaningful dialogue. And it is precisely this long-standing –and not altogether disinterested– blindness to the reality of Catalonia that could lead to its separation from Spain.
The first leg of this contest will be played on November 25. The predictable landslide by the variegated parties that support holding a referendum on independence is likely to set in motion a process that could lead to the creation of a new state in Europe. It is to be expected that the Spanish side will do everything in its power to derail this process. Europe and the world should be watching very closely everyone's moves, because they too have a stake in this matter. Ultimately, it is in everyone's interest to make sure that whatever Catalans decide in a democratic, responsible and peaceful way will be respected by all. Then all would benefit from the contribution that a free Catalonia can make to the world.