Catalonia is getting ready for another surreal election. On Thursday, a bit more than two months after the region’s local government staged an incendiary independence referendum, Catalans will return to the polls to elect new leaders. This time, the vote likely won’t generate the same jarring scenes of violence as the referendum did, but it’s hardly taking place under normal circumstances.
Catalonia, a region that takes fierce pride in its distinct history and cultural identity, has been directly ruled by Madrid since late October, when the Spanish government dissolved the region’s Parliament after it had unilaterally declared independence. Two leading Catalan separatist politicians are now steering their parties’ campaigns in absentia: Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Brussels; his former vice president and political rival, Oriol Junqueras, languishes in jail in Madrid.
The separatist gambit, led by Puigdemont, capitalized on years of growing pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia. But Madrid declared the regional government’s decision to stage the referendum unconstitutional, and the use of taxpayer funds to finance the act of alleged sedition has now led to criminal proceedings.
Catalan separatists paint their struggle as a just quest for self-determination, pointing out that a majority of Catalan voters want the right to vote in a referendum. They see in Madrid’s heavy-handedness the shadow of a repressive authoritarian past. Their opponents, including the Spanish government of conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, view them as renegades who have dragged Spain into an unnecessary and ruinous constitutional crisis.
At a panel event in Washington this week, Jaime Malet, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Spain, lamented the damage already done. Some 3,000 firms in Catalonia have shifted their headquarters elsewhere in Spain due to the political uncertainty. He and other analysts warn of the consequences of the “Montreal effect,” pointing to how repeated pushes for independence referendums in Quebec drained businesses from the French-speaking Canadian province.
Malet, a native Catalan who is staunchly opposed to independence, blames the chaos on an “extensive, massive propaganda campaign” put forward by the separatists and abetted by conspicuous outside actors, including WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Russian networks. “Not even Venezuela or North Korea has spoken out in favor” of the secessionists, he said, gesturing to their political isolation.
But the secessionists resent such demonization of their cause, and they have newfound hope with the upcoming election. “Imagine if Puigdemont is elected president again. Then let us see if Europe can turn a blind eye toward Catalonia,” said Gabriela Serra, an ousted Catalan lawmaker from a far-left pro-independence party, to my colleagues. Serra said Puigdemont could even form a “government in exile.”
Opinion polls show a tight split between pro-independence and pro-union factions in Catalonia, another demonstration of how polarized the region has become over the issue. “As much as the various sides disagreed about the coming parliamentary vote, they appeared to share a sense that the people of Catalonia are more divided than ever — and that Thursday’s election, described by pollsters as too close to call, is unlikely to settle matters,” reported my colleague William Booth from Barcelona.
“Anyone who thinks differently is bad,” said Rafa Martin, the owner of a Barcelona boxing gym, to Booth. “If you want a united Spain, you’re a fascist. If you want an independent Catalonia, you’re a traitor.”
Intriguingly, polls show that a clear majority of millennial voters in Catalonia favor independence, a sign of how the political turbulence has galvanized a younger generation. “The ground in Catalonia has really shifted. This is not a temporary outcome,” said Bonnie Field, a professor of global studies at Bentley University. Field also spoke at the panel, which was jointly hosted by the Wilson Center and the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid-based think tank.
The real spur of the crisis is not ancient Catalan aspirations for freedom, argued Field, but the turmoil that followed the global financial crisis, which hit Spain particularly hard. Spanish anger over austerity measures and the fecklessness of political elites dovetailed with the specific grievances of Catalan nationalists. Meanwhile, Rajoy and his conservative government have been criticized for their aggressive quashing of any real debate about Catalan aspirations, which in part led to a game of political brinkmanship between Madrid and the separatists in Barcelona.
Rajoy, whose own ruling Popular Party is in the grip of a graft scandal, is trying to turn the page. “It’s urgent to return a sense of normality to Catalonia and do so as soon as possible to lower the social and economic tensions,” he said during a visit to Barcelona last month. But it’s likely his party will be wiped out in this local election, surrendering most of its support to Ciudadanos, an anti-corruption, center-right party — that happens to also be anti-independence.
“Their hope is to stop being Spaniards. Ours is to cut hospital waiting lists and have better schools,” said Ines Arrimadas, the party’s Catalan leader, on the campaign trail. “We cannot stretch out the independence process any longer.”
But the genie of independence may be hard to cram back into the bottle. Earlier this year, Puigdemont declared that, even if thwarted, the separatists would be “defeated soldiers of an invincible cause.”
And Catalonia, which represents a fifth of Spain’s economy, is too large to be “fully assimilated” by Madrid, said Josep Colomer, an adjunct professor of politics at Georgetown University. Nor is it small enough to be “left alone” like the once-restive Basque Country, which now enjoys generous tax autonomy from Madrid.
And so, Colomer concluded, the current stalemate may only deepen the crisis, representing “a dual defeat of the Spanish state and the Catalan project.”