On October 1, 2017, the people of Catalonia went to the polls to vote on Catalan separation from Spain. While the separatists were largely successful, the validity of the result has been questioned. As a result, the political landscape in the region has significantly changed and the dream of independence is being overshadowed by a political nightmare. In light of the recent general elections, the situation is even more complicated and one is left to wonder what exactly is going on with the independence movement.
Nine days after the referendum on October 1, former president of the Catalan government Carles Puigdemont declared Catalan independence for the second time in modern history. A Catalan Republic was first proclaimed in 1931 and although it quickly accepted to transition into an autonomous region of Spain, this moment became significant for the modern independence movement. However, as Spain entered into a civil war and later a long-lasting fascist dictatorship under Francisco Franco, Catalonia became an area of contempt and the Catalan people were denied several rights they had previously enjoyed.
Nevertheless, when the Franco regime ended, the Catalan leaders were in no rush to bid for independence and instead quietly succumbed to a united Spanish state. The Catalonians again enjoyed the privileges of the pre-Franco era, being able to speak their own language, which had been forbidden under Franco, as well as govern themselves with a high degree of autonomy.
During the height of the independence movement in 2017, writer and journalist John Carlin stated “When I arrived to live in Catalonia in 1998, the independence movement in Barcelona was three men and a dog in Las Ramblas.” This quote is a striking reminder of the rapidity of the growth of this movement that has become one of the most significant political issues in Spain since the death of Franco.
Until 2010, there was little activity from the independence movement in Catalonia. In 2010, the Constitutional Court in Madrid revoked some parts of the reforms made to the Catalan statute of autonomy, including the idea that Catalan should take precedence over Castilian Spanish in Catalonia. Later, statements from the Spanish government would further fuel the independence movement. For example, the minister of Education, José Ignacio Wert, stated that “Our interest is to make the Catalan students more Spanish.”
This restriction of Catalan freedom was a large part of the buildup of the Catalan independence movement, which fronted a rhetoric comparing the central government to Franco, a comparison that many embraced. Additionally, on the day of the referendum in 2017, which had been deemed unconstitutional by the government in Madrid, Spanish riot police forces were sent to Catalonia to shut down polling stations and disrupt the vote. This use of force from Madrid, combined with the central government declaring direct rule of Catalonia following the declaration of independence, certainly spiked discontent from the people of Catalonia. Moreover, it strengthened the Franco narrative as this was the first time since Franco’s death in 1975 that the central government imposed direct control on one of the autonomous communities of Spain.
Although the referendum in 2017 resulted in a majority voting for independence, the supposed illegality, low voter-turnout and questionable organisation of the polling stations are all factors putting the end result into question. Two months after the referendum, pro-independence parties also won the majority in Catalan regional elections, but the celebrations for this were short-lived as Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders were jailed on charges of rebellion or treason.
Throughout late 2017 and early 2018, tensions were at their highest when the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and the governing party PP (Partido Popular) strongly opposed the Catalan independence movement. They largely pushed the issue aside on the basis of the supposed illegality of the movement. However, when Rajoy was removed from office and replaced by Pedro Sánchez in June 2018, following a vote of no confidence against the PM, the political landscape changed drastically.
The new Spanish government, under the acting leadership of Sánchez, tried to initiate a less aggressive approach towards Catalonia, but the Catalan separatist parties continuously called for their leaders to be freed and for the independence movement to be respected. This prompted the breakdown of negotiations and led to the call for an unplanned general election.
In the general elections of April 2019, Catalan separatist parties got 22 MPs elected to the Spanish National Parliament, five of whom are still in jail, and have rallied their supporters from behind bars. Although these five were allowed to formally take office, they were also required to return to prison after the fact, effectively leaving five empty chairs in the Spanish parliament.
Nevertheless, with their relatively strong position in parliament, Catalan separatists continue to cause trouble for the acting Sánchez government; vetoing Sánchez’s choice of speaker in the upper house of parliament, despite the fact that the proposed speaker, Miquel Iceta, has been a strong advocate of a better dialogue between the separatists and the government, and he is even Catalan himself.
Yet the support for the Catalan fight for independence, albeit still significant, seems to be in decline. According to a recent study conducted by the Catalan Opinion Studies Center (CEO), for the first time since 2017, support for Catalan secession has been superseded by opposition to the movement. However, the separatist parties still hold significant power: something that is seemingly not changing anytime soon.
With Catalan independence leaders in jail, conflict with the central government and seemingly declining support for the independence movement, the separatists appear to be in a difficult position. The political nightmare that the Catalans have found themselves in has in many ways overshadowed the dream of independence and the future of the region seems to be largely insecure. However, the large portion of the Catalan public that still supports independence can console themselves with the fact that the newly elected Catalan separatists still adamantly fight for their dream.