The latest reports from Spain have tended to focus on two newcomers to the political scene, Podemos and Ciudadanos, and their challenge to the comfortable status quo that the Socialist PSOE and the rightist Popular Party had settled into since the end of Franco’s dictatorship in the 1970s. Exploiting the general indignation with the handling of the economic crisis and the distrust of a political establishment tainted by corruption – and with the invaluable assistance of certain media organizations – those two populist groups made a good showing in the local and regional elections of May 24. Although far from the landslide victories that some had been predicting for them, they are now in a position to play kingmakers in certain municipal and regional councils. That includes Madrid, with a new mayor nominated by Podemos. In Barcelona, a coalition of leftist organizations has won city hall by a nose on promises that will be hard to keep.
On the other hand, the Catalan independence project, which had been making international headlines as recently as last November, seems to have become less of an issue in the past few months. Its main political proponents failed to take advantage of the momentum generated by the informal – and, some say, illegal – referendum in which close to two million people voted for separation from Spain. And the all-too-public squabbles within their uneasy alliance have caught much attention, somewhat dampening the people’s enthusiasm for the cause. Yet, pro-independence parties gained 300,000 new votes in the latest election. They now stand at 45 per cent of the ballot, while another 12 per cent went to those that won’t pronounce for independence but support nonetheless a referendum on it. That includes the left coalition that will be running the city of Barcelona. Unionist groups fell to 32 per cent altogether. Never mind that these results confirm a strong support for separation, some interested voices have claimed nonetheless that the Catalan push for full national sovereignty is all but defunct.
But then, every time that the Catalan question is proclaimed dead something comes up to remind everyone that this centuries-old conflict remains unsolved. On the 30th of May, just before the start of the final match for the Spanish king’s soccer cup between Athletic Bilbao and FC Barcelona, the 90,000-strong crowd of Basques and Catalans at Barcelona’s Camp Nou booed and jeered and whistled at the Spanish national anthem that was being played full-blast over the stadium’s public address system. Their disapproval was not addressed to any of the politicians present, nor to the king personally or even to the institution of monarchy. It was simply a reminder that a large number of Basques and Catalans don’t perceive the Spanish State as their own, don’t feel represented by Spanish national symbols and don’t appreciate those symbols being shoved on to them
The message – that this was a direct hit at the foundations of the State – was well understood by the Spanish side. And Spain doesn’t take kindly to dissent. The authoritarian streak that has been its trademark through the centuries will reappear every time that those in power sense a threat to their position. The next day much of the Madrid press was crying bloody murder about such an insufferable affront to national honor. A fresh spate of insults against Catalans – but not so much against Basques, interestingly enough – immediately flooded the social networks. A right-wing organization threatened to bring legal action, although it’s not very clear against whom, or for what crimes. In a communiqué published shortly after the events – while the match was still being played – the Spanish government requested the official sports authorities to find a way to penalize the clubs on the grounds of incitement to violence, although in fact there had been no violent incidents. The Spanish Ombudsperson – don’t let her title fool you, this Andalusian marquise and former cabinet minister for the Popular Party is hardly an unbiased voice – found features of hate speech in the protest, and the Minister of the Interior rushed to state that such an incitement to hatred should not go unpunished. And, sure enough, a Spanish government spokesman soon announced legislative changes intended to criminalize certain forms of dissent involving the national symbols.
In a more rational vein, one of FC Barcelona’s star players, Xavi Hernandez, suggested that rather than threatening with sanctions the authorities should be reflecting on the causes of the protest. Indeed, such a clear show of opposition from what could be taken to be a cross-section of Basque and Catalan public opinion should have given the other side some food for thought. But this is Spain. No one there, not the officials and not the general public, seems to have stopped for a minute to ponder why those two national groups have been made so uncomfortable in a political order that has been imposed from outside.
This episode proves that the Spanish State’s conflict with its composing nations is very much alive. The crowd’s protest at Camp Nou is an indication of basic flaws in the configuration of the State, and Spain’s rabid reaction illustrates its unwillingness to acknowledge those flaws. Those traditionally in power have always refused to face the country’s plurinational reality and work for an arrangement that all could live with. And now, for all the radical posturing of the new left or the half-baked reformism of the new right, and for all their proclamations of a new style in politics, neither has any ideas that could help advance on the issue. In fact, Ciudadanos had its start as a pressure group against Catalan demands of self-government, which makes it more part of the problem than of the solution. Podemos – much like their Trotskyist forefathers of the 1920s – combines generic expressions of support for every people’s right to self-determination with a strong reluctance to forsake the benefits of a centralized state. On this the old and the new politics are in full agreement. It is not in Spain’s character to question its own ways, no matter how self-defeating they have proved to be throughout history. And this permanent refusal to choose compromise over imposition can only encourage Catalans to go ahead on their own independent path.