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What is going on in Catalunya?

And the people spoke. And, as predicted, it is unclear what they said. Catalans voted on Sept. 27th their new regional government. Here, no suprises. The winners are who they were and probably (still unclear though) the President will be who he was, Artur Mas. Until here, everything normal as in any normal regional election in any of the 17 Comunidades Autónomas that form the Spanish state. However, this election was special because some parties had warned everyone that Catalans were voting a plebiscite for independence. As it happens often in politics, things are confusing. Let’s try to shed some light over the darkness.

Why Catalans want to go? Little background

History has different ways of treating nationalism, depending on the mood of the times. The 19th Century was time of nationalism, fueled by the industrial revolution, the gradual arrival of modernity and all its consequences, that were many. In Spain, the process of national construction (see Germany or Italy) coincided with the national decadence and backwardness that culminated in 1898 moral (and economic!) disaster of the lost of the empire’s remainings. It is in this context in which Catalan (also Basque and Galizian) nationalism is politically created. Spain was the problem; Europe the solution, as Ortega y Gasset beautifully put it. It was difficult to be proud of that Spain, dictatorial, anchored in Catholic traditions, inefficient, ignorant, rural and emotionally injured. Catalunya and the Basque Country (Galizia is different here) had developed their own versions of industrial success and had created an incipient bourgeoisie that would act as a base to claim difference. True.

Moreover, the excessive expectations of the Segunda República in the 1930s generated leaders for the not-so-old nationalist parties that could negotiate and reaffirm with Republican Madrid their difference. Unfortunately, it lasted only 5 years. Not enough time. But expectations had been high for nationalist as they had been for many Spaniards, who candidly thought their moment in history had arrived. Finally, they thought, after centuries of obscurity, the democratic new Spain had blown in to stay. But instead, for many different and sad reasons, they saw three years of fratricidal war and then 40 years of fascist dictatorship. Ironic how history can trick expectations.

To cut a long story short, during Francoism, Catalans and others were victims of national catholicism and obsessive centralism. In this context, one could understand how national feelings were going to be priority issue on the table once democracy returned. And it did.

Democracy, brave new world

Franco died on his hospital bed in 1975. There were no revolutions, no blood, no coronation flowers (as in Portugal), no freedom protests, no mythical moment to hold on to. Instead, there was a ruptura pactada, incidentally the feature that turned our transition process into a globally praised model. Again, ironies of history. The Spanish Founding Fathers, I believe rightly so, designed a territorial model that is still unique for standard political science.

Needless to say, urgencies, fears and constraints of the moment recommended a special solution. The Estado de las Autonomías is a confusing and ambiguous hybrid between central and federal organisation. Good for the time being. On the one hand, Francoist supporters (there were many) would go through claiming to trick the peripheral nationalist. On the other hand, the nationalists out there (also many) would win the first battle of a war that now they could plot under constitutional, however vague, garantees. Hence, the famous label for the transition: Café para todos!

And here we went. Catalan nationalist in particular (Basques took longer) accepted the rules of the game and prepared for the oftentimes sacred as well as misleading process of construcción nacional. The so-called devolution game was in place, Catalunya (and 15 others plus Madrid after 1985) had their president, their parlament and their national institutions (the Generalitat). Perfect scenario. Education was transferred and Catalan language became one important element of the national architecture. Public media controlled by the Generalitat allowed the resucitation of old local traditions and the projection of the seny (Catalán ancestral values and spirit) to forge the national character. Everything legal, everything coherent with their political programs. Of course, everyone has their own legitimate plans for the future of their children. It is democracy.

In all fairness, nationalists were not alone engineering the nation. In Madrid there were also constructing, but another nation. There was a lot to organise and everyone was in a rush. Some guys in Brussels were pumping up millions. We were rich! Things were smooth. Catalan governments were mainly capitalising from their key political position in the nation-wide imperfect two-party system. Blackmailing politics. It is also democracy. Independence was a word used in San Sebastián, not in Barcelona. However, both data and commentators tell us that with left-wing socialists parties in Madrid, Catalans find it easy to feel Spanish. Under conservatives, it becomes harder. No surprises really. Socialists have shown federalist understanding while conservatives have openly feared Spain’s “break up”. It is in their political DNA. No one is lying.

Then, why now?

This is probably the most complicated question to answer. There are probably 44 million answers, one for each Spaniard. My answer is relatively simple and it will be out in a book that will see the light in November. My main hypothesis is that regional elites always try to inflate a problem from which their mere existence depends. And if they pick the right moment, they may go into history books. They just need to push, but the problem has to always stay alive. As a rule of thumb, no problem with Madrid (or London or Otawa) simply means no raison d’être for nationalist parties, at least those whose plan is to increase their autonomy till they reach independence. And, quite frankly, it is hard to find nationalism that is not emotionally and politically exclusive, in that order. There is so much power at play. Lock a child in a candy store and you will see.

So, the moment could not be better. Scary economic crisis plus conservative government in Madrid with an absolute majority. Winner combo. Or so some thought. The logic goes: for nationalist, the crisis would act as cataliser for anti-Spanish feelings, given that Catalunya is a rich hard working region (nation?) and it is easy to build a discourse around uneven regional work ethics (and tax chip in). Meanwhile in Madrid the conservatives, with their stuborn centralism, order-loving heart and authoritarian-ish ways (absolute majority!!!), would campaign for them pushing many Catalans, otherwise happy with their nested identities, towards independence. Political ironies, again. It was the moment indeed.

But voting is voting and Catalans are taken to be commonsensical people. While nationalist elites are, irresponsibly in my opinion, living their own self-fulfilling profecy, Catalans have finally voted that things are much more complicated and that reality has plenty of nounces that cannot be so easily simplified. All pro-independence parties sum up to 47.7 per cent of the total vote (about 38 percent of the electoral census). All pro-let´s-think-a-bit-more-and-be-creative-about-it parties seem many more than nationalists had wished for. I personally read this results in the light of democratic maturity, acknowledging that Catalans (and many others) would be better with a constitutional reform to openly call Spain a federal state and negotiate accordingly. With tranquility and without drama. Democracy is consensus. We should be now mature enough to sit down, look at the eyes of everyone around the table, listen, smile and pour some more café.

But okay, do you want a prediction? General elections December 20th, left-wing coalition of parties win (relative majority please!), we open the constitutional box, we invite everyone who has something to say (Catalans, Basques, Galicians, Andalucians, Madrilenians, etc.) and we say: “Let´s talk. Stay. We love you”.

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