Catalan Vote Potential Catalyst for Seismic Change

Cormac Hickey discusses the recent political movement in Catalonia.

In a period in which European politics has been dominated by seismic shifts, last week saw yet another political tectonic plate sliding slightly out of place. Recent years have seen the decimation of the Labour Party in Scotland, the rise of the right-wing Front National in France and the ultimately successful ascent to power of Syriza in Greece, a radical left-wing group only formed in recent years. Yet it was none of these which stole the show over the weekend – instead it was Catalonia which caught the world’s attention.

The semi-autonomous Spanish region held its parliamentary elections last Sunday week, with its pro-Independence coalition, Junts pel Sí (JPS), claiming that the elections were in effect a referendum on the region’s potential independence, and that if they claimed victory they would set about establishing an independent Catalan state. JPS is entirely a marriage of convenience – leader Artur Mas’ centre-right Convergència i Unío party have combined with centre-left Esquerra Republican de Catalunya rivals to deliver this grouping, all in the aim of delivering independence. However (in spite of JPS failing to win a parliamentary majority), JPS are expected to combine with the socialist (yet, crucially, pro-Independence) CUP to deliver a majority, and so set about establishing an independent Catalan state.

Though the pro-Independence movement always enjoyed support in Catalonia, mainly as a result of Franco’s prolonged efforts to suffocate the region’s culture during his dictatorship, it is only in recent years that the movement has developed enough support to agitate towards independence in a meaningful manner. As one of Spain’s strongest performing regions in economic terms, Catalonia has always been required to prop up poorer regions of the country, such as Andalucia. Since the global banking crisis of 2008, this has exacerbated, as Spain’s economy collapsed, leading the Catalan region to foot an inordinate portion of the bill. This, coupled with a resurgence in the Catalan language (brought about after Spain’s reversion to democracy after Franco’s death, which also led to a loosening of restrictions on the minority languages in the state) and the successes of FC Barcelona (which in turn led to a large Catalan presence of Spain’s dominant national side from 2008-2012) has caused an upsurge in nationalistic sentiment in the north-eastern province. A Spanish Constitutional Court decision in 2010, limiting the Constitutional reforms which could have given increased autonomy to the region, has only served to increase tensions between Spain’s most famed province and its Government in Madrid. The upshot of Catalan frustrations with central government was the Independence Referendum in November 2014 – declared unconstitutional by the Madrid government – saw 80.8% of the electorate vote in favour of independence, though it was ineffectual in the end. As a consequence of this, Artur Mas decided to call snap elections for last Sunday to determine the Catalan public’s desire for what he terms “Statehood”.

Et voilà, we have our result. For now, it would appear that a majority of the electorate in the north-eastern favour independence, and so Mas’ government have begun to implement their plan of establishing a Catalan state within 18 months.

It would appear that this has been the perfect storm for the pro-Independence parties of Catalonia. History has shown on several occasions that only after great turbulence (often financial or economic), nationalist movements gather strength. For instance, the rise of Mussolini’s Blackshirts or Hitler’s Nazi Party both came on the back of the Great Depression of the late 1920s. In fact, a clear example can be found without even leaving this island – our own independence came about after the most turbulent decade in Irish history, comprising the 1913 Lockout, World War 1 and of course the 1916 Rising.

If history is to repeat itself, Mas would do best to strike while the iron is hot, and push through some form of independence for Catalonia. Otherwise, an economic upturn could lead to a fall in his own political fortunes, and the dream of Catalan independence could perish in flames. Now that he has the democratic mandate of the Catalan electorate behind him, Mas surely has the authority to shake up the Spanish – and by extension, European (in particular the Scottish) – political landscape. To paraphrase Yeats, it would seem that all will change, change utterly.

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