Catalonia stands on brink

Catalans vote today on de facto referendum for independence from Spain.
Pro-independence supporters wave Catalan separatist flags during a rally in Barcelona. Photo / AP
Pro-independence supporters wave Catalan separatist flags during a rally in Barcelona. Photo / AP

Antoni Mas remembers the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco as if it was yesterday. Born in the years of the fascist junta in the central Catalonian town of Amics de Balenya, he grew up unable to speak his mother tongue in public for fear of a regime which saw it as subversive.

But he was not afraid. At the age of 20, in 1972, he and two friends undertook a risk at which many would have baulked – setting up a Catalan-language magazine with the protection of local priests.

“I was very young and without fear of anything,” he said.

It was a dangerous move. The regime had crushed Catalonia’s earlier limited autonomy, executing its president, Lluis Companys, by firing squad, banning the Catalan language and abolishing its institutions. “We couldn’t speak Catalan in school. They would beat you,” Mas said.

When he votes in today’s election, ostensibly to select the Catalan parliament but cast by its pro-independence leader, Artur Mas – no relation to Antoni – as a de facto plebiscite on independence, he will vote a resounding “Yes”.

The spectre of Franco has come to loom large in the vote. While few Spaniards were unaffected by the rule of the dictator, which ended with his death in 1975, the repression of Catalan identity remains a particularly open wound.

Many independence supporters – even officials – draw parallels between those days and what they see as an assault by the Government of Mariano Rajoy on Catalonia’s autonomy.

They point to the watering down of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy by Spain’s constitutional court, and attempts to reduce the role of Catalan in education.

“Franco may have died in bed in 1975, but sociologically, he is still alive,” one Catalan official said.

A suggestion from Jose Ignacio Wert, Spanish education minister until June, that Catalan children needed to be “re-Spanishised” comes up time and again.

In Vic, a few kilometres from Antoni Mas’ hometown, mayor Anna Erra said it was the worst moment for Catalonia’s relationship with Madrid since the end of the dictatorship.

This is the town where, just over 300 years ago, the Catalans allied themselves with England, Holland and the Austrian Empire in the War of Spanish Succession against Felipe V, the French Bourbon king who had ascended to the throne.

It was that alliance which led to Catalonia’s downfall.

It had previously enjoyed a large degree of self-rule, but that changed when a new government in Britain resolved to end the war, effectively abandoning the Catalans to fight a 14-month siege of Barcelona alone.

Eventually victorious, Felipe V went about punishing the Catalans.

“After 300 years it’s time we celebrated a victory,” said Santi Ponce, a historian at the University of Vic.

Opponents say such sentiments are misplaced nationalism, aimed at distracting from the Catalan Government’s own failings.

Joaquin Coll, of the anti-independence Catalan Civil Society, dismissed comparisons to the dictatorship. “That was 50 years ago,” he said. “The Catalan bourgeoisie supported Franco, let’s not forget.”

He said Catalonia had strong self-governance and, while aspects could be negotiated, the suggestion that the region was starved of democracy was a fallacy.

“When you scratch beneath the surface this is no more than populism.”

Rajoy has drawn criticism for refusing to address the independence issue. Some comments have fuelled memories of repression, such as a statement by Pedro Morenes, the Spanish defence minister, that the army would not intervene in Catalonia as long as “everybody fulfils their duty”.

That’s certainly the case for Antoni Mas. “If they bring out the tanks, I will go out in front of them,” he said.

Catalonia’s independence

What the polls say: •The push for secession Catalans take pride in their language, spoken with Spanish, in the region of 7.5 million people bordering France.

•The surge in independence sentiment stems from June 2010, when Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down key parts of a groundbreaking charter that would have granted Catalonia more autonomy and recognised it as a nation within Spain.

•Spain’s financial crisis and resulting harsh austerity measures have generated more support for independence.

•Artur Mas, Catalonia’s regional leader, began openly pushing for an independence referendum after he failed to clinch a better financial pact for Catalonia from Madrid in 2012.

•With polls showing Catalans overwhelmingly supporting the right to hold an independence referendum, Mas in 2014 announced a non-binding referendum to gauge secession sentiment — but was forced to call it off and instead stage an unofficial poll.

•About 2.3 million Catalans — out of 5.4 million eligible — ended up voting in the non-binding poll, with 80 per cent in favour of breaking away from Spain.

•Rajoy called the vote a failure and ruled out talks for a legal independence ballot.

•Mas then decided that today’s election for regional MPs would serve as a substitute independence vote.

•The “Yes” camp hopes within days after the vote to announce an 18-month secession roadmap to make Catalonia a new nation by 2017. But it’s unclear how detailed it would be.