The Catalonia independence movement breathed a sigh of relief last weekend as the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party, who is more friendly to their cause, won the most seats in Spain’s general election, and would just need support from the smaller parties to remain in power. Spain’s proportional representation system ensured the party 123 of the available 350 seats through achieving 29% of the vote. Thankfully, the conservative People’s Party, headed by the vocally anti-separatist leader Pablo Casado, lost 69 seats, meaning that talks of Catalan independence will likely continue.
The region’s failed independence referendum in October 2017 was a hot topic for this election. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, of the Socialist Party, has shown to be more open to talks with the Catalan people despite being against the movement, which Casado and Albert Rivera, of the center-right Ciudadanos, used to claim that Sanchez of wanting to break apart Spain. Polls showed that enough undecided voters fell within the margin of error to allow for all possible outcomes, and the newly formed far-right Vox party (which gained 24 seats) was a bit of a wildcard.
This state of affairs is a demonstration of how governments only want their people to leave by their rules, and how Europeans are increasingly losing their faith in their political institutions. Catalans have long tried to be a separate entity from Spain, but continue to have that ripped away by the will of governing authorities.
Catalonia has been at odds with the Spanish government for nearly 100 years. From 1931-1939, the region was semi-autonomous and Spain had the intention of creating a federalist model, but when Francisco Franco’s military rebellion took control of the country, he canceled the autonomy charters for all regions. The soon-to-be dictator wanted to “cleanse” all foreign influence from the country and make Spain culturally homogenous.
Kings and other political leaders had long been trying to force the Catalans to adopt Spanish as their official language. A dynastic marriage in the 12th century first merged the then country into the Kingdom of Aragon and centuries later another marriage would merge Castile, the country Franco sought for all of Spain to emulate, and modern Spain would be born. The Catalan people have long felt that they were distinct from the rest of the Spanish speaking kingdom, and according to Catalan history professor Paul Freedman the country “[saw] themselves as always having been more entrepreneurial and modern than Castilians, who they see as more concerned with power and religion and honor and purity of blood.”
The region has continually had its culture try to be suppressed by authorities, but when General Franco passed away and democracy was restored in 1977, it regained its autonomy. They gained even more autonomy in a 2006 statute which described them as a nation. In 2010 when the Constitutional Court in Madrid ruled that there was no legal basis for recognizing Catalonia as a nation in Spain the separatist rhetoric was revived. Catalonia responded with growing tensions which peaked at an independence referendum in 2017 that was declared illegal by the Spanish government.
Police were filmed beating Catalan voters and dragging them from polling stations after the declaration. They also used axes to break down doors of schools used for voting and fired rubber bullets into crowds of people. Over 800 people required medical assistance as a result of police action, and despite the violence, 43% of citizens were able to vote with 90% voicing their desire to be independent.
For willingly ignoring the Spanish government’s demands, the deputy prime minister blamed the Catalans “absolute irresponsibility” and a European official said Spain’s response was correct and that “excessive actions might endanger [the Spanish government’s] legitimacy.”
Government’s do not want their citizens to leave, and will make it as difficult as possible to prevent it. This can be seen in Catalonia; it can be seen in the fees and back taxes that the United States will charge a person to renounce their citizenship. Imagine if Brexit had been more lopsided towards leaving the EU. Had there been less certainty by politicians that the movement would fail, would the British government have declared the vote illegal in the same fashion?
The lesson is clear: if citizens try to leave the country without permission by governing bodies, they will harm them to prevent it. Even if 80% of citizens in Catalonia had the opportunity to cast their ballots, the massive majority of yes votes from 43% would still see an affirmative on independence. It was this certainty of Spain losing power that politicians used to justify using violence of their citizens who dared to defy them.