A sad day for Catalonia and beyond

Por Eduardo Suárez

More than 18 million Spaniards went to vote in June 1977. It was the first free election after the dictatorial rule of Francisco Franco. Candidates and parties from every ideology were allowed to run.

Two months before, the Spanish Government had legalized the Communist Party despite the threats by the military and had taken the first steps towards democracy and reconciliation 40 years after a brutal civil war.

The 1977 election was not a perfect affair. Old newspapers are full of stories about small bombings, violent clashes and candidates intimidated by fascists in places like Pamplona, Valencia or Madrid. But that didn’t kept most of the people from voting: 78% of Spaniards went to the polls.

Almost 80% of Catalans also voted in that election and just a small minority supported secessionist parties. Two years later, they approved its own Statute of Autonomy in a referendum. Just 5% of the population voted against it.

It is worth remembering these figures before judging the events unfolding in the streets of Catalonia this Sunday. The region has flourished throughout these four decades. Its Government took over Health and Education. It created a Catalan TV and a Catalan police. It promoted the Catalan language in theatres, universities and schools.

There are many reasons why secessionism has grown in Catalonia in the last few years but lack of free speech is not one of them. Anyone has been able to express their opinion in Spain in the last decades. Secessionist parties have defended their ideas in the regional and national Parliaments as everyone else.

I’ve read too many articles comparing Spain with authoritarian states like Turkey or Russia. But Spain is not a dictatorship: Franco died 42 years ago. Nationalist parties have been in power in one way or another in Catalonia every year since 1979. For many of those years they have even supported the party in Government in Madrid.

As I said before, there are many reasons why secessionism has grown in the last few years and I am not going to explain them all in this article. Some people in Spain will point to indoctrination in Catalan schools or relentless hatred in Catalan TV. Others will complain about a corrupt political elite who have succeeded in blaming Madrid for every problem without facing the consequences of their own mistakes.

Some people in Catalonia will point to the sentence of the Constitutional Court shredding some of the articles of the new Statute of Autonomy and to the arrogant attitude of Mariano Rajoy.

There is some truth in all of those arguments but I’m not sure they matter anymore after the violence we saw today.

Spain is not a dictatorship but an open and tolerant country: we were one of the first in the world to approve same sex marriage in 2004 and one of the few in Europe without a single MP from the extreme right. Throughout these years, we have been tested by terrorism, corruption and unemployment. Our democracy is not perfect but we’ve always come up stronger from every challenge and I am sure we will prevail again.

This Sunday I woke up to images of the Spanish riot police beating unarmed people in several voting places around Catalonia. For the first time in my life, I found myself on the side of the Catalan secessionists, unable to explain to my American friends why the Spanish Government was using violence against people who just wanted to vote.

I still think the referendum was illegal and I blame the Catalan Government for the way it handled the situation in the last few years. But none of that justifies what we’ve seen this Sunday: the rubber bullets, the beating truncheons, the old ladies punched in the face.

As a Spaniard, I expected my Government to respond to the challenge with intelligence and restraint. The secessionists didn’t have a single international ally. Spain had the law on its side.

The occupation of voting places was an obvious bait the Spanish Government should never have taken. Sending the riot police was a serious political mistake. It threw every foreign correspondent into the narrative of the Catalan Government and created the false impression that this was a united people fighting an oppressive State.

According to the official figures, 70% of the Catalans wanted to vote in a negotiated referendum but just 48% wanted to vote in an illegal one. Support for independence was slowly declining in the last few months and has never reached 50%. Those are figures you not always find in some outlets of the Catalan press.

Those figures could well change after what happened this Sunday. Rajoy has lost the control of the narrative and has been criticized by some of his European colleagues for using violence to repress peaceful dissent. But no one should forget at least 59% of Catalans chose not to vote this Sunday. This is a movement lead by a mobilised minority, not an unanimous call.

The only figures we have right now come from the Catalan Government and it is difficult to know if they are true. This was a referendum with no guarantees and several people have denounced they voted without any documents or even without being on the voting rolls.

Even if the figures are true, it is not a resounding victory for the secessionist parties. Independence received the same support they received in the 2015 election: around 2 million votes. That figure represents 36% of the registered Catalan voters. A small minority voted no and most of the population stayed home.

Even with these meagre figures, Carles Puigdemont suggested on Sunday the Catalan Parliament will declare independence in the next few days. That would be another step in the wrong direction for many people. Including many people in Catalonia, where the percentage who define themselves as “just Catalans” and not “Catalans and Spaniards” is just 23%.

There will be no solution to this problem if people on both sides are unable to bridge the divide. We don’t need demagogues or lawyers or just politicians. We need real leaders. We need people who can find a solution after so many years of posturing and feeding the flames.

The situation in Spain was much worse in 1977: unemployment was about to rise and 10 people were killed by terrorists in Vitoria and Madrid. That didn’t stop us from building a strong democracy Catalans felt comfortable with. I hope it is not too late to do that again.

Foto: Miquel Bohigas (cc).