- By Guy Hedgecoe
- BBC News, Catalonia
Under the heat of the Barcelona sun, an independence party, Together for Catalonia, is holding a campaign event ahead of Sunday’s general election in Spain.
About 40 people gathered to listen to the speeches before showing a video message, recorded by the former president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont.
He criticizes the Spanish State, compares its lack of democratic credentials with that of Hungary and Poland, and calls for an independent Catalan republic.
It is a low-key event compared to the mass demonstrations that led to Catalonia’s attempted secession in 2017.
Spanish authorities responded to that attempt by clamping down with police action and temporarily imposing direct rule in the region, while Puigdemont fled to Belgium, where he has remained ever since.
But the Spanish general elections this Sunday could have a significant impact on the country’s latent territorial issue. Many believe that the result will decide whether the relationship between Catalonia and Madrid improves or explodes again.
“If the right wins, the situation could get complicated in Catalonia,” said Lola García, a journalist for the newspaper La Vanguardia who wrote an account of the 2017 crisis.
“We could well see heightened tensions there again.”
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez declared that improving the febrile atmosphere in Catalonia was a priority when he first took office in 2018, and again when he formed a new coalition government in 2020.
With that goal in mind, his administration pardoned nine politicians who had been jailed for their role in the 2017 independence bid.
He also reformed the penal code, eliminating the crime of sedition and modifying the crime of embezzlement of public funds; Both changes benefited Catalan leaders who were facing legal action.
Meanwhile, Sánchez’s government has also entered into slow talks with the Catalan independence administration aimed at resolving the territorial problem.
“Today the situation in Catalonia is nothing like that of 2017, 2018 or 2019,” Sánchez said recently, describing the Socialists as “a party that defends the union of Spain.”
However, reducing tensions in Catalonia has come at a cost for Sánchez.
The conservative Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox have repeatedly attacked him for making concessions to nationalists and for receiving parliamentary support from the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC).
His dependence on the parliamentary votes of the Basque nationalists of EH Bildu – the successor to the political wing of the defunct Basque group Eta, considered a terrorist organization by the EU – has compounded that opprobrium, with some in his own party also expressing unease.
Alberto Núñez Feijóo, PP candidate for prime minister, warned that Sánchez has “turned Spain hostage to those who want to break the territorial unity of our country,” a message that many voters appear to support.
The conservative leader has also tacitly criticized Mariano Rajoy, president of the PP Government during the Catalan crisis of 2017.
“We probably should have acted sooner and not let things go as far as they did,” Núñez Feijóo said, suggesting he would be more proactive than his predecessor.
A Spanish government hostile to regional identities could have a silver lining for the independence movement, reviving it after several years of infighting, according to journalist Lola García.
He also believes that the Catalan government’s plans, led by the moderate ERC, to organize a referendum on independence approved by Madrid in the next legislature will probably go nowhere.
“The Catalan Government is aware that it will not achieve (a negotiated referendum) neither with the PP in the government nor with the socialists,” he stated. Instead, he believes the regional administration is pushing for greater powers within its current structure as an autonomous region.
With the PP ahead of the Socialists in most polls but looking unlikely to win an outright majority, it is entirely possible that Spain’s next government will be formed by the Conservatives in a coalition with the hardline unionists Vox. .
“We already know that a PP-Vox government would mean a threat to political rights and freedoms and democratic institutions here in Catalonia,” said Meritxell Serret, Minister of Foreign Action and EU of the Catalan government.
He pointed to areas of Spain where the two right-wing parties have already formed governing partnerships since local elections in May, such as the Valencia region and the Balearic Islands.
In both cases, the new local government has announced plans to eliminate the local languages defense office, which opponents see as an attempt to eliminate regional identities.
While Serret says the Catalan government is not satisfied with the concessions made by the Sánchez administration, he raises the possibility of Vox entering a right-wing coalition in dramatic terms.
“Vox has been threatening to outlaw pro-independence parties, for example,” he said.
“We fear, and people fear, that they may represent a step back for our democracy toward very dark times in which civil rights (and) liberties were not only attacked, but nullified. This is what they represent today.”