Konrad Yakabuski is a columnist for The Globe and Mail.
There may be nowhere on Earth more pleasant on a Sunday in late October than this vibrant Mediterranean port city. It seems a shame I am not here for the weather. Rather, what has drawn me to the Catalan capital is Spain’s increasingly fractured politics.
As I make my way toward the Placa de Catalunya, I melt into a crowd of thousands waving and wearing Spanish flags and hoisting placards that read: “Basta!” The 80,000 people who have turned out to show their support for Spanish unity have had “enough” of the escalation in political vitriol and violence that erupted here following the Oct. 14 conviction on sedition charges of nine Catalan separatist leaders for their roles organizing an illegal referendum in 2017.
On this day, Javier Piera, a 24-year-old notary who grew up in Barcelona, has returned to his native city from Madrid, where he now lives, to join the pro-unity demonstration.
Like most Spaniards, he has watched his country’s political climate deteriorate steadily since the 2017 vote. And he is increasingly worried that the decades of social and economic progress that followed Spain’s late 1970s transition to democracy are being threatened by the recent accentuation of centuries-old divisions and the reopening of old wounds from the Civil War.
“I feel that what is happening in Catalonia is moving us backward,” Mr. Piera explains. “I am a citizen of this place and I don’t want to see this place stop being Spain.”
It might be hard for any Canadian who has lived through two Quebec referendums to get too worked up about another country’s unity problems. But Spain is not Canada. Its history is far bloodier than ours and the historical animosities at the heart of its current political strife are far more insurmountable.
Worse still, the country’s political leaders seem wholly incapable of getting their act together to deal with the situation. The country just held its fourth national election in four years, growing more divided with each vote. The political paralysis in Madrid has left many wondering whether Spain has simply become ungovernable.
Over the past month, an extraordinary confluence of events has pushed Spain ever closer to the brink. While these events played out separately, they flowed into one another like acts in a play, exposing the cracks in Spain’s still-young (by Western standards) democracy.
The final act is still being written, but recent events do not augur well for a happy denouement.
ACT I: LA SENTENCIA
After the 2017 Catalan referendum, which was marred by police violence and boycotted by Spanish nationalists, authorities threw the main organizers of the plebiscite into prison, where they spent the better part of two years in preventive detention before their mid-October conviction on sedition charges. While the Supreme Court cleared all nine of the more serious charge of rebellion, it nevertheless sentenced them to between nine and 13 years on the other charges. The court also issued a new international arrest warrant for former Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, who fled Spain after the 2017 referendum. He remains in Belgium, where he now faces extradition proceedings.
Reaction to la sentencia, as the verdict is known, was immediate and ugly. Thousands of independentistas clashed with police on the streets of Barcelona for five nights in a row. Hundreds of anti-system rioters joined the fray, lighting fire to cars and garbage dumpsters. I watched in disbelief as peaceful neighbourhoods that I had roamed for years suddenly turned into no-go zones for tourists and locals alike.
During the day, meanwhile, thousands heeded the call of local Comites de la defensa de la Republica (Committees for the Defence of the Republic) to shut down highways, border crossings, train stations and Barcelona’s main airport terminal, in an attempt to draw international attention to what they insisted was a suppression by the Spanish state of Catalans’ right to self-determination.
This breakdown of public order in Catalonia occurred amid the backdrop of Spain’s fourth national election campaign in as many years, and soon came to define it. As national politicians on the right called for an immediate suspension of the Catalan parliament’s powers, and direct rule by Madrid, acting Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez found himself caught between his own left-wing political base, which preaches dialogue with Catalonia, and ordinary Spaniards favouring a crackdown on Catalonia. The former People’s Party government briefly imposed direct rule on the region after its assembly, known as the Generalitat, passed a unilateral declaration of independence following the 2017 referendum. But for Mr. Sanchez to do so now would signal an exhaustion of all other means to resolve the crisis.
No party has fed off the Catalan crisis more than Vox, a far-right upstart that, a year ago, held no seats in Spain’s Congress of Deputies. Its first electoral breakthrough, last December in Andalusia, was followed in April, when it won 24 seats in Congress and more than 10 per cent of the popular vote. That was a turning point in the democratic era, marking the first time since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 that a formation on the far right had become a political force. Like Franco, of whom he speaks glowingly, Vox Leader Santiago Abascal, a 43-year-old native of the Basque Country, advocates a zero-tolerance approach toward Catalonia and other culturally distinct regions seeking more autonomy. His party would repeal the 1979 Statutes of Autonomy under which Madrid delegated certain powers to regional governments.
The violence in Catalonia that followed la sentencia, and Mr. Sanchez’s refusal to take a tougher stand against it, put the wind in Vox’s sails. Until then, Mr. Abascal had been campaigning on largely the same issue as his far-right peers across Europe – immigration – and emerging as a Spanish version of Italy’s Matteo Salvini. He rose to prominence in a 2018 video that showed him on horseback evoking the Christian Reconquista during the Middle Ages, when Muslims who refused to convert to Christianity were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. He vows to “reconquer” Spain, which has seen a sharp increase in Muslim immigrants in recent years. He appears to have discovered his political calling as the voice of Spanish nationalists nostalgic for a strongman leader. That makes him thoroughly modern, and dangerous.
ACT II: FRANCO LIVES
On Oct. 24, the remains of Franciso Franco, who ruled Spain with an iron fist for 3 1/2 decades, were exhumed from a burial site in the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid. Franco had himself overseen the construction of the Valley, with its massive Catholic basilica and 150-metre cross, as a memorial to victims of Spain’s 1936-39 Civil War that pitted his own nationalist and Catholic forces against Republicans and Communists. After his death, the Valley became a pilgrimage site for nationalists seeking to pay homage to El Caudillo (the Chief).
Soon after he was installed as Prime Minister in mid-2018, Mr. Sanchez vowed to make good on a promise to remove the late dictator’s remains from the Valley, arguing the site should be preserved for all victims of the Civil War, and not glorify a brutal dictator. Franco’s descendants went to court to stop the transfer to a private burial site. They eventually lost their case and the exhumation went ahead – although right in the middle of the election campaign.
For many Spaniards, the sight of Franco’s remains being dug up and transported by helicopter to their new grave – all of it broadcast live on national television – was nothing short of surreal. The spectacle seemed to make everyone uncomfortable and Mr. Sanchez’s political opponents mostly held their breath, in a collective demonstration of tact.
Mr. Abascal, however, refused to stay silent, accusing Mr. Sanchez’s Socialists of a hidden agenda. “The objective is not to dig up Franco,” the Vox Leader told Spanish National Radio. “The objective is to delegitimize the transition [to a constitutional monarchy], to delegitimize the Crown, to overthrow Felipe VI and to tear down the cross of the Valley of the Fallen.”
With that Mr. Abascal showed there were no taboos he is unwilling to break, thrusting Spanish politics into uncharted territory. Indeed, following Franco’s death, the country’s political elites entered into a pact of silence regarding the past in order to focus on Spain’s future. Its economy lagged far behind most of Western Europe and it faced runaway inflation more common to South America. While Basque terrorists kept the entire country on edge for years, an overall unity of purpose among the country’s political leaders meant that unfinished business of the Franco era was swept under the rug.
Yet, while Spain made remarkable economic and social progress during the first four post-Franco decades, it failed to confront its past. There was no Spanish version of a truth and reconciliation commission. A 1977 amnesty law pardoned not only those convicted of political crimes under Franco, but also granted immunity from prosecution to Franco’s acolytes. The People’s Party (PP) long peddled a sort of soft nationalism, becoming the main political vehicle for conservatives and devout Catholics, though stopping short of idolizing Franco. Vox and Mr. Abascal, who himself was born after Franco’s death, shows no such restraint. Vox surged in the polls after Franco’s exhumation, drawing on a well of sympathy among Franco nostalgics.
ACT III: FOUR YEARS, FOUR ELECTIONS
No European economy outside Greece crashed harder than Spain’s when the 2008 recession hit. The country’s overall unemployment rate quickly surged past 20 per cent soon after the crisis, while youth unemployment was more than double that rate. In 2011, austerity measures imposed by Jose Luis Zapatero’s Socialist government led to widespread protests and the creation of the radical Indignados movement. The far-left political party Podemos emerged out of that movement and contested its first national election in 2015, when it won 21 per cent of the popular vote and 69 seats in Spain’s 350-seat Congress of Deputies.
Podemos’s breakthrough shattered the PP-Socialist duopoly that had kept the country’s politics on a fairly even keel for more than three decades. Podemos (We Can) preached an anti-capitalist message that unsettled the country’s elites, and along with the 40 seats won in 2015 by the centre-right Ciudadanos (Citizens), left Spain with its first hung parliament of the democratic age. Voters were forced to return to the polls in 2016, but the results were equally inconclusive. PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy subsequently formed a weak government that fell in early 2018, after a corruption scandal engulfed his party and Mr. Sanchez’s Socialists used a confidence vote to seize power. Mr. Sanchez’s short-lived government fell earlier this year after its budget was rejected by a coalition partner.
April’s elections produced a third hung Parliament after Mr. Sanchez refused to agree to Podemos Leader Pablo Iglesias’s demands for near equal representation in a coalition cabinet. So, on Nov. 10, Spanish voters went to the polls for the fourth time in four years. Mr. Sanchez lost his bet that voters, eager to put an end to the political uncertainty, would back his party in larger numbers. Instead, the Socialists lost ground, the PP regained some, while Ciudadanos was almost wiped off the political map.
The real winner, of course, was Mr. Abascal. Vox won 15 per cent of the popular vote and 52 seats, becoming Spain’s third-biggest party in Congress and sailing past Podemos, which was reduced to 35 seats. Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Iglesias quickly agreed to bury the hatchet and take another stab at forming a coalition. But they will still need to win support from at least four smaller parties in Congress, including one that advocates Catalan independence, in order to govern. And Mr. Sanchez will continue to face relentless calls from Mr. Abascal and the People’s Party to impose direct rule on Catalonia, an option that is increasingly favoured by voters in the rest of Spain. A Socialist-Podemos-led coalition would not likely last long.
Back at the pro-unity march, I ask Mr. Piera what he thinks about calls for Madrid to impose direct rule on Catalonia again, as Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution would allow it to do. He looks at me for a second, before taking a deep breath. “Independentistas hate three things: They hate Spain; they hate the King; and they hate intervention by the central government,” he tells me. “If they invoke 155, this place will be on fire.”
With that, I close my notebook, vowing to enjoy what’s left of this perfect Barcelona day. After all, I’m not sure when I’ll be back again. Or if this place will even be part of Spain when I return.