The Ghost in The Ballot Box: Catalonia’s Crisis in Context

The Ghost in The Ballot Box: Catalonia’s Crisis in Context

Franco’s legacy and the memory of authoritarian rule in Spain loomed over last week’s Catalan independence referendum—a pivotal episode in a century-long conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of people march through Barcelona during a general strike against police repression of the Catalan independence referendum, October 3 (Adolfo Lujan / Flickr)


The Catalan referendum of October 1, 2017, conducted in defiance of the central Spanish state, may or may not mark the birth of an independent Catalan Republic, but it certainly produced an impressive display of civil disobedience, and provoked the Spanish government into a potentially disastrous use of force. The national police did their best to thwart the referendum altogether—attacking would-be voters with truncheons and rubber bullets, smashing their way into school classrooms to seize the ballot boxes and destroying whatever ballots they could find. The Catalan government estimated that over 800 people were injured, including a dozen police officers. Despite the repression, the Generalitat, Catalonia’s semi-autonomous government, claimed that nearly half of the electorate were able to vote.

Ten days later Catalonia remains in chaos, as the populace anxiously awaits the next move in the standoff between Madrid and Barcelona. This week will mark a new phase, as Carles Puigdemont, the moderate, center-right president of the Generalitat, is forced to take action on his promise of a unilateral declaration of independence and Madrid is forced to react. There is almost certainly more trouble in store. Anything written about Catalonia in the next few weeks is bound to be out of date in a matter of hours. Suffice it to say that the horizon continues to darken: that, perhaps, is the one statement likely to stand for a while.

The question placed on the ballot by the Generalitat read simply: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state, in the form of a republic?” The only alternatives were “Yes” and “No.” According to official results—which the Spanish police did their best to render meaningless, “Yes” received 90 percent of the vote, but the level of participation (only 43 percent) clearly undermined its significance. Just as clearly, however, the turnout was sabotaged by the government of Mariano Rajoy, which first boasted that the “illegal” referendum would never happen, and later vowed to turn it into a fiasco. With breathtaking cynicism, Madrid now accuses the Generalitat of “irregularities” in the conduct of a referendum that their police did everything possible to prevent.

The referendum was called by the ruling coalition in the Generalitat, known as Junts pel Sí (“United for Yes”). In September 2015, Junts pel Sí won a decisive plurality of seats in the Catalan parliament, though not an absolute majority of votes. The coalition promised to initiate an incremental “process” leading by stages to an independent Catalan republic. Support for outright independence has been hovering slightly below 50 percent for the past few years, but a large majority of Catalans want a referendum to assert their dret a decidir, the right to decide their future.

The Spanish government, which Catalans call simply the state (L’Estat), has reacted to this campaign with a flood of hysterical accusations. In July Rajoy accused the separatist movement, which has so far remained strictly nonviolent, of “authoritarian delusions”—a risky charge in view of the ruling Popular Party’s own roots in the regime of Francisco Franco. Puigdemont has been compared not only to Venezuela’s Maduro and Cuba’s Castro, but to Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin as well, while the referendum itself is denounced as an attempted coup d’etat.

Almost everyone connected with the organization of the referendum has been indicted or sanctioned in some way, from national politicians and local mayors down to the school teachers who turned their classrooms into polling stations. The Generalitat’s finances have been frozen; Madrid has warned that Catalonia’s limited autonomy may be withdrawn.

Nonetheless, nearly half of the eligible voters were undeterred by the threats from Madrid. More than two million of them managed to cast their forbidden ballots in the face of physical abuse by the Spanish police and the paramilitary Guardia Civil. (Significantly, the local police refused to cooperate with the invaders, for which their commander has been charged with sedition.)

The voters demonstrated courage, good humor, and nonviolent discipline. All age cohorts were represented: schoolchildren took part in all-night vigils to keep the classrooms open for use as polling places; seniors rolled up to the ballot boxes in wheelchairs; grandmothers leaned out of windows banging pots in support of the crowds surging toward the polls. The referendum demonstrated once again the power of social media as a weapon of mass mobilization. (This time the decisive tool was WhatsApp.) We have seen this before, at Tahrir Square in Cairo and the Maidan in Kiev. We also know how those mobilizations turned out.

Partisans of the referendum show no signs of backing down. Catalans have resented the hyper-centralized power of Madrid for centuries and have sporadically rebelled against it. (The Catalan national hymn commemorates a peasant uprising against the Crown in 1640.) Many seem ready to do so again. Two days after the referendum Barcelona was paralyzed by a general strike on a scale not seen in decades, and for once employers and workers were on the same side. Massive protest demonstrations continued throughout last week in all of the major Catalan cities—which were in turn met by an equally massive counterprotest Sunday in Barcelona. The Spanish government has so far not shown the slightest inclination to negotiate a solution.

It would be pointless to try to predict the outcome of the process, which will depend as much on the international (especially European) response to events as on the balance of forces in Catalonia and Spain. It is certain, however, that the first of October, which the Catalans are calling simply “1-O,” marks a new phase of the drama.



If we cannot forecast the denouement, we can at least make some sense of the incipient chaos by putting “1-O” in historical perspective. The first thing to notice is the spectral figure lurking in the background. It is the ghost of Francisco Franco, whose dictatorship lasted from his civil war victory in 1939 to his death in 1975. Franco was especially cruel to Catalonia, and in many respects this referendum on Catalonian independence was really a referendum on Franco’s reign, and therefore on the whole legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Seen from a broader angle, the Catalan referendum is yet another episode in a century-long conflict, of which the civil war was the violent apogee, but which has yet to be finally resolved.

The war from 1936 to 1939 was more than the first major clash between Western democracy and fascism, as it is still understood outside of Spain. Nor was it really the “first phase of the Second World War.” Spain remained neutral in World War II, which is why Franco and his regime survived it. It was also more than the class war of rich against poor, as George Orwell, who fought in it briefly, believed. For the people of the Iberian peninsular it was and remains above all a war about national identity. This national dimension completely eluded Orwell himself. Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s classic but mistitled memoir of the war, has virtually nothing to say about Catalonia per se.

If, as Benedict Anderson has persuasively argued, nations are essentially “imagined communities,” then the Spanish Civil War arose from the violent collision of two radically different imaginations of Spain. On the one hand there was the ideal favored by the Catalans of a pluralistic “nation of nations” rooted in the political diversity of medieval Spain. Opposed to this federal conception was the absolute monarchy forged by the Habsburg empire and inherited in 1714 by the Bourbons: a centralized, autocratic state ruled from Madrid.

A federal Spain would have fostered the interests of the commercial and later the industrial classes of the northern periphery, especially the provinces fronting on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and exchanging goods and ideas with France. The centralized kingdom that developed in the mid-sixteenth century was based on the martial kingdom of Castile, which had led reconquest of Al-Andalus from the Moors. Its heartland was the Meseta, the arid tableland of central Spain.

The Habsburg model was consolidated by Philip II when he chose as his capital the insignificant, landlocked town of Madrid, whose only advantages were its central location and its lack of an independent, potentially troublesome bourgeoisie. The empire created by Philip was dominated by the royal court, the Catholic Church armed with its Inquisition, and the landed aristocracy.

That monarchy survived for five centuries, despite French invasions, provincial rebellion, the secession of Portugal, the loss of an American empire, and recurrent civil wars. Its social basis remained the trinity of court, church, and aristocracy, though the professional army came to play an increasingly decisive and often disruptive role. The political hegemony of Madrid endured.

In 1931 the monarchy gave way to the Second Republic, and hesitant steps were taken toward a federal state, largely due to pressure from Catalonia, Galicia, and Euskadi, the land of the Basques. The military rebellion of 1936 was, among other things, an attempt to put a violent halt to what the army considered the disintegration of Spain. Franco’s victory in the Spanish Civil War restored the centripetal power of Madrid. By this time, however, the main centralizing force was no longer the church or the royal court, but Franco’s army, and its political emanation, the Falange.

Franco’s visceral hostility to separatism led him to consider most Catalans and Basques as inveterate enemies of Spain. Upon his triumphal entry into the Catalan capital in 1939, Franco explained that he had chosen for his vanguard “not the soldiers who had fought best, but those who felt the most hatred: that is to say hatred for Catalonia and the Catalans.” During the first few months after the fall of Barcelona, more than 4,000 Republican civilians were summarily executed. That number would have been many times greater had not 150,000 Catalans escaped across the Pyrenees, to return, if at all, only decades later. In 1940 there were more than 40,000 Republican civilians in Franco’s jails, under wretched conditions.

For the next thirty-five years Catalonia was subjected to an energetic, although ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at cultural genocide. The autonomy granted Catalonia by the second Republic was of course abolished, along with all political parties other than the Falange. Banned from public use, the Catalan language seemed destined for extinction, as Franco intended.

Catalans past middle age have first-hand memories of fascism and have heard stories from their parents about the civil war. These stories get told to grandchildren. Catalans remember that fascism came to them from Spain, and that it was inflicted on Catalonia in the name of Spanish unity. Only a few days before 1-O, a political cartoon appeared in Ara, the leading Catalan-language daily, depicting Prime Minister Rajoy declaiming from a television screen: “Spaniards, Franco has not died!” On 1-O, observers noted the high proportion of senior citizens among the voters. As police reinforcements, including units of the hated Guardia Civil, flooded into Catalonia ahead of the referendum, older Catalans must have felt an unpleasant sense of déjà vu.



Catalan anxieties about a renascent fascism are naturally ridiculed by the Spanish press. Madrid’s advocates understandably prefer to avoid mentioning Franco at all. It is bad taste to dredge up bygone conflicts. The issue of the dictatorship is assumed to have resolved by la Transición, the peaceful passage in 1978 from dictatorship to constitutional monarchy. The cult of the Transition is the foundational myth of the contemporary Spanish state.

The Transition was a compromise between the Franquist regime and the moderate left. This pragmatic (and self-interested) coalition managed to peacefully dismantle the archaic trappings of the dictatorship, while leaving much of its social structure intact and much of its personnel in power. Perhaps the most striking feature of the Transición, apart from the freer hand given to bankers and realtors, was the liberalization of public sexual mores. One could now see girls’ legs in the streets and actresses’ panties in the cinema.

The Transition effectively erased the civil war and its aftermath from public memory. There was no question of any trials for war crimes, since most of the surviving Franquist elite remained in place. Nor was there anything like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in Mandela’s South Africa. Thousands of bodies of murdered Republicans victims continued to rot in unmarked graves. The process of systematic exhumation and identification has only recently begun.

Catalonia welcomed the Transition, with all its flaws. The Generalitat was restored, and the Catalan language made a surprising comeback. It is no wonder, then, that the vast majority of Catalans, over 90 percent, voted in favor of the Constitution of 1978. Today less than a third would do so. It is worth asking why.

The forty years of restored democracy since the death of Franco have brought enormous economic and technological progress to Spain. The centripetal power of the state in Madrid remains intact, however, and the modern oligarchy, the people that an increasingly disillusioned public calls “la casta” (the caste), are the direct descendents of the Old Regime—economically, culturally, and often biologically as well.

A huge and corrupt state bureaucracy has supplanted the royal court, and the army has replaced the Catholic Church (which nonetheless remains influential) as the guarantor of unity. The great landlords and their henchmen still dominate much of rural Andalusia, although bankers hold more power in Madrid. The Bourbon monarchy has been restored, which gratifies conservatives and galls the Catalans and the Spanish left. To be sure, the king has little personal political power, but he retains considerable charismatic influence.

The one new component of la casta is the political machine of the PSOE, the absurdly misnamed Socialist Workers Party of Spain, which alternates rhythmically in power with the right-wing Popular Party. This comfortable arrangement, known as “bipartidismo,” allows each party ample time in office to fill its pockets. The bipartidismo instituted by the Transition is the principle reason why the Kingdom of Spain is one of the most corrupt countries in western Europe, ranking below Botswana and barely above Georgia on the Transparency International index.

Catalan disaffection, however, did not set in at once. Indeed the high point of Catalano-Spanish relations came in 2006, when a new, more liberal Statute of Autonomy was adopted by the Spanish Cortes (parliament) and then widely endorsed in a Catalan referendum. The new Statute enlarged the fiscal authority of the Generalitat and formally acknowledged Catalonia’s identity as a “nation.”

In 2010, however, an ambitious politician named Mariano Rajoy rose to prominence by leading a successfully demagogic campaign to gut the Statute. As leader of the Popular Party (founded, as it happens, by the last interior minister of the Franco regime) Rajoy elicited 4 million signatures to a petition demanding that both the new fiscal privileges and the recognition of nationality be annulled by the State’s Constitutional Court. The Tribunal, already dominated by conservatives, complied, no doubt soothing Franco’s agitated ghost.

Rajoy’s Popular Party took power from the Socialists in 2011. Since his political ascent had been fueled by “Catalanophobia,” one could not expect that Rajoy would respond to Catalan concerns with tact, or even common sense. The Tribunal’s ruling, bitterly resented in Catalonia, initiated what Catalans call “the Second Transition.” Unlike the first Transition, this one transited backward, steadily augmenting the competence of the central state. Catalanists took to calling the bureaucracy in Madrid La Estrella de la Muerte (“the Death Star,” from the Star Wars films). But the Second Transition also revived the dream of a Catalan Republic.

Anger at the suspension of the Statute intensified popular indignation over the bank bailouts of the Great Recession and the austerity measures decreed by the EU, which Rajoy zealously imposed. Separatist sentiment has been growing fairly steadily ever since. There have been spectacular popular mobilizations: hundreds of thousands take to the streets each year on September 11 to celebrate La Diada, Catalonia’s national day. In 2012 the crowd numbered over a million.



For the past two hundred years, however, the primary objective of Catalanism has not been separation from Spain, so much as the transformation of Spain from a centralized Castilian monarchy into a pluralistic “nation of nations.” In 1932, Francesc Macià, father of modern Catalanism and first president of the revived Generalitat, proclaimed a “Catalan Republic within the Iberian Federation,” though he had to accept a more restricted autonomy. His successor Lluís Companys (revered as Catalonia’s iconic martyr after being executed by Franco) called for a “Catalan State within the Spanish Federal Republic.” Puigdemont might well settle for something similar, eventually.

The critical issue for most Catalans is the right to decide, rather than independence per se. Many Catalans who were willing to risk jail to support the referendum would have voted against separation. The irony is that if the Spanish government were to permit a free expression of opinion, a majority of Catalans, having won the right to secede, would probably not feel the need to exercise it. They would, after all, have the weapon of secession at hand should they need it in the future, because the bond with Spain would have become a voluntary union of equals. Even for many independentistas the threat of secession is primarily a blunt instrument with which to get Spain’s attention. For them to admit as much in advance, however, would be to throw the match. A “right to decide” is only meaningful when it is wrested from the force that would deny it.

The political agenda implied by the process is hazy, but it tilts perceptibly to the left. Catalonian social policy has long been more generous than that of the rest of Spain. In the name of austerity, Madrid has recently blocked efforts to extend the Catalan welfare state, especially in the areas of housing, hunger, and energy insecurity. Hostility to Rajoy’s neoliberalism has therefore heightened the appeal of independence. Activists in Catalonia’s effervescent constellation of progressive movements and associations—socialists, feminists, ecologists, municipalists, cooperativists, and so on—generally support the referendum as an act of resistance to an autocratic state, while remaining skeptical about independence. They must realize that the left would fare better in a Catalan Republic than within the Kingdom of Spain.*

Catalanists also resent domination by Madrid because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that they are being fiscally fleeced in the name of a specious national solidarity. Catalonia is one of the richest provinces of Spain and its relatively high taxes are supposed to finance the development of poorer provinces like Andalusia and Estremadura. Catalans suspect, however, that much of their money actually disappears into the pockets of corrupt local politicians, or into the patronage networks and pork-barrel projects that keep these political machines in power.

One reason for the current impasse between Spain and Catalonia is the de facto alliance between the ruling PP and the official opposition party. The PSOE is as dogmatic as Rajoy on the inviolable unity of Spain. One reason may be that its territorial bastion is the impoverished province of Andalusia, where PSOE apparatchiks have effectively replaced the latifundistas and caciques, the great landlords and local bosses of yore. Consistent with their character and historical antecedents, the factional leaders of the PSOE are known today as the “Barons” (Barones). Andalusia is subsidized by Catalonia, and the Socialists understandably want to keep the spigot open.

Unfortunately, Rajoy’s belligerence seems to be going over well with the Spanish people. On the evening of October 3, King Felipe VI lent his symbolic prestige to Rajoy in a televised speech that made no appeal for dialogue, and expressed no misgivings about the use force. The speech was almost universally applauded by the Spanish political class. The only criticism came from Podemos, which represents about a fifth of the electorate.

“Catalanophobia” plays the same role in securing Rajoy’s right-wing base that racism, xenophobia, and mysogyny perform for Trump. Given this depressing fact, it is entirely possible that the crackdown on Catalonia may boost Rajoy’s popularity among his base, at least for a while. But while the operation may have been politically successful at home, the international “optics,” as the Washington Post put it, have been “terrible.” Optics may not matter to Rajoy’s rank and file, but they matter a good deal to the globalist financiers who prop him up.

Nothing but a muffled tut-tutting can be heard from the plush corridors of the European Union. So far the only intelligent proposal has come from Citibank—an unlikely source, perhaps, but a welcome and potentially influential one. Citibank calls for new negotiations to revise the Spanish Constitution, and suggests conceding broader fiscal powers to the Catalans while granting them a legal referendum on their national future. For once the global financiers, or a few of them, have got things right.

William Hunt founded, in 1989, the St. Lawrence Solidarity Project to support democratic culture in postcommunist Europe. He has traveled frequently to Bosnia, working with independent media, civic NGOs and educational institutions. He is currently writing a book on George Orwell’s experience of the Spanish Civil War.

* The position of the Catalan left requires separate consideration. Neither the national PSOE, nor its Catalan affiliate the PSC (Partit Socialista Catalana) can be considered “left” in any meaningful sense. They remain firmly committed to the principle of bipartidismo which permits their regular and peaceful alternation in power with the Popular Party, and therefore an equal share of the spoils of office.

Within the Junts pel Sí coalition, the second largest party, the ERC (the Republican Left of Catalonia), which dates from before the civil war, can best be described as social democratic, while the much smaller CUP is explicitly anti-capitalist, feminist, and ecologist. (CUP stands for the party’s not very descriptive name, the “Popular Unity Candidacy,” which nobody uses.) The CUP, with 8.2 percent of the popular vote and 10 out of 135 seats in the parliament, calls for an immediate declaration of independence, while the ERC, like its centrist partner, the PDC, is more inclined to talk of compromise. The ERC would probably accept a genuinely federalist solution, while the CUP still harbors sentimental fantasies of a Greater Catalonia, which might be dangerous if they were less far-fetched.

Catalonia’s independent (as opposed to independentista) left is comprised of a myriad of parties, associations, and loosely coordinated movements known simple as “Tides,” each concerned with a specific issue, such as health, education, women’s rights, and the environment. The two more or less organized parties are Podem, the Catalan affiliated of the national new left party Podemos, Barcelona en Comú, the municipalist movement headed (more or less) by Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau, and known simply as “the Commons.”

These leftists are ambivalent about the independence process, but the supported the referendum as a popular mobilization in defense of democracy, while for the most part considering it non-binding on the question of independence. They are hostile in principle to anything that smacks of “nationalism” in the pejorative sense, and suspicious of the pro-business orientation of the PDC. The independent left, while defensive of Catalan identity, aims at the progressive transformation of Spain as a whole, in alliance with progressive forces throughout the peninsula.

Catalan leftists are therefore united with the advocates of independence in their hostility to the centralized authority of Madrid, to which both of the major Spanish parties are committed. Most leftists would favor a voluntarily federation, the so-called “nation of nations.” (Many, however, would extend the principle of self-rule to the municipal level.) Podemos, however, is in a delicate position, since support for the process risks alienating potential supporters elsewhere in Spain, while opposition would discredit the party in Catalonia.

For all its internal dissidence, however, the independent left seems to have reached a rough working consensus: to demand the right to decide while opposing secession, or abstaining on the issue altogether. The goal, then, is what is called referèndum pactat, an orderly legal vote on the future of Catalonia. Many observers believe that if the Spanish state were intelligent and flexible enough to permit that, the case for unity would prevail, as it did in Scotland and Quebec.