Divide and Conquer: Catalan Independence Referendum

Whilst throngs of tourists squinted in awe at La Sagrada Familia, unburnt skaters rode at Barceloneta and market traders haggled over the price of fish at La Boquería, politics came creeping into Barcelona. After the tragedy at La Rambla, the shadow that had already been cast over the city thickened and independence rallies spread across the city. Yet, Catalan independence referendum should not come as a surprise.

Spanish history is dominated by the theme of nationalism. The country has been divided for centuries, only to come together again, if somewhat begrudgingly. It goes back to the Romans and their two hundred year struggle to weaken the power of the tribes in the Iberian Peninsula, who fought relentlessly against the wrath of centralised power.

Reconquista in Spain

When North-African Moors invaded across the Straits of Gibraltar to form the kingdom of Al-Andalus, the power struggle intensified even further. The rule from Cordoba was incessantly challenged within Moorish-ruled provinces themselves, stamping this grating relationship between centralised authority and regional autonomy into the Spanish soil. Meanwhile, within the Christian kingdoms of Aragon, Navarre, Castile and Asturias similar battles ensued. Indeed, it would not be incorrect to assert that it was these divisions within the Christian kingdoms that undermined the momentum of the Reconquista, and thus permitted the longevity of the Moors in Spain.

The seizure of Granada

Even after the seizure of Granada in 1492, the Moors called Moriscos, who converted to Christianity and thus allowed to remain in the country,  continued to challenge centralised authority and thus unsettle the balance of power in the Iberian Peninsula. Whilst historians would always avoid a sweeping statement, one cannot help but conclude that almost all conflict within Spain has some link to the idea of devolution.


Thus, the political status quo in Spain had traditionally settled around this division. So pounded into the country’s history and the peoples’ psyche, jarring conflict between unity and disunity became a default point of return for the country.

Yet, the rise of Franco to power in 1936 set this old conflict spinning, intensifying the disjuncture between centralists and separatists to an unprecedented degree. Staunchly nationalist, Franco entirely oppressed all calls for regional independence in Spain, quelling in particular the attempts at greater Catalan autonomy. Between 1936 and 1975, the Catalan language was officially banned; all Catalan institutions, including the government of Catalonia, were abolished.

General Franco

The death of Franco in 1975 shepherded in huge change in the Spanish political landscape. The period, widely referred to as the ‘transition’ from dictatorship to democracy, saw the introduction of democratic elections, the drafting of a progressive constitution and, most importantly, the official granting of autonomy to Catalonia. This period of transition was one of recalibration, wiping the slate clean not only of the remnants of dictatorship, but also of centuries of struggle in Spanish history. With democracy came a new status quo, a natural resting point not centred on the grating battles between unity and disunity.

This whistle stop tour through the history of Spanish nationalism now drops us off in the present, and what we can see is certainly not reminiscent of the post-Franco democratic restructuring of Spain, which held Catalan autonomy so preciously at its core. Last Sunday, more than 900 people were injured as they attempted to vote in the Catalan independence referendum. Video footages show large-scale violence from the police beating and shooting at the screaming citizens; the rumours of sexual abuse of protesters by police have bounded across the country.

General strike in Catalonia against political violence after the Referendum on the 1st of October

But is this simply a reversion back to the original status quo, or is this outpouring of political violence more menacing than that? For me, this episode spells trouble; I fear that the unrest in Catalonia is far more reminiscent of that which occurred under Franco than the regular swing back and forth between unity and division that had characterised Spain up until 1936. Mariano Majoy’s government has in their armoury Article 155, triggering of which would allow Madrid to seize control of Catalonia and arrest its leaders. In a country that holds the experience of dictatorship in its recent memory, this is not insignificant. What is more, the situation is only exacerbated by the fact that the Partido Popular, the ruling party, is considered to be the democratic reimagining of Franco’s regime in modern Spain. For now, following Sunday’s unofficial referendum with a 42.3% turnout, 90% of the voters backed independence.

Regardless, this period is undoubtedly a turning point for Spain. Whether the calls for Catalan independence symbolise a reversion back to a status quo of years gone by, or the emergence of a troublesome new political elite, the curtain has closed on the largely peaceful period of transition that Spain has enjoyed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.