Viaje a Espagña — The Politics

Spain held a national election while we were there. If not for some posters and light pole ads, we might not have known. Barcelonans seemed remarkably blasé about an election crucial to their dreams of Catalan independence.

Catalan-language campaign poster for Podemos, the most left of Spain’s political parties. The platform: more feminism, more democracy, more social justice, more sovereignty, more climate justice.

Although he’s still dead (old Saturday Night Live joke), Francisco Franco casts a continuing pall over Spanish politics. He started the civil war that killed hundreds of thousands, then ruled despotically for 36 years, until 1975. The new government faced an agonizing decision all democracies that follow an authoritarian regime must confront: do we pursue justice or democracy? Because in those circumstances, you can’t have both. People don’t change their beliefs when their cause is repudiated, and millions are to some degree complicit in the old dictatorship, meaning justice would require punishing a significant portion of the population. Why would those people cooperate with a justice-bent government? They’d more likely rebel.

The conventional wisdom is it’s better to deny justice than provoke rebellion. So after Franco’s demise, the new Spanish government passed an amnesty law that freed political prisoners and allowed political exiles to return, but also renounced prosecution of anyone who committed crimes during the civil war and Franco regime. Less formally, the major political parties also agreed to collective amnesia regarding the previous forty years of Spanish history.

The grim trade-off worked: today Spain has a functional democracy. But the amnesia seems to be wearing off.

The amnesty law has been challenged and modified before, but not in any transformative way because Spain’s national politics have been dominated by the conservative People’s Party (PP), which, while not Francoist, looked out for those with Francoist leanings. The PP government fell in 2018 due to a corruption scandal. The Socialists took over, and one of their campaign promises in 2019 was to exhume Franco’s body from a garish monument north of Madrid (“The Valley of the Fallen”) and move it to a less reverent location.

The Socialists have also heard out Catalan secessionists, promoted women’s rights, and welcomed immigrants. All that has aroused authoritarian sentiment and led to the rise of a far-right party called Vox. Though not as virulent as other European nationalist parties, Vox is blatantly anti-secessionist, anti-feminist, and anti-immigrant.

So how did the election go?

Despite fears that Vox would score big, it won just 24 seats in Spain’s 350-seat Congress of Deputies. Meanwhile, the PP lost 66 seats and the Socialists gained 38, so despite the worrisome arrival of a far-right party, the liberal government gained strength. But the Socialists didn’t win a majority. They’ll need to form a coalition with Podemos (42 seats), liberal Catalans (57 seats), and Catalan secessionists (15 seats) to rule — which will be tricky.

Before I went to Spain, Catalonia’s drive for independence struck me as similar to California’s: a quirky but understandable impulse by the country’s left-leaning cultural and economic engine to get out from under a benighted, sometimes vengeful federal government. Now that I’ve been there (Barcelona’s Plaça de Catalunya is home base of the secessionist movement) I think that’s true, but a small part of the story: California would be Catalonia only if it had its own language and culture. I was tempted to title this post “You Say Salida, and I Say Sortida” (both mean exit) to underscore the point. In Barcelona, street signs and everyday conversation are in Catalan, which one native described to us as “a crazy mix of French and Italian.” Everywhere else we went in Spain, official and personal business were conducted in Spanish.

In 2017, Catalonia’s provincial government authorized a vote on secession, in violation of the Spanish constitution. The Socialists, though willing to consider more autonomy for all regions (the Basques want greater self-rule too), prosecuted the leaders who authorized the vote, prompting Catalonia’s president, Carles Puigdemont, to flee to Belgium. During this year’s election, it was common to see political banners more about the last election, i.e. the independence referendum.

The sign in English reads “Spanish government killed our democracy but will never shut Catalans [sic] mouth.” The white banner with the red slash (top left) says “Freedom for the political prisoners,” i.e. Puigdemont and his secessionist ministers.

Catalan separatists in the Congress of Deputies triggered this year’s election by joining conservatives against the Socialists’ proposed budget. The gambit backfired: voters strengthened the Socialists and non-separatist Catalan party and weakened the separatists. But again, people don’t change their minds when their cause is repudiated. Catalan independence — and a reckoning with the fascist past — will likely remain wrenching, divisive issues for years to come.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.