Catalonia played a leading role in the Regenerationist movement in Spanish politics from the late 19th century onwards. Differences arose among the parties of the left, with positions ranging from outright rejection of Catalan autonomy to enthusiasm depending on whether they were branches of a Spanish party, like the Socialists, or essentially Catalan, such as the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC).
In 1898, the loss of Spain’s last colonies in Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico opened a deep crisis. As Regeneracionismo spread across the country, the Catalan regionalists decided to protect their own interests by fighting the centralism of what they saw as decadent Spain. Early successes included the Solidaritat Catalana candidacy in the elections of 1907 and the creation of the first attempt at self-government, the Mancomunitat de Catalunya (1914–1925).
The Primo de Rivera dictatorship (1923–1930) relegated Catalan culture to a folkloric role and left Catalonia without even the limited self-government of the mancomunitat. However, the ERC victory in the April 1931 municipal elections in Barcelona inspired its leader, Francesc Macià, to make a public declaration for a Catalan republic in an Iberian confederation.
The negotiations with the republican-socialist government of the Spanish second republic (1931–1939) brought a less (but still) radical status for Catalonia: its autonomy, unique in Spain at the time. In late 1933, Macià’s successor, Lluís Companys, was proclaimed president of the Generalitat de Catalunya (the governing body) and tried to introduce some important social reforms, especially concerning rural leases. This led to conflict with the central Spanish government. The generalitat was suspended and its ministers imprisoned after they supported the failed attempt to create an independent Catalonia within the revolutionary events of October 1934. The popular front electoral victory in February 1936 returned self-government to Catalonia, only for it to be lost again after the defeat of the republic in the Spanish civil war in 1939.
Franco’s dictatorship (1939–1976) saw the abolition of the generalitat, and the persecution of the Catalan language and culture. The generalitat was restored in November 1977 by the first democratic government in Spain, led by Adolfo Suárez, even before the adoption of a democratic constitution, which was finally approved in December 1978. The restoration was designed to calm the popular Catalan claims, reflected in the June 1977 electoral results, and to give a democratic legitimacy to Spain’s new political reality. The generalitat was ruled from 1980 to 2003 by Jordi Pujol, a conservative Catalanist politician who developed a strategy of giving parliamentary support to the Spanish governments in return for more powers for Catalonia.
The victory of the Socialist Party, led by Pasqual Maragall, in the 2003 Catalan elections gave Catalonia its first progressive government since the second republic in coalition with the ERC and the Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (ICV), the Catalan Greens. Maragall pushed for the drafting of a new constitution for Catalonia, approved by the Catalan population in 2006. This new estatut d’autonomia defined Catalonia as a nation, establishing a deeper level of self-government.
The ultra-conservative Partido Popular, in opposition at the time, pursued a constitutional challenge to the 2006 estatut as a part of its anti-Catalanism strategy. The verdict of the constitutional court was delivered four years later, in July 2010, and annulled the core articles of the estatut. A massive demonstration took place in Barcelona a few days later and support for full independence, which had been marginal until then, skyrocketed, as subsequent demonstrations have shown. Around 1.2 million people participated in a pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona in September 2012, and the following year a human chain crowded along the 400 kilometres of the Catalan coast. Catalonia has 7.5 million inhabitants.
These rallies were organised by the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya (ANC), independently of any political party. But the Catalan parties adapted to the new mood quickly, with a significant shift towards the independentism of the Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, led by Pujol’s successor, Artur Mas, president of the generalitat since November 2010. In the 2012 elections, the parties that supported a Catalan independence referendum received 80 per cent of the vote. In December 2013 they agreed on a referendum for 9 November 2014. Although rejected by the central government, the demands for a vote on independence will not be going away any time soon.
Jaume Muñoz Jofre is a visiting researcher at the London School of Economics. Thanks to Professor Paul Preston for his insight on this article
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