In its haste to pass judgment not only on the Catalans’ actions but also on their alleged shady motives, The Economist has found it convenient to mix up two unrelated issues (“Of bulls and ballots”, January 7th 2010), omitting in the process a few facts that we believe should be emphasized.
On the tiresome matter of bullfights, we are forced to point out first of all that, contrary to what is implied in the article, there is in Catalonia no tradition remotely comparable to the “glorious” ritual of methodical torture and messy death that Spaniards have chosen as a national symbol. Fearing for that symbol, Spanish nationalists are now yelling bloody murder because they see the proposed ban as a Catalan attack on some fundamental component of Spanishness. Interestingly, no one regarded a similar ban that was passed in the Canary Islands in 1991 as a crime against the state. The fact is that, rather than being the expression of a hidden nationalist agenda, the proposition that has been accepted for debate by the Catalan parliament was initiated by a strictly non-political animal-rights organization that managed to collect over 180,000 signatures in support of the ban – well above the 50,000 that are needed for any such popular motion to be considered. So if any groups in Catalonia feel that strongly about bullfights, as a spectacle or as a symbol, all they have to do is scrape together 50,000 signatures against the proposition. And good luck with that.
As regards the more substantial issue of the popular consultations on independence that were held in several towns a few weeks ago, we fear that The Economist may have been misled by the official Spanish line into making light of that initiative and dismissing it as a total failure. The vicious attacks directed against it in the Spanish media should have given a clue as to how seriously it had been taken in the capital, where centralist nerves were definitely rattled when almost 200,000 people turned out to vote in a symbolic poll held by private entities with little financial support and facing a virtual media boycott, while the major parties kept their distance or squarely opposed it.
It would be unwise to brush off the 27% turnout and the 95% pro-independence vote obtained under such unfavourable circumstances, especially if one considers that the socialist party is now governing in Catalonia with the support of just over 15% of the total electorate after the tireless campaigning and the barrage of media attention that come with a regular election. Regardless of what they may say in Madrid – and regardless of what they really think – the established Catalan parties have already engaged in some serious soul-searching, and with good reason: a recent opinion poll put the pro-independence camp at just over 50%, while in a second unrelated poll 57% of those who in the 2006 election voted for CiU, usually described as a “moderate nationalist party”, declared themselves for independence; and so did, more surprisingly, 30% of those who had voted for the socialist party, still a bastion of Spanish unionism in Catalonia.
So concluding, as The Economist does, that a referendum on independence in Catalonia “would surely produce a large no” is at best risky. But that will remain a moot point as long as the Spanish authorities doggedly, and quite undemocratically, refuse to allow such a referendum to be held. In the meantime, a good pointer to the road that Catalans will choose to follow will be given by the upcoming parliamentary elections. When recent ballots have been held in a climate of indifference and abstention figures have been high, the 200,000 voters of December 13th can be considered to represent the “quality vote” that will be up for grabs in the next election in that they are a fraction of the growing number of people who are sure to show up at the polls when a genuinely inspiring option is presented to them. The flaccid autonomy charter that The Economist rightly describes as just giving “small nudges” towards devolution is certainly not that option anymore. The socialist party may still be clinging to it for dear life, and CiU will still pay some lip service while waiting for the decision from the Constitutional Tribunal in Madrid, which has been fiddling with it for over three years now, but the statute is probably dead on arrival. For starters, no one can seriously think that it is for twelve Spanish judges to decide, among other things, whether or not Catalonia is a nation and, no matter what they have up their sleeve, it is becoming clear that their ruling will have no lasting effect on Catalan politics.
Putting an end to the devolution process, especially when it comes to Catalonia, remains high on the Spanish agenda. But if Catalonia is a vexing problem for Spain, so is Spain for Catalonia. The Spanish economic miracle that so many in Europe were dazzled with has now been exposed as the bluff that it always was – not least by The Economist in several recent articles, and only a few days ago in a harsh Financial Times editorial. The next step would be for international observers to recognize as well the intrinsic flaws of a Spanish political project that was initiated under the shadow of a 40-year-old dictatorship and is still tainted by that original sin. Mixing hope and wariness, many Catalans have gone along with that project for over thirty years now, but their frustration is growing as they see that Spain still refuses to acknowledge those intrinsic flaws. So today, when others options are taking shape, no one should be surprised if Catalans would seek to explore them.
As to the question of where the “path of devolution” must end, that is ultimately for the Catalans – and only for them – to decide, including in a free, fair and binding referendum on independence.