Bridging The Catalan Divide: A Complex Endeavour

Después de la sentencia, convivencia” – “After the sentence, coexistence.” Such were the words of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at a press conference on 18 October.  Meanwhile, an estimated half a million Catalans were assembling in the streets of Barcelona. A month has passed, and little has changed. As the light of day dies down so does the peaceful nature of the protests, collapsing into violent clashes between protesters and riot police. More than anything, the perenniality of these protests is a testament that the Catalan crisis is more than what Sánchez frames as an internal Catalan problem: it is a crisis that transcends regional boundaries and paralyzes a divided country.

On 14 October, the Spanish Supreme Court announced the much-anticipated verdict on a case against 12 Catalan separatist leaders for their involvement in Catalonia’s 2017 bid for independence, which included acts of nonviolent protest, a vote to “disconnect” Catalonia from Spain that breached parliamentary procedure, an illegal referendum, and a declaration of independence that was suspended soon after. It ruled that the declaration of independence was nothing more than a symbolic gesture, part of a political subterfuge “to mobilize the citizenry” in hopes of renegotiating autonomy terms and “it is clear the secessionists lacked the most elementary means to subdue the Spanish state and that they were well aware of it.” Indictments were made on counts of sedition, misappropriation of government funds and civil disobedience. The former vice president of the Catalan regional government, Oriol Junqueras, was sentenced to 13 years; eight former Catalan ministers received sentences of 10 to 12 years and two civil society leaders and political activists, known as the Jordis, were given nine years. The court has also issued an extradition request against Catalonia’s former president, Carles Puigdemont who has, like many others, fled to exile.

Whether it be because they have been appalled by the separatists’ disregard for the constitution, or that they are opposed to the idea of secession, many Spaniards have applauded the verdict. However, for many Catalans, their former leaders have become political prisoners and martyrs to the cause. Roger Torrent, the speaker of the Catalan parliament has described it as “an insult to democracy and a show of contempt for Catalan society” and its demands. More than disproportionate, the ruling has also been criticized for being, yet again, an example of the judicialization of politics which equates sedition to civil disobedience resulting in the repression of people’s right to protest and legitimizing police brutality. This anger is targeted not only towards the Spanish governments but also towards the Catalan leadership that seems to have lost credibility and control over the coordination of protests.

The divide between pro-unionist and pro-independence has fed the process of polarization and fragmentation of Spanish and Catalonian politics. It is clear that the verdict has radicalized secessionist opinion and amplified the Spanish nationalist backlash against it.  On the one hand, the Catalonian leadership’s obsessive calls for independence seem to overlook a majority of Catalans’ desire for greater self-governance rather than independence or the status quo. On the other hand, the Catalonia Crisis has also become more than an ideological playground: it is a key area for political contention. In the context of the recent presidential election, few parties have been willing to work together to address the Catalonia question as part of a political calculus to secure votes and power. Many parties, ranging from the right to the center left, namely Cuidadamos, the Partido Popular and Sánchez’s Socialist party, have adopted similar hard-line nationalist narratives to the far-right populist party Vox, vilifying secessionists.

With the rise of Vox as the third biggest party in the nation, there is a pressing need for collaboration so as to rethink a failing democracy and engage in constitutional reforms in order to establish a climate of peace and tranquility. Open political conversations could allow Catalonia to negotiate its political future with the state. This would create a sense of community and a shared project that respects diversity as well as the voice and the rights of all.

Elsa Gougeon