Catalans head to the polls on Thursday

Madrid has imposed direct rule and the election of a new regional assembly on Catalonia

17:24 December 19, 2017

Madrid: Spain has imposed direct rule on Catalonia in response to the restive north-eastern region’s most dramatic bid yet for independence. Catalan leaders have been remanded in prison or have fled into exile since the regional parliament declared an independent republic in October.

The sight of police beating voters and politicians being jailed revived disturbing memories, for some, of Spain’s authoritarian past.

However, Madrid insists the rollback of autonomy is only temporary, and much rides on an early election in the region on December 21.

How did we get here?

Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive regions and has a distinct history dating back almost 1,000 years. Before the Spanish Civil War, it enjoyed broad autonomy but that was suppressed under General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939-75. When Franco died, the region was granted autonomy again under the 1978 constitution, and the region prospered along with the rest of the new, democratic Spain. A 2006 statute granted even greater powers, boosting Catalonia’s financial clout and describing it as a “nation”, but Spain’s Constitutional Court reversed much of this in 2010.

Driving nationalist sentiment

Recession and cuts in public spending fuelled local resentment, which coalesced in a powerful secessionist movement. Following a trial referendum in November 2014, outlawed by Spain, separatists won the 2015 regional election and went on to win a full referendum on 1 October 2017, which was also banned and boycotted by unionists.

Madrid cracks down

When the Catalan parliament declared outright independence, Madrid cracked down hard, arguing that it was upholding the constitution, which states that Spain is indivisible.

With no international recognition and little sympathy among mainstream EU politicians for their cause, the secessionists have not been able to implement their breakaway.

Do Catalans really want to leave?

There was just one question on the October 1 ballot paper: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

With no proper monitoring of the vote, which saw riot police attempting to shut down polling stations by force, it is not possible to say with certainty how much support there really was for independence. According to the Catalan authorities, some 90 per cent voted to leave Spain but turnout was only 43 per cent.

Given that unionist parties won 39 per cent of the legal vote in 2015, it can be fairly assumed a substantial minority rejected independence by staying at home.

Catalonia’s claim to nationhood

It is certainly long-lived. It has its own language and distinctive traditions, and a population nearly as big as Switzerland’s (7.5 million). It also happens to be a vital part of the Spanish state, locked in since the 15th Century, and — according to supporters of independence — subjected periodically to repressive campaigns to make it “more Spanish”.

What does Catalonia mean to Spain?

Depending on your view, Barcelona is primarily either Catalonia’s capital or Spain’s second city.

It has become one of the EU’s best-loved city break destinations, famed for its 1992 Summer Olympics, trade fairs, football and tourism. Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, making up 16 per cent of the national population and accounting for almost 19 per cent of Spanish GDP. Generations of people from poorer parts of Spain have moved there for work, forming strong family bonds with regions such as Andalusia.

Does Madrid really milk Catalonia?

There is a widespread feeling that the central government takes much more than it gives back although the complexity of budget transfers makes it hard to judge exactly how much more Catalans contribute in taxes than they get back from investment in services such as schools and hospitals.

€10 billion

Amount Catalans paid more to Madrid’s tax authorities that they received in 2015.


of Madrid’s total budgeted revenue went to Catalonia in 2015.


of Madrid’s total budgeted revenue went to Catalonia in 2003.

Is there room for compromise?

Some argue that concessions by Madrid, such as the restoration of the 2006 statute on autonomy, could take the wind out of the separatists’ sails.

Both Spain’s ruling and main opposition parties have agreed to study constitutional reform but remain implacably opposed to independence. However, the Spanish state’s reputation has been dented locally by the police crackdown at the referendum, which reportedly left nearly 800 people seeking medical assistance.

Why Thursday’s vote matters

Despite the fact that Madrid called the vote, separatist parties have embraced it and essentially the same choices are on offer to voters as in 2015. They can choose between separatist and unionist parties, and those attempting to stay neutral by campaigning on social issues instead. What is more, the costs of actual independence have been illustrated vividly by the events of this autumn, from the cold shoulder shown by the international community to the potential withdrawal of big business from the region. A clear victory by the secessionists would do much to vindicate their cause, if not in Spain then perhaps abroad. The opposite is also true, of course.

— Compiled from agencies, BBC