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The Spanish Exceptions

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Leaders of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) voting to commit to a referendum on independence, Lleida, Catalonia, Spain, January 28, 2023

At the end of May Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that Spaniards would go to the polls on July 23 to elect a new national government. It was a surprise announcement—the election was not expected until December—precipitated by the heavy losses that Sánchez’s social democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) had just sustained in that month’s local and regional elections. If history is any guide, the coming vote will unleash a lot of political turbulence. In recent national elections neither the PSOE nor its nemesis, the conservative Popular Party (PP), has been able to secure a victory big enough to form a government on its own, making potential kingmakers out of other political forces, including, most notably, the leading separatist parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Spain’s separatist parties are ideologically fluid enough to support governments across the political spectrum. They also have the potential to break a national government—as they did five years ago during the Catalan separatist crisis, Spain’s most precarious political juncture since the end of the Franco dictatorship. In October 2017 a coalition of separatist parties in Catalonia held a referendum on independence that Spain’s Constitutional Court had already declared unconstitutional. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the PP overreacted by sending the Civil Guard to stop people from voting, disbanding Catalonia’s regional government, and placing the region under Madrid’s direct rule. After Rajoy was removed from office in a partywide corruption scandal, Sánchez, newly installed as prime minister, opened negotiations with Catalonia but rejected calls for a state-sanctioned referendum.

In retaliation, the Catalan separatists withdrew their support from Sánchez’s governing coalition, leaving him with no other choice but to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections. Sánchez won that election in 2019, and was able to secure a new coalition government with Podemos, a left-populist party, and without the separatists’ support. Not lost on many observers, including this author, was that in their quest for revenge the Catalan separatists were willing to risk letting the government fall into the hands of a party that would have treated them with more hostility than Sánchez ever could. Prior to the referendum, he had endorsed rewriting the Spanish Constitution to transform Spain into a “nation of nations” by enhancing regional autonomy across the country. But none of this mattered to the Catalan separatists, whose posture as victims of Madrid drew international attention to their project.

Despite a well-earned reputation as disruptors and political spoilers, separatist parties have also made significant contributions to Spanish democracy. They introduced political freedoms during the interwar years, led the resistance to Franco’s authoritarian regime, and ensured the success of the transition to democracy in the 1970s. Less apparent, though just as important, is that in recent years they have emerged as bulwarks against the far right. The strength of separatism helps explain why Spain has resisted the political malaise known as democratic backsliding, which typically happens in young democracies with polarized politics when elected leaders attack the electoral system, undermine the autonomy of the courts, and politicize the military. Spain’s democracy is not yet fifty years old, and its levels of polarization are among the highest in the world, but at the national level the robustness of separatist parties and their concern for minority rights provides a powerful counterbalance to illiberalism.

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Spain is a unitary state with a high degree of decentralization. It operates under a system of “autonomous communities,” each with its own set of rights and administrative competencies. Spain differs in this respect from classic federalist states, like the United States, where each subunit has the same relationship with the central state. Catalonia and the Basque Country were the first to receive autonomy in 1979; within five years, the entire country had been partitioned into seventeen such communities, and two autonomous cities in North Africa (Ceuta and Melilla). Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia have the most autonomy, owing to their status as “historic regions,” an acknowledgement that their claims to nationhood predate the Franco regime. All three regions have a unique linguistic heritage, but Galicia, Franco’s birthplace, stands out for lacking a strong separatist movement. On the contrary, in the post-Franco era, economic deprivation and an entrenched Francoist legacy have conspired to make the PP, which vigorously promotes Castilian nationalism, the region’s dominant political force. Save for the southern region of Andalusia, the remaining fourteen communities were created through a slow-track process, which involved petitioning Madrid for autonomy and holding a referendum.

Spanish decentralization might seem haphazard (the process has been dubbed café para todos, or coffee for everyone), but it was a momentous accomplishment. Between the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-1970s, attempts to partition Spain had wrecked every effort at democratization. An attempt to federalize Spain doomed the First Republic (1873–1874). The Second Republic, in place between 1931 and 1939, came undone during the Spanish Civil War in no small measure because the right opposed any move to decentralize the country, fearing that it would be a prelude to the breakup of Spain. A central mission of Franco’s authoritarian regime was to eradicate all traces of cultural distinction across the Spanish national territory in order to make federalism or any other type of decentralization unnecessary if not altogether pointless. Separatist parties, which were the main engines behind the attempt to bring federalism to Spain, were among the main targets of this cultural genocide; that they survived the Franco dictatorship testifies to their deep societal roots.

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Variously described as sub-nationalist, pro-independence, and especially ethno-regionalist, Spanish separatist parties are most prominent today in Catalonia and the Basque Country. In both regions separatist parties control the legislature and most cities and towns, save for Barcelona, the Catalan capital and Spain’s second-largest city, which just inaugurated a mayor from the PSOE—a blow for the separatist movement and a win for Sánchez. For much of the post-Franco era Catalonia was ruled by the center-right Convergència i Unió, or CiU, a party founded in 1978 and active until 2015. It was led by Jordi Pujol, head of Catalonia’s regional government from 1980 to 2003. Known for promoting the concept of Catalonia as “a nation within Spain,” Pujol helped craft a stipulation in the Spanish Constitution of 1978 that provides for regional self-governance while explicitly prohibiting federalism—a compromise that became central to the creation of the autonomous-community system the following year.

The CiU ardently promoted autonomy for Catalonia but fiercely opposed independence—a stance that was critical in selling regional autonomy to lawmakers in Madrid. Its hegemonic control of Catalonia also allowed the party to effectively isolate the most radical elements of the Catalan separatist movement, especially Terra Lliure (Free Land), a small terrorist group responsible for numerous lethal attacks. In the absence of a thriving independence movement, Catalonia prospered in the post-Franco years, while the fight for independence turned the Basque Country into a war zone. But as the CiU began to unravel in the early 2000s—a process accelerated by the financial corruption scandals surrounding Pujol, a caudillo-like figure—pro-independence parties such as Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), or the Republican Left of Catalonia, moved to the forefront of Catalan politics. 

Founded in 1931, the ERC embodied the policies of the liberal Second Republic. Aside from abolishing the Spanish monarchy (which was restored in 1978) and ushering in regional autonomy (with Catalonia first in line to receive it in 1932), the Republic is remembered today for the social reforms it introduced: labor rights, women’s rights, the decriminalization of homosexuality, and secular education. The ERC was also a leading force behind the Popular Front, an alliance of left-wing parties and social movements, including communists, socialists, and anarchists, that came together in 1936 to defend the Republic against the assault by Franco’s nationalist army. The ERC’s visibility in the resistance made the party a prime Francoist target. Lluís Companys, a leader of the ERC who served as president of Catalonia during the civil war, was captured in exile in France by the Nazi secret police and executed by a firing squad at Montjuïc Castle in October 1940. After the fall of the Republic in 1939, the ERC leadership took refuge in France, where it organized a Catalan government in exile. It returned to Spain after Franco’s passing in 1975 to reactivate the party.

Europa Press 2023

Gabriel Rufian and Teresa Jorda, the Republican Left of Catalonia’s candidates for Congress, holding a pride flag at their campaign launch, Barcelona, Spain, July 6, 2023

In 2017 the ERC joined two other Catalan separatist groups that arose in the post-CiU era—Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) and the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidacy), or CUP—to organize the illegal referendum on independence. The organizers claimed that some 90 percent of Catalans voted for independence, but turnout was only 43 percent—just over 2 million of the 7.5 million people who reside in Catalonia. Since the referendum, the ERC, under the leadership of Pere Aragonès, current head of the Catalan government, has tried to become the dominant pro-independence party in Catalonia. Its model is the Scottish National Party, which in 2014 persuaded the British government to allow an official referendum on Scottish independence.

In its search for electoral dominance, the ERC has become a voice of moderation among Catalan separatist parties, advocating for a negotiated approach with Madrid. The party helped secure pardons for nine Catalan separatist leaders involved in organizing the referendum, including ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, after they were given lengthy prison sentences on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds. More controversially, Aragonès has argued that Catalan separatists need to do a better job at promoting independence among the Catalan population. Undoubtedly he’s mindful of public opinion: an October 2022 survey by the Catalan government found that 52 percent of Catalans oppose independence while 41 percent favor it, a significant decline from the peak support of 48 percent around the time of the referendum. Other separatist parties continue to favor a unilateral approach to secession. The ERC’s disagreement with Junts over this issue boiled over last year when Junts abandoned the regional coalition government, seriously weakening the ERC’s grip on power and throwing the independence project into disarray.

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Catalonia is home to the largest number of separatist parties in Spain, but it was the Basque Country that produced the most politically influential one. The Partido Nacionalista Vasco, or Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), was founded in Bilbao in 1895 as a Christian Democratic party by the writer Sabino Arana, widely recognized as the father of Basque nationalism. Since then it has become one of the three pillars of Basque society, alongside the business community and the Catholic Church. The party also maintains links with the Basque diaspora, with offices in several foreign countries, including Argentina, Mexico, and the United States. Between its founding and the start of the civil war, the PNV was pivotal in bringing self-governance to the Basques. Rooted in the so-called fueros, or the rights that the crown of Castile granted to the Basques in medieval times, the statute of Basque autonomy was approved by the Spanish Parliament in October 1936.

The PNV was harshly repressed by Franco in a campaign to destroy Basque institutions and culture best exemplified by the 1937 bombing of the village of Guernica. Many PNV leaders were tortured and forced into exile. In 1977, during the restoration of democracy, the PNV was revived only to find itself in the crossfire between Madrid and the armed separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Liberty (ETA), a Marxist offshoot of the Basque nationalist movement that had formed in 1959. With the 1973 car-bomb assassination of Admiral Carrero Blanco, Franco’s right-hand and apparent heir, ETA emerged both as the most serious threat to the authoritarian regime, as well as an ominous obstacle to a peaceful democratic transition. Carrero Blanco’s killing vividly recalled the rash of political assassinations that had ushered in the civil war. ETA’s deadliest attack, the bombing of a Barcelona shopping center in 1987, killed twenty-one people and injured forty-five; by the time its leaders declared a “definitive end” to armed conflict in 2017, the organization was responsible for some 3,300 attacks, close to nine hundred killings, and more than two thousand people injured. The Spanish government’s reaction only added to the violence. The Grupos Anti-terrorista de Liberación, a network of paramilitary organizations with ties to the Spanish army that operated during the socialist administration of Prime Minister Felipe González, waged a vicious dirty war against ETA in the 1980s that killed twenty-seven people, including women and children.

For much of the 1970s and 1980s, the leaders of the PNV oscillated between moderation and radicalism. They decried the violence in the Basque Country but were more likely to criticize the Spanish government for its handling of ETA than to condemn the terrorist organization itself. During these so-called años de plomo (“years of lead”), the party was also lukewarm about democratization, criticizing the new constitution for not going far enough on the issue of regional autonomy. Abstentions and “no” votes in the 1978 constitutional referendum were high in the Basque provinces of Guipúzcoa, Vizcaya, and Ávala—54 percent and 23 percent, respectively. (In contrast, 87 percent of voters approved the constitution in Spain as a whole, including Catalonia.) But in the early 2000s, after the ETA provoked a wave of protests across the Basque Country and Spain by kidnapping and murdering a young Basque PP councilor named Miguel Ángel Blanco, the PNV joined Basque civil society organizations in pressuring ETA to abandon its armed struggle.

The peace process, which took place primarily in the French Basque territory and concluded in 2017, not only ended the PNV’s ambiguity toward ETA but also had a moderating influence on the party in general. In the past two decades the PNV has joined the ERC in embracing social liberalism, a striking turn given its deep Catholic roots. Most notably, it supported the 2005 law that made Spain the first predominantly Roman Catholic nation to legalize same-sex marriage, a move fiercely opposed by the Vatican, the Spanish Episcopal Conference, and the PP. Two years later the PNV was also pivotal in shaping the landmark Law of Historical Memory, which addressed the absence of political trials or a truth commission to reckon with the horrors of the civil war and the Franco era—especially what the historian Paul Preston has called “the Spanish Holocaust,” the postwar reign of terror during which the Franco regime executed 20,000 political dissidents and sent hundreds of thousands of people, including homosexuals, to concentration camps.

The Law of Historical Memory offered reparations to those persecuted by Franco for their political beliefs and sexual orientation, granted Spanish citizenship to the descendants of the Republican exiles, called for the removal of public symbols and monuments honoring the Franco regime, and declared Franco’s coup against the Republic illegitimate. The PNV advanced the law by brokering a compromise that offered legal protection to Francoist symbols found in Catholic churches if they were deemed to possess artistic value or historical significance. Once it was sure to pass, the ERC opposed the law because it did not go far enough by failing to void all Francoist court rulings. Fifteen years later, the ERC’s objections, and those of human rights activists, especially the Association for the Recovery of the Historical Memory, pushed legislators toward enacting a more comprehensive law. The Democratic Memory Law nullified all the dictatorship’s legal rulings, established a DNA bank to help locate and identify the remains of those who perished during the civil war and under the dictatorship (the remains are hard to find because they are located in unmarked mass graves across Spain), and banned the Franco Foundation. The law also calls for “redefining” El Valle de los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s former resting place.

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Aitor Esteban, spokesperson in the Congress of Deputies for the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), paying tribute to the poet Estepan Urkiaga, who was executed by firing squad under the Franco regime in 1937, Alava, Basque Country, Spain, June 25, 2023

But the issue that has most divided separatists in recent years is not historical memory but independence. While the Catalans have abandoned their traditional accommodationist practices with Madrid in favor of a unilateral approach to independence, the Basques have embraced the status quo and made the most of it. Commentators have puzzled over this radical reversal of strategies, but it has a logical explanation. Since the democratic transition, the Basques have proven more skilled at extracting concessions from Madrid, such as the ability to keep more of their tax revenue, and it appears that the Basque Country’s more developed state of autonomy has lessened the appeal of independence. Catalan separatists could perhaps be pacified if Madrid were willing to give them what it already gives the Basques: more financial autonomy. There’s another factor: while the Basques appear to be content to be left alone to rule themselves, the Catalans want both self-rule and a say in Madrid. As Catalan political scientist Orion Bartomeus told the Financial Times, “The Basques think, ‘You are in charge of your house, and I am in charge in mine.’ For the Catalans, it’s ‘I am in charge in my house—but I also want to transform Spain.’”

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In anticipation of this month’s elections, Spain’s separatist parties have one concern: keeping Vox, Spain’s ascendant far-right party, from entering the government in Madrid. Currently the third largest group in the Spanish parliament (after the PSOE and the PP), with fifty-two seats in the Congress of Deputies, Vox promotes a toxic, ultra-right agenda: anti-immigration, anti-feminist, anti-globalist, anti-LGBTQ, and anti–social justice. The party launched its 2019 campaign in Covadonga, a town in the northern region of Asturias that is often called the cradle of Spanish civilization because, according to conservative lore, it was the place where Christians first defeated the Moors, thereby starting an eight-hundred-year effort to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the infidels. In a similar vein, Vox’s anti-immigration campaign features the party’s leader, Santiago Abascal, riding horseback through the countryside as a crusader-conqueror bent on ridding Spain of outsiders.

In the current campaign, Abascal, who hails from the Basque Country, has proposed a national referendum to ban separatist parties, which he considers “contrary to the existence and sovereignty of Spain.” Such a ban would likely be unconstitutional. He has also pledged to revoke the Law of Historical Memory and the Democratic Memory Law on the grounds that they divide Spaniards and are an attempt by liberals to rewrite history. Abascal credits his stern opposition to separatism and advocacy for “the unity of Spain” to being targeted by ETA’s terrorist campaign as a young politician in the Basque Country.

The race is tight. A June 16 poll by the Center for Sociological Studies showed the PSOE winning with 31.2 percent of the vote, just ahead of the PP’s 30.7 percent. The poll also showed that the PP could well end up on top by forming a coalition government with Vox, which is polling at 10.6 percent. But the electoral math could easily favor the PSOE, especially since Podemos, the PSOE’s junior partner, entered into a last-minute pact with Sumar, a splinter of Podemos, to run as a single entity. The Podemos-Sumar pact aims to take advantage of a feature in Spanish electoral law that rewards large parties in the assignment of parliamentary seats. Podemos-Sumar, which is polling at 14.3 percent, is led by Yolanda Díaz, Sánchez’s labor minister. She is also Spain’s most popular politician, owing to her role in negotiating the pandemic’s furlough scheme, which guaranteed the wages of 3.5 million Spaniards.

Separatist parties are scrambling to increase their clout. In Catalonia, the ERC is polling behind the Socialist Party of Catalonia, the Catalan branch of the PSOE (a sign that separatism is losing steam—the ERC won the region in 2019), but well ahead of the PP. The ERC has made its own partnership, with the left-wing Basque pro-independence party EH Bildu—an alliance dismissed by the PP as “a handiwork” by the left and the separatists to keep Sánchez in power. As in recent elections, the PNV is leading all political parties and alliances in the Basque Country.

The ERC and PNV have been scathing in their criticism of Vox. From the floor of the Spanish Parliament, ERC leaders have denounced the party for its embrace of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his campaign of misinformation and electoral denialism. The PNV parliamentary spokesman Aitor Esteban has called Vox fascist, Francoist, and racist; it is, he said, “against freedom.” Though it has supported conservative governments in the past, the PNV has ruled out any PP-led coalition that includes Vox. That the far right faces such fierce opposition in two regions so electorally important helps explain why, for years, Spain was that rare European country whose national parliament was free of far-right representation. Political observers called this the Spanish exception. Ironically, it was the Catalan crisis that ended the exception in 2019, when Vox entered the Congress of Deputies through the snap elections Sánchez was forced to call. Since then, Vox has made strides across the country, including in the separatist regions. In 2020 it elected one representative to the Basque parliament, and the following year it gained an eleven-seat foothold in the Catalan parliament by promising to stop the “Islamization of Catalonia.”

Sánchez has characterized the July 23 elections as a battle between democracy and autocracy, drawing parallels to the choice that Americans faced in 2020 between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. But it’s unclear whether this messaging will help his reelection. For one thing, his main opponent, Alberto Nuñez Feijóo, a former president of Galicia, is anything but Trumpian. A profile in The Guardian called Feijóo a “safe pair of hands” and noted that he appears to be working overtime to return the PP to its center-right profile of the 1990s, a clear departure from his “erratic, avowedly rightwing predecessor,” Pablo Casado, who followed Vox to the right to retain voters. Known for his calm and understated demeanor, Feijóo supported former Prime Minister González in the historic 1982 election that returned the left to power for the first time since the civil war. Yet his party has struck deals with Vox after recent local and regional victories, most notably in the creation of a PP-Vox coalition government in the region of Castilla y León, and Feijóo has been hesitant to criticize Vox’s most controversial policy positions.

However strongly they oppose Vox, the separatists are not ready to back Sánchez. In an interview with Catalunya Ràdio, Aragonès called for the Catalan separatists to “put a price” on their support of Sánchez, although he did not specify if this meant throwing votes Sánchez’s way, at their own expense, or entering into a post-election PSOE-led coalition, or both. In any case, the price would be an official referendum on independence. Speaking with Radio Euskadi, PNV president Andoni Ortuzar noted that “although we will not be in a PP-Vox coalition, for us to be in a coalition with the current Spanish president many things will have to change.” In a bid for the separatists’ support, Sánchez has stressed that his party is best equipped to keep Spain unified while at the same time advancing aspirations for more regional autonomy. He is fond of praising the Catalans in his coalition, politicians like Manuel Cruz, president of the Senate, and Meritxell Balet, the Speaker of the Congress of Deputies, as “Catalans in the service of Spain and Spaniards at the service of Catalonia.”

By forcefully denouncing Vox while keeping Sánchez at arms’ length, separatist leaders are keeping their options open for the negotiations that will follow the elections. But whatever position separatist parties adopt in the new government—in opposition, part of a governing coalition, or something in between—they are certain to remain a major force in Spanish politics. Despite all the drama that surrounds these parties, they have earned their political capital and democratic credentials. Indeed, in many respects, they are the unsung heroes of the post-Franco democratic miracle. They survived a bloody civil war in which they were on the losing side, outlasted a forty-year dictatorship that made them a target, and today, as they did during the 1930s, they are pushing back against the far right.

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