The spectre of the Franco dictatorship has quietly haunted Spain since his death 42 years ago next month. His legacy loomed over the Spanish-Catalan crisis long before many claimed to see the old general’s ghost in Barcelona two weeks ago, inspiring the Spanish police to assault Catalan voters at polling booths.
Undoubtedly some recent accusations from Catalan nationalists (and the Spanish left) about the return of Francoism have been outrageously exaggerated. Franco’s police were, routinely, infinitely more savage than their counterparts in Catalonia on October 1st.
But dog whistles from conservatives in Madrid, attuned to Francoist nostalgia among their voters, have also inflamed the Catalan bonfire. Last week, a government spokesman appeared to threaten the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, with the same fate as Lluís Companys. The latter was a democratic leader, tortured and executed by the Francoists in 1940.
And the roots of the current Catalan crisis can be traced back to flaws in the transition from the Franco dictatorship in the late 1970s.
This article was published in The Irish Times on 14 October, 2017; for full text click link below.
The official version of this transition is that democratic parties negotiated a complex but exemplary path to the restoration of democracy. The 1978 constitution is supposed to represent an ideal consensus, in which opposing views are integrated.
So, on the one hand the document “is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. On the other the constitution “recognises and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities…of which it [the Spanish nation] is composed”.
These two apparently contradictory phrases represent a bold attempt to accommodate two radically different perspectives: the Spanish nationalist dogma that there is a single Spanish nation, independent of the will of the people who live within its borders; and the insistence of the Basques and Catalans that they have distinct national identities.
A large majority of the Spanish people (and of the Catalans) voted in favour of this compromise. Many had feared that the end of the dictatorship would mean a re-run of Spain’s disastrous 1930s civil war. Avoiding that ghastly prospect was certainly a remarkable achievement. Moreover, both Catalonia and the Basque Country have indeed enjoyed very high levels of self-government since 1980.
So what’s the problem?
Essentially, the dark legacy of this apparently bright transition lies in the fact it was negotiated under conditions set down by the heirs of the dictatorship, and under great pressure from the military and the extreme right. These interests ensured that certain lines could not be crossed.
Those who had overseen brutal and persistent human rights violations on behalf of the Franco regime would never be held accountable
Firstly, those who had overseen brutal and persistent human rights violations on behalf of the Franco regime would never be held accountable. Instead, many of them would be allowed to morph seamlessly into “democratic” politicians. They found their home in the Partido Popular (PP), bringing with them an authoritarian mindset that still marks the thinking of Spain’s governing party today.
The PP leader in the European parliament described the dictatorship as “a normal and natural state of affairs”. It is impossible to imagine a German Christian Democrat saying the same of Hitler’s regime.
Secondly, the idea that the Basques and Catalans had a right to self-determination was never to be countenanced. Yet the two great Spanish parties that had opposed the dictatorship, the PSOE and the (now defunct) Communist Party, had enshrined this principle in their statutes, and promised their Basque and Catalan allies that they would defend them.
However, when they sat down to talk to the regime’s representatives they dropped this principle off the table. The PSOE soon became almost as rigid a defender of Spain’s essential unity as the PP.
This left many Basques and Catalans feeling severely betrayed. Yes, most of them accepted the self-government that was on offer, but they always felt they had unfinished business with the structure of the Spanish state. The tragic irony is that both regions, given a choice, would have almost certainly opted for integration in a Spanish federation.
For sure, both peoples remained very prosperous under the new arrangements. Yet while they may occupy the most comfortable rooms in the Spanish household, many of them feel that they have never been asked if they want to be part of this domestic arrangement.
Had they been allowed to make up their own minds today’s dangerously volatile mess in Catalonia might well have been avoided. It is also true, of course, that the military might have intervened to suppress self-determination in the 1970s. There were no painless ways to square this circle at that time.
However, the current crisis has one of its immediate causes in the way the PP has, much more culpably, carried the old regime’s legacy into the current century.
The Catalans used exclusively constitutional means to achieve a major reform of their autonomous status in 2006, and won the support of the Madrid parliament. But then the PP, led by current prime minister Mariano Rajoy, used the constitutional court to block this reform in 2010. Subsequently, Rajoy has adamantly resisted further legitimate demands from Catalonia.
This does not justify the way in which the Catalan nationalist leadership is now disregarding legal norms, but it does go a long way to explain this disturbing phenomenon.
It is arguably not Spain itself that many Catalans want to leave behind; it is the kind of dogmatic and authoritarian Spain that they feel Rajoy’s PP represents.
New coercive measures from Madrid will not resolve this perception – they will only amplify it. Vision and imagination, on both sides, are now urgently needed to avert a potentially disastrous confrontation. Sadly, there is precious little sign of either.
It is an uncomfortable truth, all the more dangerous for being denied so often, that Franco’s authoritarian – and fiercely Spanish nationalist – spirit still has a real presence in today’s Spain. It must be exorcised if there is to be real hope of the whole country moving forward together.
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