Flag scuffle highlights tensions in Catalan election

Nationalist parties are threatening to secede from Spain depending on results of vote

As Barcelona celebrated the La Mercè festival on Thursday, everything was going smoothly until a scuffle broke out on the balcony of the city hall.

Thousands of people had squeezed into the square below to mark the festivities and had watched, many of them cheering, as a Catalan estelada, the red-and-yellow striped flag with a star representing independence for the region, was hung from the balcony.

But when Alberto Fernández Díaz, a politician from the conservative Popular Party, tried to drape a Spanish flag alongside it, a member of the leftist local government, Gerardo Pisarello, tried to pull it out of view.

Few sights have symbolised the current political tensions between Madrid and Catalonia as effectively.


On Sunday, that battle will be played out at the ballot box as Catalonia stages a regional election that many of its 7.5 million people hope will lead to it breaking away from Spain.


Catalan premier Artur Mas is using the vote as a plebiscite on secession. He has formed a coalition, Junts pel Sí­ (Together for Yes) with other pro-independence politicians and grassroots leaders and if they win 68 or more of the regional parliament's 135 seats, they say they will begin the process of creating an independent nation, to be completed by 2017.

“Madrid wants to weaken us on September 28th,” Mas said. “The fewer votes Junts pel Sí­ gets, the weaker Catalonia will be on September 28th.”

The central government of Mariano Rajoy says any moves by Catalonia towards independence are illegal and will be blocked in the courts.

But the Spanish government, like all political parties in Catalonia, has been forced to engage in the independence question during the election campaign.

On Wednesday, Spanish foreign minister José Manuel García-Margallo took part in a live televised debate focusing on secession with Junts pel Sí­ candidate Oriol Junqueras.

“Catalonia has done very well inside Spain and the best is yet to come – are we really going to throw that all away?” the minister asked, during a debate with no clear winner but whose polite tone surprised many.

“We’ve done well despite you,” Junqueras shot back. “Imagine how well we could do.”


Catalan nationalists such as Junqueras say the northeastern region – Spain’s wealthiest– does not receive enough investment from the state despite sending its tax revenues to Madrid.

They also claim Spain has failed to fulfil autonomy accords with Catalonia, as well as repressing the region’s language and culture.

Despite García-Margallo’s relatively conciliatory approach during the debate, his government has taken a rigid stance with Catalonia.

It has warned of the negative fallout of independence, insisting a new Catalan nation would be excluded from the EU, impoverished by institutional costs and its citizens stripped of their Spanish nationality.

The economic argument in particular has dominated the closing days of the election campaign.

"We've seen in Greece that ruining a country takes just a month, but rebuilding it is very difficult," García-Margallo said.

Rajoy, meanwhile, has warned that “people don’t realise the consequences of independence”.

Bank of Spain chairman Luis María Linde suggested Catalonia might lose the euro and even see a Greek-style bank deposit freeze before playing down his remarks.


"These elections are extremely unusual," said Josep Lobera, a sociologist at Madrid's Autònoma University.

“In Catalonia, the traditional left-right dichotomy that you see in most democracies has changed into one based purely on independence versus union.

“So people aren’t talking about social policies, economic policies, privatisations and so on – it’s all about whether or not you’re in favour of independence.”

Polls show Junts pel Sí­ to be on course to win the election, but falling short of the majority of seats it requires to push ahead with its independence “roadmap”.

It could need the support of the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy to reach that goal, although that party has expressed resistance to backing Mas as premier for another term.

If that were the case, tomorrow’s election could be followed by interparty talks.

Another complication for Junts pel Sí­ would be if it clinched a majority of seats but not a majority of votes.

The coalition has insisted this would not impede its move towards independence, but pressure would build on it to seek a negotiated solution.

The governing Popular Party is expected to lose votes to Ciudadanos, whose young leadership and strident anti-independence message have seen it make an impact across Spain.

Anti-austerity party Podemos is running in a leftist coalition, Catalunya Sí­ que es Pot (Catalonia Yes We Can), opposing independence and calling on Madrid and Catalonia to negotiate an end to their impasse.