Catalonia: Pluralism in retreat

Catalonia will be the big loser today unless all parties broaden their vision

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The Catalans have long been justly proud of their vibrant and plural political culture. It has been capable of combining canny pragmatism and visionary imagination to create remarkably successful projects: the daring reinvention of the great city of Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics is a prime example.

There was, of course, a political agenda behind this triumph. As an American newspaper put it, before the games most sports fans knew the Olympics were taking place in Spain, but by their end everyone knew they had been in Catalonia.

In 1992, however, this agenda had nothing to do with independence from Spain. Catalonia had bedded down very happily – much more happily than the Basque Country – under the extensive self-rule enabled by the 1978 constitution. It had everything to do with a deeply rooted sense of distinct Catalan cultural and linguistic identity. And this identity was, and is, shared by some non-nationalist parties with allegiance to Spain.

Yet today, Catalans are voting in a regional election where all polls show them split almost 50/50 between parties which insist that total independence from Spain is the only way forward, and parties that rule out that option altogether. This election follows Madrid’s imposition of direct rule, after the Catalan government unilaterally declared independence in October.

Each bloc has sharp internal divisions, but all parties, with the significant exception of the Catalan version of the leftist Podemos movement,now seem too entrenched to contemplate coalescing across the Spanish/Catalan identity barrier. This binary schism, in a region so recently very plural, is deeply troubling; it will make the formation of an effective government, and indeed governability itself, very difficult indeed.

Both the Madrid-based parties and the Catalan independence movement bear a heavy responsibility for years of counter-productive polarisation, which has already done severe damage to the Catalan economy, and divided families and local communities. Catalonia will be the big loser today unless all parties broaden their vision.

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