These parliamentary elections will determine the makeup of the next Catalonian government. The seven political parties running can be divided up in broad terms into two groups: those who seek an independent Catalonia and the others who don’t. The leaflets of the pro-independence parties ooze wounded pride, dwelling obsessively on the two Catalan separatist politicians who have been imprisoned for some weeks: “We will fill the ballot boxes with votes in order to empty the prisons of innocent people.” Apart from revoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution (which allows the government in Madrid to take over a regional government that defies the constitution), the political propaganda of these parties does little to clearly define what kind of society they are defending aside from Catalan nationalism.
This nationalism has already existed for more than 20 years, leaving its imprint on schools, university education, street names, official documents, public radio and television, and trials. Catalonia enjoys a level of autonomy that includes its own police force and its own Parliament and president — powers comparable with those of any federal European state.
The second group’s leaflets promise to renew talks with Spain on even broader autonomy. They say it’s time to start persuading the many companies that have left Catalonia due to political uncertainty to return. And they promise to put a stop to this dark period that started six years ago. That was when Artur Mas, the previous president of the Catalan government, reversed his position and embraced independence. (His change of mind might have had something to do with the cloud of a corruption investigation hanging over his party.) The anti-independence groups are offering little in the way of new social policies. “Patriotic” issues have eliminated any serious debate on the region’s real problems, and solutions seem more remote than ever.
Every day now when I go out into the street, I do so with a certain hesitation. In the days that followed the unsuccessful referendum of Oct. 1, which I had publicly opposed, pro-separatists often screamed insults at me, denouncing me as a “fascist.” During those weeks, tempers were heated. The heavy-handed intervention of the minority conservative government in Madrid added fuel to the directionless rocket of independence. There were demonstrations every day, strikes, rumors, videos and pot-banging protests. Today everything seems much calmer, although Catalan flags still hang from balconies along with those of Spain and the European Union, all mixed together with Christmas decorations, illuminated Christmas trees and even some Santa Claus figures climbing building facades.
Gracia is a neighborhood of small businesses where Pakistanis, Colombians and Chinese live alongside students from all over Europe. There are also many elderly people who were born in all corners of Spain and who consider themselves to belong here. The Colombians are trying to get back to their country, afraid of a revival of anti-immigrant sentiment after the election. They don’t understand what has happened and why we have reached this point. When they ask me about it, the only consolation I can give them is that I don’t understand either.
Indeed, I have the feeling that, in the decades to come, even the best political scientists, historians, sociologists and economists will struggle to offer any coherent explanation about the past six years. As I sometimes sit with my cup of coffee on one of the sunny terraces of the Plaza Vila de Gracia, I see old friends pass by. They greet me perfunctorily, but I can see from their faces that they would have avoided me if they’d noticed beforehand. We are separated by the independence issue. I don’t believe that independence is a good idea, but they do. We give each other furtive looks, a slight nod of the head. Not a word is spoken.
When we talked about independence before, I treated them with the same attitude I used when they spoke of new girlfriends or boyfriends who were clearly unsuitable for them: a polite and ambiguous silence. Since I made the decision to express my opinion, apart from the insults and a savage lynching on social media, I have also lost friends. But I have gained a certain spiritual tranquility. In any case, I still think that their new lovers are not right for them.
Today I am going to have breakfast with Nader, a friend whose unique genealogy reminds one of the past 50 years of world history: His father is Palestinian, his mother a Basque. His family had to flee from the Palestinian territories to Bilbao in the violent times of the 1980s, and from there to Barcelona. Today, like me, and like many others, he is considering fleeing again to escape the suffocating nationalism. But where should I tell him to go? We’re waiting to see what happens on Dec. 21.
What if we end up in the same place we did after the October referendum, when about one half the population apparently wanted to separate from Spain but the other half didn’t? (About 90 percent of referendum voters favored independence, with only about 43 percent of voters participating in the polls.) We can be sure of one thing: This year the traditional Christmas dinner in Catalonian homes will be very, very entertaining.