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Spain 'closer and closer' to dictatorship

October 7, 2017

Dolors Sabater Puig, mayor of the Catalan town of Badalona, was prepared to go to jail so people could vote in the region's contested independence referendum. She told DW where Catalans' fiery feelings come from.

Police take on voters and demonstrators in Barcelona
Image: Reuters/S. Vera

Smaller, and more laid-back than the bustling Catalan capital, Barcelona, nearby Badalona was once a powerhouse in Catalonia's industrial revolution.

The northeastern city is also the birthplace of Catalonia's police chief, Josep Lluis Trapero, who became something of an international media star after August's terror attacks in Barcelona that left 15 people dead and 130 injured. On Friday, he was making headlines for different reasons — accused of sedition for failing to sufficiently rein in protesters and allowing preparations for Catalonia's controversial independence referendum to proceed against orders from the central government in Madrid.

Read more: Catalan independence - what you need to know

The Spanish government declared the vote illegal, given that the constitution defines the Spanish nation as the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards. 

Spanien Badalona Maria Dolors Sabater i Puig
For Sabater Puig, the independence movement is about "democratic dignity" not nationalismImage: CC BY 3.0/Guanyem Badalona

Badalona was among the largest of 712 municipalities that agreed to provide facilities for the vote, despite local mayors facing criminal proceedings if they broke a state prosecutor's ban on helping to prepare the referendum. Mayor of Badalona Dolors Sabater Puig even said she would risk going to jail so that people could have their say.

The mayor is certain that she was in the right, despite the Madrid government condemning officials such as Catalan President Carles Puigdemont for letting the vote go ahead.

"What the Catalan government is doing is listening to the people," Sabater Puig said. "Many people criticizing Puigdemont, or Catalan parties or Catalan institutions, are making a serious mistake when they try to say that all of this is something that comes from a political party. It comes from the people. It's been the feeling of many people for many years."

Embers of independence

Catalonia's present movement for independence gained significant ground in 2010, when Spain's Constitutional Court struck down part of the region's Statute of Autonomy, which in 2006 had been approved by both the national parliament and the Catalans in a referendum. That law described the region as a "nation" and allowed for the "preferential" use of Catalan in public services.

Then in the national opposition, the right-wing Popular Party (PP) lodged a complaint. Mariano Rajoy — who is now Spain's prime minister — was one of the fiercest opponents of the charter. The PP appealed against the law, accusing it of "privileging" Catalonia. When the Constitutional Court eventually struck down key parts of the statute, Catalans were outraged, and the push for independence took center stage.

Karte Badalona ENG

"This was enormous irresponsibility on the part of the PP," Sabater Puig said about those events. "It's also irresponsible that they haven't given us a political solution to commission the will of the Catalan people. They keep on judicializing politics and politicizing justice. This is a grave irresponsibility."

Read more: Anti-independence Catalans have been 'abandoned' by Spain's central government

Even before the National Police and the military police force, the Guardia Civil, staged their violent crackdown on Sunday, critics of the government's efforts to suppress the referendum had drawn parallels with the Catalans' experience under the 1939-75 dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

Are monarchs outdated?

The referendum's detractors include Spain's King Felipe, who accused Catalan authorities of "disloyalty" in a speech that was not well received by many in Catalonia.

"They were words that showed that the king doesn't think about Catalan people anymore, that he's not the king of the Catalan people," Sabater Puig said. She called Spanish royalty — "this monarchy of the Bourbons" — a holdover of the Franco era that was enshrined in the Constitution of 1978.

"Many people feel that the monarchy is outdated and is not an answer to the problems of the Spanish state, so there was not very much hope about what the king was going to say, but there was hope that perhaps that might be some sensitivity, and that there might be something good for Catalonia," Sabater Puig said. "He could have said a few words to make us feel that he wants Catalonia back."

A wish for 'democratic dignitiy'

Sabater Puig says there a deepening political malaise, as the PP has increasingly been tainted by a string of corruption scandals

General Franco and King Juan Carlos
As far as Sabete Puig is concerned, the monarchy is a relic of Franco's dictatorshipImage: AFP/Getty Images

"I think the government of Rajoy is the most corrupt government of the democratic era," said Sabater. "It's going backwards. It's closer and closer to the Franco dictatorship where many of the people within this party come from."

Sabater Puig said Catalans were ready and willing to engage in dialogue with Spain's federal government. For her it's not about nationalism. "It's about democratic dignity."

"There was always a readiness on the part of Catalans to have dialogue, but not on the part of the government of the Spanish," Sabater Puig said. "They put millions of euros and a lot of police into preventing the referendum. They tried to stop it, but people went out and voted. Look at the response of the people that day or on October 3, with the strike and more than 2 million people in the streets."

"In spite of all this mobilization by the people — peaceful, peaceful mobilization — they carry on not allowing dialogue."

Richard Connor Reporting on stories from around the world, with a particular focus on Europe — especially Germany.