Catalan & Spanish flags on a wall

Catalonia and Spain: Conflicting Majorities

Published: 14 August 2015
In the first blog of a four-part series, Prof Josep Vallés considers how public attitudes across Spain towards levels of self-government have created a structural tension in Spanish democracy.
Fifteen years have passed since the first steps to reform the 1979 Catalan statute of autonomy were taken by the Catalan Parliament during its 1999-2003 term. The aim was to address the imbalances detected in the Catalan-Spanish relationship twenty years after the constitutional and political agreements established during the transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy (1975-1978). Despite a long and bumpy political process since those reforms started, the conflict is not settled.
The long attempt to find a new political and institutional adjustment, has actually led to the creation, in both Catalonia and Spain, of two conflicting majorities when approaching this issue. This article sets out the scale of those differences.
Some clear differences appear in public opinion research collected in Spain as a whole, in Catalonia and in Madrid. The Madrid comparison is useful because of its specific political weight, which exceeds its significant demographic and economic size. As the state’s historical capital, Madrid hosts its political and administrative elites but it is also home to the ruling elites of the main financial institutions, the big "utilities" privatized during the nineties and the most influential media groups.
Madrid also plays host to an influential fraction of Spain’s academic, intellectual and arts communities. More recently, it has also shown a remarkable capacity for citizen mobilization, notably the so-called indignados del 15-M movement. Therefore, Madrid is a useful comparator when considering how public opinion reacts to such a political phenomenon as the territorial issue. The three sets of opinion data below are illustrative of the divisions mentioned above1:
i) The comparison between perceived and desired levels of state decentralization (Source: CIS 2012/2956)

Perceived & desired autonomy - SpainOnly Navarra, Catalonia and the Basque Country – among the Spain’s seventeen territorial communities – demonstrate a desire for greater decentralization in relation to what they perceive as already having been achieved. Madrid is at the opposite pole, showing the strongest desire to reduce it2.

ii) Comparison between perceived and desired levels self-government in each territorial communities (Source: CIS 2012/2956)
Increase or decrease in autonomy Spain Catalonia
Majorities of public opinion in Catalonia and the Basque Country ask for more self-government, including the independence option. The mean values for the rest of Spain’s communities mainly support the status quo, while there is a clear majority in Madrid for a reduction in its level of self-government.
iii) The preferences for future models of territorial organization (Source: CIS 2012/2956)
More or less decentralisation
Once again there is a clear difference between, on one side, the Catalan public’s strong preference for more decentralized models of governance and, on the other side, the rest of Spain, supporting a less decentralised system. The Basque Country also shows a slight majority for greater decentralisation, while Madrid stands clearly for its reduction. 
The picture given by these data is rather clear, showing the existence of two opposing majorities in Spain and Catalonia.  Across Spain as a whole and most of its territorial communities, the preferences are for either a reversal in the decentralisation dynamic or support for the status quo. In Catalonia – along with the Basque Country and Navarre - gives precedence to the demand for a more intense decentralisation, including the independence option.
This is what is at stake in the present conflict between the Spanish and Catalan majorities when trying to give a new context to their relationship. This is also why this conflict and its eventual outcome should not be considered as a parochial or local issue, but as a new attempt to define democratically how inter-governmental relations should now operate in the global political network.
  • In the next blog, The Search for a Stable Territorial Model, I’ll consider how these two very different – but equally genuinely held – approaches came to be such a powerful force in Spanish and Catalan politics.
1 The data examined belong to the CIS Survey Barómetro Autonómico  2956/2012. Unfortunately, this is the last Survey on the territorial issue made public by CIS, a polling Centre attached to the Spanish Government and whose surveys and data are highly regarded by academic researchers. More recent data on the subject are available in surveys from other sources which show no substantial changes on the major opinion trends. Therefore, I have preferred to keep the 2012 CIS data, based on a larger population sample in every territorial community.
Five other communities are also in favour of reducing their political autonomy, while the rest –nine communities- show majorities supporting the status quo.

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