'Less shouting, more listening', plead weary Catalans as election looms

AFP - [email protected] • 8 Apr, 2019 Updated Mon 8 Apr 2019 09:31 CEST
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As night falls on the Catalan seaside resort of Mataro near Barcelona, one room in the community centre remains brightly-lit as locals debate a way out of the independence crisis.


Opinions on secession differ but all appear to agree on one thing: a year-and-a-half after a failed attempt to break from Spain shook the country and Europe, frontline politicians need to stop shouting and get talking.   

That's the view shared by many Catalans worn out by months of fruitless sparring between pro- and anti-independence camps, who want leaders in separatist-governed Catalonia and Madrid to come to an arrangement.   

"There are many, many people in Catalonia who are increasingly convinced that the radical positions on one side and the other bring nothing positive," says Carles Estape, an independence supporter.

That includes a "huge majority of those in favour of independence," he adds.

'People in the middle'

Tensions have soared in the 7.5-million-strong northeastern Spanish region since a banned independence referendum took place on October 1, 2017, followed weeks later by a short-lived declaration of secession.   

Hardly a day goes by without pro-independence politicians or supporters of the unity of Spain badmouthing one another as moderates struggle to be heard above the din.

Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who came to power in June, tried to start formal talks with separatist leaders but was shouted down by right-wingers accusing him of cosying up to those trying to break up Spain... and by separatists who said it wasn't enough.

He was forced to call early general elections on April 28th after pro-independence lawmakers who helped him come to power refused to back the minority government's budget.

"We're at a stage when no one really knows how to get out of this confrontation," says former union member Jaume Espinalt in Sant Joan de Vilatorrada, a town nestled in the rolling hills of Catalonia's mainly pro-independence centre.

It's like "two battering rams with the people in the middle," adds Espinalt.   

He believes there should be "less shouting, more listening" in the divided region where 47.5 percent voted for independence parties in December 2017 regional polls.

READ MORE: Spain files lawsuit against Catalan president over pro-independence symbols

'Recurrent theme'

In Santpedor, the village where pro-independence Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola comes from, mayor Xavier Codina acknowledges the issue is a "recurrent theme."

"Every day, every day," insists Codina, a staunch backer of secession.   

Outside his office, yellow ribbons hang from stone buildings, including the village hall.

These have become a symbol of protest against the imprisonment and trial of separatist leaders and an object of ire for radical anti-independence activists.

"Do you know what I have today? I've received notification from the electoral board that I have to take off the yellow ribbon," says Codina, a small separatist flag perched behind his desk.

The board says the yellow ribbons should be taken off Catalan government buildings ahead of elections, arguing they are partisan.   

"I'm going to hang a banner that says 'freedom.' That can mean lots of things," he says, laughing.

It could mean freedom for separatist leaders currently on trial in Madrid's Supreme Court, which Codina sees as an "injustice" that has only deepened the resolve of independence supporters.

Impact of trial

Risking up to 25 years in jail, nine out of the 12 are in preventative custody, some of them for over a year.

Sitting in his Barcelona office on a busy thoroughfare, Jordi Menendez says the trial is so explosive it is impeding meaningful dialogue.   

"Because emotional, psychological elements prevail over the rationality needed in politics."

He worries people are self-censoring what they say in a climate that has seen separatists label those against their cause as "traitors."   

A socialist, he is part of a platform that seeks to promote a modern version of "Catalanism", a historical movement that protects the region's traditions, language and autonomy, as an alternative to independence.

He has co-edited a book -- "Catalanism, 80 visions" -- bringing together differing voices in Catalonia and has been promoting it, including in Mataro, where the gathering was his initiative.

'Learnt to live together'

In a sunlit cafe in Gracia, a trendy, pro-independence district of Barcelona, Najat El Hachmi, a Catalan author of Moroccan origin, says for some Catalans "independence is the last of their worries" -- and worries the issue relegates other issues such as poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, particularly among immigrant families like her own.   

"I see big problems that appear more pressing," she says, stressing that doesn't mean people must renounce aspirations for independence.   

By and large, though, El Hachmi says people's daily lives go on much like before.

"We've learnt to live together," agrees Jordi Obiols, a psychiatrist.   

"What there is though... among the population is fatigue, exhaustion, weariness, anger at how good we were, how good we could be, and how stupid that we are where we are."

By AFP's  Marianne Barriaux 



AFP 2019/04/08 09:31

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