Winston Churchill once wrote that Russia is “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The same could be said of Spain, not just in its recent past. but today as well.
Both countries are multi-ethnic, with a strong centralising dynamic that leads to perennial friction between the dominant ethnic group and those agitating for devolution or secession in the historic nations and regions of the country. And both Russia and Spain have thrown up strong leaders (Stalin and Franco respectively) willing to impose that central authority by force. Although Russia has lost many of its historic nations/regions, it now has a leader in Vladimir Putin willing to use force to regain lost ground. While Spain has hung onto its historic nations and regions, it has yet to throw up a forward-thinking leader willing to give up that lost ground in the first place.
As a result, corruption at the centre has grown, along with economic stagnation, and although violent terrorism is now a thing of the past, public support for greater autonomy and even outright independence has reached a post-Spanish Civil War peak.
The corruption and economic stagnation has not only produced secessionist pressure in various parts of Spain, but the rise of new parties seeking to break the grip of the old conservative and socialist parties, which still (just about) dominate the Spanish parliament in Madrid.
On the far left is the Podemos coalition, which recently propped up a minority Socialist government, whilst on the centre-right is the Ciudadanos, which has supported the Conservatives (People’s Party) in the way a rope supports a hanging man, hoping eventually to replace it. Now, a new right-wing party aclled Vox, established in 2013 by disgruntled members of the old People’s Party, is rising in the opinion polls after a sensational breakthrough in regional elections at the end of last year.
The Catalans, Basques, Galicians, Asturians, among others, make up the parliamentary balance of power.
Without doubt, the defining issue in contemporary Spain is the role of the central government in the affairs of the historic nations and regions of the country.
And an ongoing trial of 12 Catalan nationalist leaders and activists organised by Madrid has led the Catalans and other ethnic separatists to join forces with the right-wing opposition and bring down the minority Socialist government led by Pedro Sanchez. A general election will now be held at the end of April this year.
Madrid has long resisted the idea of an independence referendum for Catalonia fearing other historic nations and regions (particularly the Basques) would follow suit provoking some kind of radical backlash from conservative elements as a result.
Despite the recent police and judicial crackdown in Catalonia, there is no chance of any kind of military coup akin to the failed 1981 effort. Having said that, the political situation could easily polarise at the ballot box in April leading to tensions on the streets.
Whether Spain remains in stalemate or moves towards accommodating secession remains to be seen, but any twenty first century rerun of the ‘Spanish Civil War’ will be quite different.
This 1982 British TV documentary illustrates how far modern Spain has moved, despite contemporary events in the country.