Thursday’s regional elections in Catalonia provide another test of separatist sentiment after Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s removal of the Catalan government. Barry Kitchener reports from Barcelona as 5.3m people decide whether or not to go to the polls.
Catalonia is a nation that commemorates defeats and idolises martyrs.
At least that’s how many of the roughly 2m Catalans who want independence from Spain see it.
In their eyes this turbulent year, which started with such promise, ends with the yoke of Spanish oppression as heavy as ever.
The independent republic seemingly proclaimed on October 27 after a controversial referendum has turned out to be a mirage in the desert.
Neither the leadership nor the separatist masses had the will or the power to defy direct rule by the central government.
Ex-president Carles Puigdemont fled to Brussels, while others in his government stayed and were sent to prison on remand. Some fear things could get even worse before 2017 is over.
Polls have suggested that their worst nightmare — the unionist Citizens party winning most votes in this Thursday’s regional elections imposed by Madrid — may come true.
Even if pro-independence parties prevail, their leaders face long jail sentences and have publicly renounced a unilateral break with Spain.
In the past few months, Spanish nationalism has mobilised like never before on the streets of Catalonia and separatism’s dreamed of “Denmark in the Mediterranean” threatens to turn into an Ulster-lite.
With the republic on hold for now, freeing the jailed and bringing back the exiled is the new rallying cry.
Yellow ribbons symbolising solidarity with the “political prisoners” have graced most pro-independence lapels this winter.
They first appeared when two leading pro-independence civil society figures known as ‘The Jordis’ were remanded on sedition charges.
Jordi Sanchez, of the National Assembly of Catalonia (ANC), and Jordi Cuixart, of Omnium Cultural, stand accused of orchestrating a mob to harass Spain’s Civil Guard.
The ribbons became even more widespread after eight members of the Catalan government were also remanded on charges of rebellion, sedition, and embezzlement.
Pep Guardiola, Manchester City’s manager and unofficial global ambassador to the independence movement, can be seen sporting one on the touchlines of the English Premier League.
Other shows of support have been more surreal, with makeshift cells set up in town centres where passers-by can spend the day.
A mass protest last month saw hundreds of thousands light up the streets of Barcelona with their mobile phones to demand the prisoners be freed.
Thousands travelled recently on a pilgrimage to Brussels to march with Mr Puigdemont and the other leaders in exile.
Those beaten by Spanish police during the independence referendum on October 1 have also gained the status of national heroes.
Images of elderly ladies with their heads cracked open for trying to vote did more than anything else to put the Catalan crisis on the map.
It gave credence to separatists’ claim to be living in “Francoland”, a dictatorship disguised as democracy which threatens Catalan language, culture and identity.
University professor Josep Maria Nadal, who was hospitalised on October 1, has said: “People discovered that if they hit you and you have your hands in the air, you are beaten up once, but those who hit you are beaten up 10 times because the world sees that they are savages.”
Disputed figures released by the Catalan Generalitat (the regional government) claimed that more than 1,000 people, including two children, were hurt in the violence.
Self-sacrifice, however, is proving a double-edged sword in the often uneasy alliance between the movement’s broad church of left- and right-wing factions.
A post-election debate looms to decide who suffered most at the hands of the Spanish: those who fled into exile or those who went to prison.
Picking up on this at a rally for the electoral list led by Mr Puigdemont in Barcelona last week, writer Guillem Martinez joked: “Suffering must be to Catalan culture what ganja is to Jamaica’s.”
The point is backed up by many of the symbols that Catalan nationalists carefully chose to represent their country.
Catalonia’s Diada, or national day, is held on September 11 to mark the surrender of Barcelona to the Bourbon dynasty in Spain’s War of Succession in 1714.
A majority of Catalans backed the wrong side in the war and the Principality of Catalonia lost its ancient freedoms and institutions following defeat.
Separatism’s view of the matter was summed up thus by civil society leader Quim Torra: “We have lived under occupation by the Spanish since 1714.”
During recent Diadas, tributes have been paid to the fallen heroes of the war at the site where they were buried next to Santa Maria del Mar church.
A memorial inaugurated there in 2001 carries the inscription: “In the graveyard of the mulberry trees no traitor shall be buried; even if our flags are lost, it will be the urn of honour.”
Another heroic, failed rebellion inspired ‘Els segadors’ (‘The reapers’), the official national anthem of Catalonia.
Written in the late 19th century, it harks back to a peasant uprising which led to the proclamation of a Catalan republic under French protection in 1641.
Its first verse states: “Catalonia triumphant shall again be rich and bountiful. Drive away these people, who are so conceited and so arrogant.”
Given the context “conceited and arrogant” clearly refers to the Castilians.
The belief in a “rich and bountiful” Catalonia once the invader has been made to leave is essential to pro-independence sentiment.
In the build-up to this year’s crisis, one of its most popular slogans has been “Espanya ens roba” (“Spain robs us”).
Many believe poorer regions in Spain leech off Catalans’ hard work to indulge in a lazy lifestyle.
Claims of “expoli fiscal” (“fiscal plunder”) grew louder after the country was plunged into recession, especially on the right of the independence movement.
The xenophobic “them against us” tone of the lyrics of ‘Els segadors’ is also indicative of some attitudes in today’s pro-independence movement.
Sometimes the distaste for “those from beyond the Ebro river” includes ugly undertones of racial supremacy.
For instance, deposed vice president Oriol Junqueras, one of four leaders still in jail,once wrote: “Catalans are closer genetically to the French than to the Spanish.”
Junqueras is on the right of the party he leads, ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia). Those more to the left of the independence movement have their own set of priorities.
Their ideal is of a more democratic state closer to home which can provide social justice and bring an end to Spain as a “prison of peoples”.
A minority of hard leftists who fly Soviet Union flags alongside the pro-independence “estelada” largely dictated the tempo and tone of this year’s crisis.
Catalan separatism’s left-wing tradition also has its own famous martyrs and glorious defeats.
Chief amongst these is Catalan president Lluis Companys and the “Catalan state within the Federal Spanish Republic” he proclaimed during a coup in October 1934.
The uprising lasted only 10 hours and was put down without significant bloodshed by Spain’s then republican authorities.
Years later Companys — an ERC man of the left — was arrested by the Gestapo in France, taken to Barcelona’s Montjuic castle and executed by the regime of dictator Francisco Franco.
He famously told the court martial which sentenced him to death by firing squad: “I will die for Catalonia and for what she represents.”
These days in sports-mad Catalonia, perhaps only footballers can rival martyrs for the love and admiration of the separatist bloc.
English manager Bobby Robson spent one season at FC Barcelona in 1996/97 and proclaimed that “Catalonia is a nation and Barcelona is its army”. However, Barça as the army of Catalonia is perhaps pushing it a bit too far. The club itself has offered only lukewarm support towards the independence movement.
Hardline separatists slammed it for going ahead with a league game behind closed doors on the day of the referendum.
But the line between football
and politics has been increasingly blurred on the terraces at the Camp Nou.
Many fans now start chants for independence in the 17th minute and 14th second of home matches — in memory of the defeat of 1714.
Cries of “Llibertat” (“Freedom”) have also begun to break out during quiet spells in a home game.
Eric Juliana of Barcelona’s La Vanguardia newspaper evocatively linked the behaviour of separatist crowds to Catalonia’s sports stadium culture.
He described the scene as independence supporters wearing “estelada” independence flags around their necks waited for the republic to be proclaimed on October 10 in downtown Barcelona.
When it was postponed, they left “with their heads down, as after a bad afternoon at the Camp Nou”.
Aside from the terraces, the pro-independence movement has come to rely on Catalonia’s public television to get its message across.
Bosses at TV3, the main Catalan channel, have strenuously denied it has a bias in favour of separatism.
Catalan TV critic Ferran Monegal begs to differ, describing it as a “cheerleader for the [independence] process”.
One of the publicly-funded station’s most popular programmes is satirical comedy show Polonia.
It delights in mocking politicians, but on the night after eight former members of the Catalan government were remanded in prison, the show was cancelled.
A message on its Twitter account explained: “There will be no programme today. We don’t feel like laughing.”
Catalonia’s martyrs of 2017 look set to be sung for some time to come — not least on its airwaves.
PRISONERS — Four still remain behind bars: Ex-vice president Oriol Junqueras, ex-interior minister Joaquim Forn, former National Assembly of Catalonia leader Jordi Sanchez, and former Cultural Omnium boss Jordi Cuixart.
‘The Jordis’ are being held at Soto del Real prison on remand charged with sedition. They are accused of organising a crowd on September 20 to harass members of the Civil Guard who were carrying out a raid to prevent the independence referendum.
Junqueras and Forn are held at Estremera jail. They are facing charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement. Getting them home has become the movement’s top priority after its bid for independence failed. Separatists insist they are “political prisoners” who have been caged on remand for the ideas.
TV3 — Catalan public TV is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the pro-independence cause. The Catalan government reportedly handed out €7m in grants to chosen media last year, while TV and radio in Catalonia account for 31% of all regional broadcasting money in Spain.
Reporters Without Border’s EU head said in October: “The climate for the free exercise of journalism has been tremendously corrupted by extreme polarisation in Catalan politics and society. The regional government’s eagerness to impose its own narrative on to the local, Spanish and international press has crossed red lines, and the intimidating manoeuvres of the central Spanish government have certainly not helped.”
PEP GUARDIOLA — The Barcelona legend and current Manchester City manager is considered an icon in his homeland. Despite his current support for the independence cause, he appeared 47 times for the Spanish national side and was part of the Spain team which won gold at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
In a speech in favour of the independence referendum on October 1 he described Spain as an “authoritarian state”. Guardiola also spoke out against police violence that took place that day, telling reporters: “They hit people for going to vote. Not for robbing banks, for going to vote.”
In recent months he has worn the yellow ribbon in solidarity with jailed Catalan leaders on the touchline.
The unionists come out of the closet. Barry Kitchener looks at the voters who stayed at home last time.