Friday, 7 March 2008

7 March 2008

BARCELONA: The last time that I was here, Spain was still under the rule of the Fascist dictator General Francisco Franco. It was more than 35 years ago – and it was illegal to speak the Catalan language in public, or to fly the Catalan flag.

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that things have changed a bit since then. Barcelona is now not only one of Europe’s most vibrant and successful cities, it is also the proud capital of a resurgent Catalunia, which enjoys a considerable degree of autonomy from the central government in Madrid, but where some people hope that one day they’ll be an independent nation again, as they were until the early 18th century. (Think Scotland, but with more sunshine.)

And that’s one of the main reasons why I’m here. On Sunday, Spanish voters will be asked to elect a new parliament – for the past four years, the Socialist party led by prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has been in power, but if he’s to win again this time, he’ll need as much support as he can get from the Catalans.

The signs are that he’ll probably scrape through, but it could be tight. The Spanish economy is in the doldrums: house prices are falling, unemployment and inflation rates are rising, economic growth is down. And there’s rumbling unhappiness about immigration: the construction boom of the past decade has been largely fuelled by migrant labour from Morocco, Latin America, and Romania, and 10 per cent of the Spanish population were born abroad. (Yes, that includes all the Brits who’ve retired to the Costa del Sol.)

Last night, I was at a huge Socialist party rally in a sports hall just next to Barcelona’s vast Olympic stadium. More than 25,000 of the party faithful were there, waving flags (more Catalan flags, in fact, than red flags), and cheering party leaders as they forecast victory on Sunday.

Four years ago, as you may remember, the last general election was held in the immediate aftermath of the Madrid train bombings in which nearly 200 people were killed. The right-of-centre government of Jose Maria Aznar was unexpectedly kicked out by voters furious at its response to the attacks: its original claim was the bombings were the work of the Basque separatist movement ETA, whereas as it soon became clear, they were carried out by Islamist jihadists linked to al-Qaeda.

This time, Spanish voters have a chance to make their decision in a more tranquil environment. But like voters in many other European nations – Italy, where an election is due in just over a month’s time; France; Germany; and Britain – they are uncertain about their future. A long run of economic growth is coming to an end, and large movements of immigrants, as a result of globalisation and the expansion of the European Union, mean there are questions about the nature of their societies.

Here, more than three decades after the death of Franco, voters also have a chance to show whether Spain can now be regarded as a mature European democracy. After the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo last month, Catalans – and Basques in the north of the country – have to decide how hard to push for more autonomy, or even independence. As a Catalan nationalist MP said to me yesterday: “We are not Kosovo, but we are encouraged.”

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