For most of 2012, Catalonia was just one of many political concerns in the wing mirror of the Spanish government. The region’s premier, Artur Mas i Gavarró, had been pressing for increased economic powers for some time, arguing that Catalonia did not receive enough investment from the Spanish state in exchange for the taxes it paid. For the government in Madrid, this was nothing new or particularly worrying.
But on September 11, as Catalonia celebrated its national day, the Diada, hundreds of thousands of people marched through the streets of Barcelona, behind a banner calling for independence for the region. This outpouring of separatist feeling surprised the world – and the rest of Spain.
Mas did not take part in the march. His Convergència i Unió (CiU) alliance had an ambivalent attitude towards breaking away from Spain, having traditionally favoured the policy Catalans call peix al cove: seeking incremental, often economic, benefits from Madrid.
But the 56-year-old industrialist’s son saw his moment. He swiftly took it upon himself to become the political figurehead of an independence movement which had swelled among Catalonia’s grass roots.
“We haven’t gone crazy,” he said shortly after the Diada, “Catalonia needs its own state.”
In a matter of weeks, Mas suddenly went from being seen as a rather dry, business-friendly Catalan conservative, to a modern-day revolutionary who might redraw the maps of Spain and Europe through his promise of a referendum on independence.
Critics saw in Mas’s sudden conversion to outright separation from Spain a handy distraction from Catalonia’s economic woes. With a €42-billion debt, the regional government was busily implementing one of Spain’s stiffest austerity programs, sparking anger and protests. What’s more, Mas had asked Madrid for an emergency €5-billion loan. The sovereignty issue, many said, allowed him to heap the blame on Madrid for the region’s economic troubles, while boosting his own flagging popularity.
But Catalan disenchantment with Madrid was genuine. Economic grumbles were accompanied by anger at political meddling, particularly the Constitutional Court’s striking down of parts of a new statute for the region in 2010. Also, a generation of Catalans who had grown up feeling culturally separate from Spain had come of age.
Mas’s insistence on representing the will of his people saw his stock among nationalists soar, and in an audacious move, he called early regional elections after a fruitless meeting with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in which he requested increased powers for Catalonia.
But the November 25 election was when the Catalan leader fell back to earth. The electorate failed to give his CiU the “extraordinary majority” he had requested in order to push ahead unilaterally with the independence referendum. Moreover, his alliance actually lost a dozen seats, which went to other, more radical nationalist parties.
The result weakened Mas on several levels: in his own party, among Catalans who seek independence and on the broader stage of Spanish politics. It also means the push for independence has been slowed, with Mas now forced to work with Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC).
This year, Mas has brought Spain’s territorial conundrum back into focus, as well as the related questions of language, culture and identity that accompany the Catalan issue. 2012 has seen him make the gamble of his career, taking him from independence hero to humbled coalition-seeker in a matter of weeks.
While for some, Artur Mas remains the daring leader Catalonia needs, for others, his commandeering of independence sentiment is a cynical political exercise. But no one will deny that in recent months, he has managed to place himself and his north-eastern region at the heart of Spanish politics.