Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Catalan Government: an Historical and Democratic Legitimacy

In the ongoing so-called Catalan process for democracy and in the face of the Spanish government's denial of it —along with that of the vast majority of the Spanish political class— there are some who have tried to focus the debate solely on legality versus legitimacy, ignoring all too often that this is also a debate on popular will versus political imposition, on the power of democratic legitimacy over an uncompromising system. Even so, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy's attempt at denial attests to the fact that history cannot be distorted with impunity nor legitimacy misrepresented. At least not here and now, in twenty-first century Europe. 

129th President of Catalonia,  Artur Mas
129th President of Catalonia,
Artur Mas
Artur Mas, the President of Catalonia, is not the head of a regional government created thanks to and arising from the 1978 Spanish Constitution, as central government ministers and unionist pundits stubbornly affirm over and over again. Artur Mas is the 129th President of the Generalitat, the historical term of medieval origin for the Catalan legislative and executive branches of government. 

The Catalan Corts Reials were founded in the thirteenth century —well before their time, even in the European context— as a representation of the three estates: the ecclesiastical, the military, and the civil estates. And it is from this parliament that the king later accepted the establishment of a governing body, if only at first almost exclusively for tax collection. This Diputació del General or Generalitat, had Bishop Berenguer de Cruïlles as its first President in 1359. The Corts and the Generalitat gradually accrued more institutional and political weight, weakening royal power, until in 1714, at the end of the War of Succession and with the victory of the Bourbon dynasty, the historic rights of Catalonia, including the parliamentary institution and government, were obliterated and Catalonia was institutionally assimilated into Spain. 

It was not until the proclamation of the Spanish Republic in 1931 that these rights were again recognized, even if only partially, with the restoration of both Parliament and Generalitat. It is no coincidence that Catalonia was the only region with institutions of home rule during the Republic, apart from the Basque Country, which did not obtain them until 1936 when the Civil War had already begun. 

123rd President of Catalonia,  Lluís Companys
123rd President of Catalonia,
Lluís Companys
In 1939, following the victory of fascism that dictator General Franco embodied, the Parliament and the Generalitat —the two institutions we now recognise as our government— were once again abolished. But this abolition did not mean obliteration: they continued to exist and resist in exile. The 123rd President of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, who was first appointed in 1933, maintained the office until Franco had him executed by firing squad —after having been arrested by the Gestapo in France— in 1940. 

Mr Companys was succeeded by Josep Irla, the last Speaker of the Parliament before the end of the war: in accordance with Catalan law, the Speaker filled the void left by the President of the Generalitat automatically and with full authority, if it was infeasible for the chamber to convene as was the case. Mr Irla exercised the Presidency of the Generalitat of Catalonia in exile from 1940 until he resigned in 1954, already ill and only four years before his death. 


124th President of Catalonia,  Josep Irla
124th President of Catalonia,
Josep Irla
Josep Tarradellas —who had been a Minister of the Generalitat during the Republic and with Mr Irla— was elected by the Members of the Parliament convened in Mexico and he assumed the responsibility of keeping the institutional representation alive. He did so for several decades from his home in Saint-Martin-le-Beau in France. In fact, if Mr Companys represented the link of perseverance between the Republican Generalitat and exile, Mr Tarradellas led the way to its return. 

His administration did not always receive the approval of all Catalans in exile —for example, he did not appoint a government but led the institution exclusively from his presidency. But when Gen. Franco died in November 1975, at the beginning of the so-called Spanish Transition, Mr Tarradellas knew how to play the cards of historic rights under the safeguards of democracy. Thus, as of the beginning of 1976, he made ever closer contact with the political forces both from the Republican period as well as anti-Francoist forces, and began to negotiate with the new powers of the state, especially with Spain's then President Adolfo Suarez.

President Tarradellas returning from exile in 1977
President Tarradellas returning from exile in 1977
When the Congreso de los Diputados, the Spanish parliament, initiated its constituent period after the first elections in June 1977, Tarradellas concluded the negotiation process with a surprise trip to Madrid, where he met with King Juan Carlos and President Suarez. Upon his return to Barcelona on the 23rd of October 1977, after having obtained the recognition of his status as president of the Generalitat, he was greeted with a massive popular reception. 

In an unfortunately exceptional case —in the sense that even today the Franco regime's acts have not been formally repealed or declared null and void, beginning with President Companys' execution— Mr Tarradellas was able to obtain the repeal of the law that abolished the Catalan institutions, and also got the Generalitat re-established, as well as getting himself appointed —by the King— as its provisional President. 

The historical and democratic legitimacy of the Government of Catalonia was thus recognized even before the enactment of the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and the framework to be generalized which would later grant autonomy to regions throughout Spain. 

125th President of Catalonia,  Josep Tarradellas
125th President of Catalonia,
Josep Tarradellas
Mr Tarradellas appointed an interim government —made up of the Catalan parties that had obtained representation in the 1977 Spanish general elections— and called elections to the Parliament of Catalonia as soon as the new Spanish legislation in 1980 allowed, giving way to a new period of democracy for the institutions of the Generalitat. 

All this thus collides with what those who repeatedly say that Catalonia's self-government was created by the Spanish Constitution of 1978. It is neither born of, nor is it legitimized by it. That the Spanish constitutional monarchy recognized the Generalitat as a system of self-government for Catalonia, in the person who represented the succession of the Republican era, is not just a singular feature. It is the assumption of legitimacy prior to the constitutional period. Prior historically and prior legally. Prior politically, too. A legitimacy that comes from afar and that no central government can appropriate or destroy. It would not be the first to attempt it. It will not be the first to fail. 

This legitimacy comes from history, and beyond that from the peoples' sovereignty as expressed in the Parliament of Catalonia. A legitimacy that allows —and obliges— the Government of the Generalitat to call the citizens to freely and democratically express their will for the future.


Josep Bargalló

Josep Bargalló Valls
@josepbargallo
First Minister and Minister of the Presidency of Catalonia 2004-2006
Minister of Education of Catalonia 2003-2004
Councillor in Torredembarra Town Council (1995-2003)
President of the Ramon Llull Institute (2006-2010)
From 2010 he is Professor at the University Rovira i Virgili

More by this author:
Catalonia's President Lluís Companys



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