Most people probably know the story of Don Quixote, the old Spanish gentleman who lives “somewhere in La Mancha” and who, driven mad by reading too many books about tales of chivalry, rides out on his horse to seek adventure and right wrongs in the world in the name of his damsel, Dulcinea, along with his down to earth and trusty squire, Sancho Panza.
On his travels and in his quest to be a gallant knight from the long gone days of chivalry, Don Quixote confuses a shaving bowl for a helmet which he puts on and wears thereafter, and then most famously, mistakes a windmill for a giant, which he charges at, falling off his horse in the process.
The book by Miguel Cervantes, a one armed former soldier who wrote it in his fifties in poverty, is considered the first modern novel. One of the questions which has puzzled scholars for centuries is whether Don Quixote is actually mad, or just pretending to be mad. Whether his madness is real or feigned (the same could be said of Hamlet). Does he really believe he lives in the long departed age of chivalry, or is he just pretending to be mad, or just a dreamer? Sometimes Don Quixote seems quite rational and even wise; at other times, directly insane.
Looking back at the events over the last week in Spain which have driven the country to the brink of the abyss, one can only ask the same question about Spanish President, Mariano Rajoy, as well as Catalan nationalist leaders Carles Puigdemont and Oriol Junqueras, and in fact, the Spanish political establishment in general. Are they mad, or are they merely pretending to be mad?
When two million people from one of the two most important economic and cultural regions of Spain turn out to vote at an unofficial referendum, do you see a mass violation of the constitutional order, or instead an urgent need to change the Spanish Constitution of 1978? Do you send the police and beat them with truncheons, or do you send a cross-party team of negotiators?
And, conversely, when another three million voters stay at home at the same referendum, do you take that to mean they tacitly agree with the idea of plunging Catalonia and Spain into constitutional chaos by declaring Unilateral Independence with not even 50% of the vote?
A shaving bowl or a helmet? A giant or a windmill? Mad, or merely pretending to be mad?
In any case, one thing is for sure; there are no giants to be seen on the Spanish political stage these days, not one politician with the weight and charisma and cross party support who might intercede to get Spain out of the mess which Mariano Rajoy’s corrupt government has dragged the country into. The Spanish political establishment have failed collectively, Rajoy particularly, and let down the people of Catalonia and Spain, not to mention the rest of Europe.
Rajoy, with his authoritarian tendencies, is the main culprit of this extremely serious situation, which will almost certainly see Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution invoked this week – the suspension of Catalan autonomy – and possibly even Article 116 – which allows for a State of Emergency to be declared.
Rajoy’s neo-Francoist PP have done nothing to solve the situation and everything to make it worse, refusing even to sit down and discuss a possible binding Catalan referendum, and openly provoking and goading the Catalan people into a response at every possible turn. Even after the terrible terrorist atrocity in Barcelona just a few weeks ago, Mariano Rajoy could not pass up the opportunity to goad the Catalans, describing Barcelona as “that corner of Spain”, which is some way to refer to one of the most charming and iconic cities in all of Europe.
But nor are Carles Puigdemont and Oriol Junqueras blameless either. It is democratically indefensible to make a unilateral declaration of independence without a big majority in favour of independence. Such a majority simply does not exist in Catalonia today, with the country split down the middle on the matter. And it is also highly dangerous to resort to calling mass demonstrations all of the time, where emotional crowds blinker reasoned thinking and democratic debate. Those are the politics of the past.
Puigdemont and Junqueras are faced with an inflexible and undemocratic government in Madrid; but the response cannot be to equal that government in inflexibility and authoritarianism, which is exactly what they are doing.
Last night, Spanish King Felipe VI joined the club too of those who are mad or are merely pretending to be mad. In his address to the nation, the Spanish King firmly sided with the discourse of Rajoy’s extreme right-wing government and their intransigent position on the future of Catalonia. There was no call for dialogue from the King, no call for a cooling down period on both sides, which is what is required, by a man who is supposed to represent the whole of Spain and Spanish society, including Catalonia. What there was instead was an order, even a military order perhaps, from the Head of the Spanish Armed Forces, for the forces of the State to impose control over the government of the Generalitat and re-establish the Constitutional order of 1978 order on Catalonia.
It sounded to me like a prelude to disaster. By the end of the week, the tanks could well be on La Ramblas and Puigedemont and Junqueras in prison or else on the run.
Mad or merely pretending to be mad? A shaving bowl or a helmet?
At the end of his travels, Don Quixote comes back home, battered and bruised and dies in his bed of fever. Before dying, he renounces all tales of chivalry and gallantry, and reneges on all his past deed and exploits.
With the reckless and irresponsible actions of Spain’s political class, Catalans and Spaniards seem destined to enter into a turbulent period in which they will end up bruised and beaten, like Don Quixote.
There has already been violence and bloodshed. There is going to be more.
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