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25 October 1979: Catalans and Basques choose autonomy

A Basque politician campaigning for the Statute.
A Basque politician campaigning for the Statute. / DIARIO VASCO
  • The people of two restive regions of Spain approved new devolved powers for their 'historical nationalities' via referendums

On 25 October 1979, the people of Catalonia and the Basque Country approved new Statutes of Autonomy for their respective regions.

Historically, both areas had a complex relationship with the Spanish state, but these became explicitly antagonistic under the Franco dictatorship. The dictator promoted the idea of a united and centralised Spain, which led to conflict with Basque and Catalan separatists and even those who simply called for a degree of regional autonomy.

Under the dictatorship, key expressions of the historical identities of both regions were prohibited, with bans on the public use of either language, and display of their flags, as well as brutal suppression of dissidents.

Franco died in 1975, by which time tension was mounting in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, with the radical Basque nationalist ETA notorious for its assassinations, including that of then-head of government Luis Carrero Blanco in 1973. The gradual process of democratisation, in order to satisfy the people of all of Spain, needed to make some concessions to Catalonia and the Basque Country. A new Spanish constitution was overwhelmingly approved in a 1978 referendum, and new statutes of autonomy for what the constitution referred to as 'nationalities' (Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia were distinguished from the other 'regions' of Spain by this term) were negotiated.

At the time of the referendums, the atmosphere was still very tense, especially in the Basque Country, with 1979 at the time ETA's deadliest year, the now defunct group having claimed 85 victims that year. Yet the plebiscites passed largely without incident. There were several bomb threats in the Basque Country, and more radical nationalists in both regions boycotted the referendums, leading to an abstention rate of just over 40% in both votes. Nevertheless, 90% of Basque voters and 88% of Catalans gave their approval to the new statutes of autonomy.

Both regional governments were given extensive devolved powers, with the Basque country essentially granted fiscal autonomy. Other regions, notably Andalucía, clamoured for similar recognition and power, and Spain's southernmost region got its own Statute of Autonomy in 1981, this being updated in 2007.