A day of two halves

On Wednesday, Catalonia's annual Diada (national day) saw around 600,000 people take to the streets of Barcelona to show their support for the region's independence movement. That statistic - substantially smaller than in previous years - can be used to support two differing (although not mutually incompatible) arguments: either that the number of Catalans in favour of Catalonia splitting from the rest of Spain is falling rapidly; or alternatively, that there is still strong support for a movement that has suffered heavy setbacks since the illegal independence referendum of October 2017. Both perspectives have a share of the truth.

The more common interpretation of the lower turnout, certainly in the international press, has been that Wednesday's Diada demonstrates dwindling support for the independence movement. On the face of it, this is unarguably true: in 2012, in the heady early days of the secessionist drive, 1.5 million people hit the streets of Barcelona to show their support for the "independistas"; two years later, as then Catalan president Artur Mas prepared to hold an independence referendum deemed illegal by Spanish courts, that figure rose to 1.8 million - over one million more people than took to the streets this week.

But since then, infighting amongst the secessionist movement and its heated clashes with the central government in Madrid have left the "independistas" reeling, unable to take their project forward.

In October 2017, Catalonia's then-president, Carles Puigdemont, held an illegal independence referendum, which saw 92% of a 43% turnout vote in favour of splitting from Spain. The aftermath was sad and shambolic, as Mariano Rajoy's government imposed centralised control of the region and leading secessionists fled the country or were imprisoned. Neither side came out of it well: Rajoy appeared as a belligerent reactionary, while the "independistas" displayed a complete lack of regard for Spanish law. When the region's pro-secession government unilaterally declared independence from the rest of Spain on October 27th of that year, it did so despite a lack of majority support among Catalans. Now led by Quim Torra, the secessionists still lack such backing: a poll commissioned by the region's government this July revealed that 48.3% of Catalans oppose independence, while 44% are in favour.

Yet equally unavoidable is the conclusion that, despite the independence movement's recent setbacks and diminished support, there is a strong base in favour of secession. To put this spin on Wednesday's turnout, over half a million people STILL took to the streets, even though an independent Catalan Republic looks further away than ever from becoming reality. The biggest challenge for Spain's next prime minister - and for Torra, who has revealed himself to be as allergic to compromise or negotiation as Puigdemont was - is to somehow solve the political problem that just won't go away. Next year's Diada turnout will reflect their success or failure.