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The contemporary Government of Catalonia (20th and 21st centuries)

Catalonia’s 20th-century designs for autonomy, born of the debate over the territorial organisation of constitutional Spain, are based on contemporary social dynamism and respond to the needs of a modern democratic society. In contrast to its remote, unspecific, ambiguous historical experiences, Catalonia’s current autonomy scheme has followed a strict line of continuity.

Indeed, the clear assertion of the political personality of Catalonia is a common thread that can be traced throughout the 20th century, and which persevered despite the resistance of Spain’s centralist inertia, which was especially pronounced during two periods of democratic regression: the dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera (1923-1930) and the dictatorship of General Franco (1939-1975). There are clear links between the first electoral victories of political Catalan nationalism (1901-1907), which highlighted the inadequacy of the state framework, and Catalonia’s first opportunity for self-government (the Commonwealth of 1914-1925); between this experience and the establishment of the autonomous Government of Catalonia during the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939); and between the republican Government of Catalonia and its present incarnation, which is in fact an explicit restoration, made possible by the legal survival of a Government in exile during Franco’s internal control.

In the view of Catalan nationalist politicians, the Commonwealth was a modest but useful first step toward the autonomy of Catalonia, and the institution therefore inspired work to help it grow. On 25 November 1918, the Commonwealth approved the Conditions of Autonomy of Catalonia and drafted a Statute, which was approved by the representatives and members of parliament present at the assembly of 25 January 1919. This Statute, which contained 34 articles and several transitional stipulations, envisaged an autonomous government made up of a parliament, an executive and a governor-general; outlined an autonomous financial framework; and defined the powers of the state and the autonomous region. The draft was rejected by the Spanish executive and parliament without debate, but it remained a point of reference for the near future.

By signing the Pact of San Sebastián on 17 August 1930, the republican political parties of Spain agreed on an overall design for imminent regime change that included political autonomy for Catalonia within the much-desired republic. The municipal elections of 12 April 1931 were instrumental in toppling the monarchy. On April 14, Francesc Macià, the leader of Republican Left of Catalonia (the winning party in Catalonia) unilaterally declared “the Catalan Republic as a state of the Iberian Federation”, mere hours before the Second Spanish Republic was declared in Madrid. However, on April 17, Macià reached an agreement with representatives of the provisional Spanish government: the Catalan Republic would be given the more ambiguous name “Generalitat”, an inexact reproduction of the medieval name for the General Council.

One of the provisional Catalan government’s main missions was to draw up a statute of autonomy. A committee met at Núria on 20 June 1931 to finalize the draft. The text was scrutinised by the Catalan city councils and electorate, and both groups came out overwhelmingly in favour of it. The definition of Catalonia as an autonomous state within the Spanish republic and the image of the republic as a voluntary federation of peoples advanced to the Spanish constitutional process, which would be carried out by the parliament chosen in the general election on 28 June of the same year. The Constitution of the Second Spanish Republic that was ultimately approved on 9 December 1931 did not establish a federal state, but rather a “comprehensive state compatible with the autonomy of municipalities and regions”. Alterations therefore needed to be made to the Núria Statute, which was then put into effect on 15 September 1932 without being submitted to the Catalan electorate for another plebiscite.

The 1932 Statute defined Catalonia as an autonomous region with its own treasury and established the core institutions of its Government: the Parliament, the President and the Executive council. Responsibility for the regulation and development of this institutional framework was given to the new Parliament of Catalonia, which was elected for the first and only time during the republican period on 20 November 1932.

Francesc Macià, first president and restorer of the modern Government of Catalonia (1931-1933)

Francesc Macià, first president and restorer of the modern Government of Catalonia (1931-1933)

The events of April 1931 resulted in the provisional establishment of the Government of Catalonia, headed by President Francesc Macià. It consisted of a council or government; an assembly of representatives of the municipalities (known as the Provisional Council of the Government of Catalonia); and a series of commissioners who, as representatives of the government, were responsible for the services provided by the abolished Provincial Councils of Girona, Tarragona and Lleida. Meanwhile, the Provincial Council of Barcelona—and its offices at Plaça Sant Jaume—once again became the main base of autonomous power in Catalonia. Towards the end of 1932, when the Statute had been approved and the Parliament had been elected, the permanent Government of Catalonia was established, Francesc Macià was chosen as President and Lluís Companys was named President of Parliament. When Macià died on 25 December 1933, Companys became the president of the Government and would remain in power until the end of the Spanish Civil War, except for the period from October 1934 to February 1936, when the Statute was suspended. Joan Casanovas succeeded Companys as President of Parliament and would remain in office until October 1938 (except for the same period of suspension), at which time Josep Irla occupied the post.

The Interior Statute of Catalonia of 25 May 1933 established the basic autonomous institutions and the relationships between them. It also created the Executive council, headed by the President of the Government—or by a First Minister, as a delegate of the President—and composed of the ministers that would lead the Government’s different ministries. Because of the major upheavals of the 1930s, the expected transfer of powers had not been completed by the time the Government of Catalonia was abolished in 1939. From the very beginning, however, the state’s economic contributions for financing the transferred services were slow and always insufficient. The deficit therefore had to be offset by extraordinary contributions by the municipalities.

In early 1934, the most important laws regarding the organisation of the new Catalonia came into being. The transfer of law-enforcement services, which made it possible to eliminate the civil governors (January 11), led to the creation of the Security Committee of Catalonia, which coordinated the activities of the autonomous region and the state in this area. In accordance with the stipulations of the Statute, the Court of Review was created, with jurisdiction over civil and administrative matters controlled by the autonomous region. The Court consisted of one chairperson and twelve judges and had two courtrooms: the civil courtroom, responsible for applying Catalan civil law; and the contentious-administrative courtroom, responsible for defending the rights of citizens with respect to the government. In the area of education, the Government followed in the footsteps of the Commonwealth and promoted initiatives that went beyond the powers transferred by the central government. Another political front opened by the Government of Catalonia was territorial organisation and local-system reforms, with a municipal law that covered the aspirations of the municipalist movement.

On 4 October 1934, a republican government was formed that allowed the entrance of an anti-republic, anti-autonomy organisation. Two days later, President Companys unilaterally declared a “Catalan State of the Spanish Federal Republic”, but the uprising was aborted the same day by the captain general of Catalonia. Companys was ousted and imprisoned in an atmosphere of severe repression. From October 1934 to February 1936, with the Statute suspended, the office of the President of the Government was occupied by individuals appointed by the central government with the title of governors-general of Catalonia. After the Popular Front emerged victorious in the election of 16 February 1936, the suspension of the Statute was lifted. Companys was released from prison and returned to his post as President of the Government. On 18 July, a failed military uprising in Catalonia was immediately followed by a revolutionary outburst against the authority of the Government of Catalonia. Forces backed by the National Workers’ Confederation (CNT) imposed a Central Committee of Anti-fascist Militias, which acted as an authentic government power for the next several months. In September 1936, a coalition government was formed with leftist forces under the leadership of First Minister Josep Tarradellas. On October 24, the government issued a decree legalising revolutionary activities and attempted to re-establish a certain degree of normality. The events of May 1937 held up the revolution, and republican forces focused their activity on the war. As one of the last bastions of legality, Catalonia was forced to allow the central government to operate from its territory, which interfered with the powers of the Government of Catalonia. The situation became increasingly abnormal and desperate in the period leading up to the military victory of the rebels.

In 1938 the outcome of the Spanish Civil War was becoming clear. On April 5 in the city of Burgos, General Franco signed a decree abolishing the Government of Catalonia and declared that “the state shall regain the powers of legislation and enforcement that correspond to it in the common-law territories and the services that were transferred to the region of Catalonia”. The military occupation of Catalonia was completed in early 1939. The Government of Catalonia was abolished, its assets were seized and the Provincial Councils were re-established, with the offices of the Barcelona Provincial Council set up in the Palace at Plaça Sant Jaume. Thus began a period of deprivation of democracy and Catalan national rights, which lasted until the death of the dictator on 20 November 1975.

The top officials of the Government of Catalonia and the Spanish Republic were forced into exile. President Lluís Companys took refuge in France, but when France was occupied by the Germans during World War II he was arrested by the Nazis and turned over to Franco’s police. The President of the Government was taken to Madrid and later to Barcelona. He was summarily court-martialled and executed by a firing squad at the Castle of Montjuïc on 15 October 1940.

After the death of Companys, Josep Irla, the President of the Parliament of Catalonia elected in 1938, temporarily assumed the post of President of the Government in exile. In 1945, he formed a government that consisted of well-known figures but was understandably inoperative. After Irla’s resignation in 1954, a group of former members of the Catalan Parliament met at the Spanish Embassy in Mexico, which was maintained by republican officials because the Mexican government had not recognised Franco’s regime. The group decided to maintain the continuity of the institution and elected Josep Tarradellas, who had been the First Minister and Minister of Finance in 1937, to the post of President of the Government of Catalonia. President Tarradellas, who lived in France, was recognised as the guardian of the legal continuity of the Government by Catalan political forces. During the final stages of Franco’s dictatorship, he established contact with the new leaders who had emerged inside Catalonia.

Lluís Companys, the second president of the contemporary Government of Catalonia.

Lluís Companys, the second president of the contemporary Government of Catalonia.

General Franco died on 20 November 1975 and Juan Carlos I was immediately crowned King of Spain. These events opened a process of transition from the dictatorship to the restoration of democratic institutions, including the Government of Catalonia, in an atmosphere characterised by exhaustion with Franco’s regime and demands for citizens’ rights.

On 3 July 1976, Adolfo Suárez became Prime Minister of Spain and would take increasingly decisive steps toward reforms. He initiated contact with the democratic opposition forces and managed to pass a bill on political reform in Franco’s legislative assembly. The bill was then approved by referendum on 15 December. The political parties were legalised and Spain’s first democratic legislative elections since 1936 were held on 15 June 1977. The main task of the elected legislative bodies was to draft a constitution, which was approved by referendum on 6 December 1978. The Constitution of 1978 proclaims the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” but goes on to recognise the right of the “nationalities and regions” to self-government. This proclamation protected the generalisation of autonomies and, for better or for worse, changed the context in which the Government of Catalonia would be reborn.

On 21 May 1976, contacts between the Spanish democratic opposition and representatives of the Assembly of Catalonia and the Council of Political Forces of Catalonia resulted in Catalan demands for the provisional re-establishment of the Statute of 1932 and the formation of a Government of Catalonia. In the first democratic elections, held in 1977, the political parties that included these demands in their platforms scored overwhelming victories in Catalonia. Prime Minister Suárez immediately acknowledged the historical legitimacy of President Josep Tarradellas, who was summoned to Madrid on 28 June for negotiations on the formal re-establishment of the Government of Catalonia, without the participation of the Assembly of Members of Parliament and without restoring the Statute of 1932. On the national holiday of 11 September the same year, over one million people took to the streets in Barcelona to peacefully demand the Statute of Autonomy. Shortly thereafter, on 29 September 1977, a decree was issued to recognise Josep Tarradellas as President of the Government. Tarradellas was the only top republican official to return after forty years of exile to assume an important post in the emerging democracy. Tarradellas formed a government made up of representatives of all of the parliamentary political forces (except the People’s Alliance), which operated with very few powers and very little room to manoeuvre.

The Assembly of Catalan Members of Parliament created a commission of experts that drafted a Statute of Autonomy. This “Commission of Twenty” met at the government-owned hotel in Sau and produced a text that was accepted by the Assembly of Members of Parliament on 16 December 1978, was discussed and approved by the constitutional commission of the Spanish Parliament on 13 August 1979, and was approved by referendum on 25 October of the same year. On 18 December 1979, the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia was sanctioned by King Juan Carlos I. The first autonomous elections were held on 20 March 1980. The Parliament convened on 10 April and elected Heribert Barrera as President of Parliament. Jordi Pujol, the leader of the political force that received the most votes, was elected as the 126th President in the history of the Government of Catalonia.

Protest march in Barcelona on 11 September 1977 demanding the restoration of a Statute of Autonomy and the institutions of the Government of Catalonia and the return of the exiled President.

Protest march in Barcelona on 11 September 1977 demanding the restoration of a Statute of Autonomy and the institutions of the Government of Catalonia and the return of the exiled President.

Forty-one years after the abolition of Franco from Catalonia's political and national institutions, the people of Catalonia saw the restoration of a democratically elected Parliament, Government and President. President Pujol formed a coalition government between his party, Covergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) and Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC). In 1984 a third party was incorporated, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), in coalition until 1987.

In a context of major change spurred by the end of the dictatorship, the tensions of the cold war and the phenomenon which has later become known as globalisation, Catalonia recovered official and civil institutions which had been done away with or ill-fated during the times of Franco, it entered into a process of modernisation and opened itself up to foreign markets. The Catalan language and culture, repressed for so many years, also became revitalised.

Jordi Pujol was president between 1980 and 2003. Convergència i Unió was the majority force in the Parliament for five terms of office. During Pujol's consecutive terms of office the Catalan autonomy became politically consolidated and Catalonia saw significant modernisation programme.

After the Catalonia Parliamentary elections on 16 November 2003, the Catalonia Socialist Party -Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC-PSOE), ERC -Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and the green party Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verds (ICV) reached an agreement to form a coalition government. The Parliamentary agreement between the three forces is known as the Tinell Pact because it was signed in the noble hall of the old Royal Palace of Barcelona. This pact made it possible for the Presidency of the Generalitat to go to the socialist candidate, Pasqual Maragall, who had been mayor of the city of Barcelona from 1982 to 1997. His term of office was marked by a strong impulse in social policies and, particularly, the reform of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy. The Parliament of Catalonia approved the reform proposal on 30 September 2005. This proposal was negotiated with the Spanish courts. The final resulting text was approved by the people of Catalonia in a referendum held on 18 June 2006 and entered into effect on 9 August of that year.

After the approval of the Statute in 2006, Pasqual Maragall called early elections for 1 November and announced that he would not be running again. He was substituted in his post by José Montilla, who had been the leading socialist candidate. Montilla was invested as president of the Parliament on 23 November 2006, with the votes PSC-CpC, ERC and ICV-EUiA, defending the so-called Entesa Agreement programme, and took possession as the 128th president of the Generalitat on the 28th of that month.

During the 2006-2010 legislature, government initiatives included the 2006 Statute and the related legislative topics and issues of jurisdictional authority which accompanied it, negotiating an agreement for a new financing model, and implementing social policies. Later, starting in the first quarter of 2008, the Government shifted its priorities to fighting the financial crisis, in particular focusing on its effects on Catalan businesses and families.

When the legislature ended on November 28, 2010, Convergence and Union (Convergència i Unió) carried off the new elections to the Parliament of Catalonia with undeniable success, winning 62 of 135 parliamentary seats. Pre-inaugural debate to elect Artur Mas i Gavarró, the candidate to the presidency, took place between December 20-23. Artur Mas was sworn in as President of the Government of Catalonia on December 23, 2010, after the Socialist Party abstained during the second round of voting, and officially commenced his term as President at a ceremony in the Saló de Sant Jordi in the Palau de la Generalitat on December 27, 2010.

On 11 September 2013 1.5 million people demonstrated in favour of Catalonia becoming a new European state.

The importance of the change in Catalonia's relationship with Spain implied by this massive show of support made it necessary in the view of Artur Mas, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, to call early elections to determine real levels of support for the proposal, through direct suffrage. The political parties whose election manifestos included a commitment to further the process of changing Catalonia's relationship with Spain and implement the right of Catalans to decide their future as a country obtained 107 seats out of a total of 135.

Convergència i Unió won the elections with 50 seats, a record 68% turnout being recorded. Mr Mas was appointed President of the Government on 21 December 2012, with the support of his own parliamentary group (Convergència i Unió) and that of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya. He took office formally in a ceremony in the Sant Jordi Room at the Palau de la Generalitat on 24 December 2012.

Early elections to the Parliament of Catalonia were held on 27 September 2015 and were won by the Junts pel Sí coalition, consisting of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, with Artur Mas standing as the coalition’s candidate for the presidency of the Government of Catalonia. During the first investiture debate, on 10 and 12 November 2015, the candidate put forward by Junts pel Sí, Artur Mas, was not invested as president during the second round of voting, with 62 votes in favour and 73 against. After a month of negotiations with CUP, an agreement was reached to fulfil the democratic mandate of 27 September with a new candidate for the presidency of the Catalan Government, Carles Puigdemont, the former mayor of Girona and president of the Association of Municipalities for Independence.

The candidate’s investiture debate was held on the last possible day before the legal deadline for calling new elections to the Parliament of Catalonia, Sunday 10 January. Puigdemont was invested as the 130th President of the Government of Catalonia in the first round of voting with the support of 70 of the 135 members of the House – two more than needed for investiture by absolute majority – with 63 votes against and two abstentions by members of the CUP. Puigdemont was sworn into office during a ceremony in the Sant Jordi Hall in the Palau de la Generalitat on 12 January 2016.

Façade of the Government Buildings in Sant Jaume Square in Barcelona.

Façade of the Government Buildings in Sant Jaume Square in Barcelona.

Gallery of presidents

All the presidents of the Generalitat of Catalonia since Francesc Macià (1931).

Update:  23.06.2014