‘Spain steals from us!’ The ‘populist drift’ of Catalan regionalism


This article analyses to what extent traditional mainstream Catalan regionalist parties and groups have adapted their discourses and collective performances in what might be seen as a ‘populist drift’ from regionalism to secessionism. This strategic move has been favoured by increasing party competition among these actors and would respond to the grievances reinforced by a context of austerity policies, political corruption, and a long institutional conflict on the centre–periphery. Our contribution is twofold. First, we show how parties and movements may combine regionalist and populist arguments in order to adapt their language, stressing the will of the Catalan people and its opposition against the Spanish political elites. Second, we explore how secessionist parties and groups have innovated their mobilization repertoires in order to fit with this populist-oriented discourse, employing mass mobilization, referenda simulations, and a populist political style in the institutions. Overall, Catalan secessionism presents a peculiar case where mainstream ruling parties adopt populist rhetoric and new mobilization practices to maintain power in adverse times.

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Fig. 1

Source: Authors’ own based on data from the ICPS (www.icps.cat)

Fig. 2

Source: http://www.archivoelectoral.org/campana/2012-espana-regional/308/imagenes/


  1. 1.

    In her last speech for the 2017 regional campaign, Marta Rovira, ERC’s secretary general, asked for the vote against those who put Oriol Junqueras in jail, namely “the Catalan establishment, the elite, the oligopolies, and the Spanish government”. (Source: El Periódico, 20-12-2017 http://www.elperiodico.com/es/politica/20171219/erc-anuncia-relevo-establishment-catalan-del-80-ataca-psc-convergencia-6506435.).

  2. 2.

    In his speech 2 weeks before the 2014 referendum simulation, Artur Mas identified Mariano Rajoy (Spain’s prime minister) as the “real opponent and powerful” enemy of the Catalan people. This idea has been rephrased several times. (Source: http://www.elmundo.es/cataluna/2014/10/15/543e249aca474168738b4575.html.) Mas has also presented CDC as the true party “fighting against the powerful”. (Source: http://www.cataloniatoday.cat/article/9-politica/844293-mas-avisa-que-el-24-m-catalunya-es-juga-saber-quanta-gent-dona-suport-al-proces.html.)

  3. 3.

    It is a commonplace to compare the allegedly higher amount of corruption in the rest of Spain to its lower levels in Catalonia. Carme Forcadell, leader of the ANC, stated that “it is true we have corrupted politicians in Catalonia—something which is employed [by our adversaries] to erode our self-esteem—but there are many more in Spain, so do not pay attention to those that are employing the issue against us”. (Source: http://www.naciodigital.cat/noticia/52836/no/som/espanyols/evangeli/segons/forcadell.)

  4. 4.

    Source: http://politica.e-noticies.es/ciu-compara-la-espana-subsidiada-con-la-cataluna-productiva-78541.html.

  5. 5.

    Source: http://www.lavanguardia.com/politica/20160831/4115172888/tarda-rajoy-debate-investidura.html.

  6. 6.

    Source: http://www.naciodigital.cat/noticia/74423/junqueras/votar/dret/preval/sobre/qualsevol/llei.

  7. 7.

    Junqueras stated “the enemies of freedom and democracy are those who fight to prevent Catalonia to hold a vote to decide its future”. (Source: http://www.regio7.cat/arreu-catalunya-espanya-mon/2013/09/11/junqueras-diada-demostrara-mon-nostra/243777.html.)

  8. 8.

    After being forced to resign as prime minister, Mas warned about the role of political parties, as they were likely to get involved in internal fights and competition, becoming an obstacle for the secession. (Source: http://www.diaridegirona.cat/catalunya/2016/03/30/mas-diu-que-proces-complica/774976.html.)

  9. 9.

    Statement by Francesc Homs, regional government spokesman, 12 October 2014. (Source: http://www.ara.ad/premium/tema_del_dia/Francesc-Homs-alhora-volent-ho-saconsegueix_0_1264673554.html.)

  10. 10.

    Speech 16th June 2015. Source: https://cat.elpais.com/cat/2015/06/16/catalunya/1434486492_301887.html.

  11. 11.

    In fact, figures about participants have always been very controversial, as different sources have given highly fluctuating estimates. For instance, at the 2012 demonstration, the organizers reported 2 million attendees and the regional police estimated 1.5 million, while the national police and some non-partisan sources reduced the amount to 600,000 or even lower. (Source: http://www.europapress.es/nacional/noticia-diada-2017-grafico-intento-representar-objetivamente-evolucion-asistentes-20170909085120.html.)

  12. 12.

    The first initiative was held in Premià de Mar in 2009 and then was replicated in several other Catalan towns, supported by the local representatives and organized by pro-independence groups. This initiative was not accepted in the major cities, and the participation rates were also highly asymmetric (Muñoz and Guinjoan 2013, pp. 50–51). It is estimated that around 800,000 people participated in all of them. The last and more important of these was the one held in Barcelona a few weeks before the 2011 local elections. Although 240,000 people supported independence, the overall participation rate was very low (18%).

  13. 13.

    The results provided by the regional government may be consulted at www.participa2014.cat. The level of turnout is an estimate by the media, as the government never provided official results.

  14. 14.

    As stated by Carme Forcadell, the ANC’s main leader, in 2014, “Our adversary is the Spanish state. Let’s be clear about something: the Spanish parties in Catalonia, such as Citizens and the Popular Party—that should not be called PP of Catalonia but PP in Catalonia—are our adversaries, the rest is the Catalan people”. Some years later, when Forcadell had become the parliament’s speaker, she regretted these words. (Source: eldiario.es, 26 September 2017: http://www.eldiario.es/politica/Forcadell-PP-Ciudadanos-adversarios-Cataluna_0_690831925.html.)

  15. 15.

    After the declaration of independence, support for the EU among pro-independence supporters declined slightly. Former regional prime minister Carles Puigdemont recently proposed the possibility of a vote about the EU in Catalonia, although the other parties and regionalist leaders did not back the proposal.

  16. 16.

    Among other controversial aspects, the transition law reinforced the prime minister’s powers to appoint judges and implemented a unilateral breakup with the Spanish public administration and institutions. (Source: El País, 28 August 2017: https://politica.elpais.com/politica/2017/08/28/actualidad/1503904357_215435.html.)


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Correspondence to Astrid Barrio.

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Barrio, A., Barberà, O. & Rodríguez-Teruel, J. ‘Spain steals from us!’ The ‘populist drift’ of Catalan regionalism. Comp Eur Polit 16, 993–1011 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41295-018-0140-3

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  • Populism
  • Political parties
  • Interest groups
  • Mobilization
  • Rhetoric
  • Catalonia