As Barcelona bans bullfights, reeling Spain seeks its national soul
Spain's young democracy has experienced both economic boom and euro-crisis bust over the past decade, shaking its national psyche. What will Spain's future look like?
As Barcelona's final bullfight ended on Sept. 25 to a house ovation, the festive crowd poured out of the Monumental Plaza bullring carrying the matador on their shoulders. Euphoric shouts of "Olé!" and "Torero!" filled the air as these fans bid farewell to Spain's iconic pastime, which won't be allowed in this region after a 2012 ban goes into effect.Skip to next paragraph
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For Manuela Delgado, a housewife who traveled across the country with her husband to witness the historic finale to centuries of Spanish bullfighting in this autonomous region of Catalonia, the event struck at the heart of the national psyche. "Catalonians are taking away the bulls, something that belongs to all of Spain," she said.
Her grievances were not an issue of nationalism or animal rights. Instead, they echoed a more profound sense of confusion that has swept Spain's young democracy. Over the past decade, the country has careened from boom times to bad times, becoming a key liability in Europe's debt crisis. Now, as it comes to terms with a Nov. 20 election that turned the political map on its head with the election of a conservative prime minister, the question for many here is what kind of Spain will emerge.
Across the political spectrum, people are scrutinizing the country's very identity. Ms. Delgado was inspired to act when a cultural institution she cherished was threatened. Others are unnerved by the growing popularity of regional pro-independence parties. Polls indicate that the majority of people under age 35 feel detached from leaders.
The conservative Popular Party unseated the Socialist Party and will hold an absolute majority in parliament. With 72 percent voter turnout, conservatives got nearly the same number of votes as in 2008. Socialists lost 35 percent of their votes, which went to parties in the center and the more radical left.
Franco repressed regional identities
Dozens of interviews across the country paint a picture of uncertainty and discontent. "Something broke in Spain," says taxi driver Francisco Fernandez. Mr. Fernandez says Spaniards have no choice but to bring leaders "down from the clouds."
Spain's modern democracy started with the 1975 death of Gen. Francisco Franco. The fascist dictator came to power after the Spanish Civil War in 1939 and brutally repressed civil rights and regional identities to keep the country unified. Mistrust crossed all lines, political and regional, as a result.
After Franco's death, nation building was a priority. Spaniards agreed to put off sensitive issues like federalism and national symbols to let democracy transition naturally in a country with four official languages and many distinct cultures. To this day, Spain's national anthem lacks lyrics.
Spain's experiment with democracy nearly collapsed in 1983 with a failed military coup, but all worked more or less smoothly starting in 1986, when Spain entered the European Union.
Economic growth was strong at first, fueled by EU funding and then by a booming construction sector. Not even recurrent terrorist attacks from Basque separatists and Islamist radicals – including the 2004 Al Qaeda-inspired Madrid train bombing that killed nearly 200 people – derailed a confident Spain. Priorities changed: Spain built an expansive welfare system, and the government borrowed cheaply and invested in infrastructure, education, health, salaries, and pensions.