We at Redfield & Wilton Strategies recently conducted a poll in Spain to find out how the public feels about some of the most contentious issues in Spanish political life, including Catalan independence, the historical legacy of Franco, and public discourse surrounding the Basque separatist terrorist group ETA and its victims.
Our poll found that a strong plurality of Spanish respondents (47%) oppose holding a referendum in Catalonia on the subject of Catalan independence.
Just over a quarter of respondents (28%) said they were in favour of an independence referendum, and a further 19% neither agreed nor disagreed with holding one. Younger respondents were somewhat more likely than older respondents to support a referendum, with 37% of those aged 18-24 expressing support, compared to 28% of those aged 65 and above.
At the same time, among respondents in Catalonia, a majority (58%) said they support holding a referendum on the subject of Catalan independence. This response does not necessarily mean that a majority favour independence, but rather that they would like to have the opportunity to cast a ballot on this matter. By contrast, only 19% of respondents in Madrid supported holding a referendum on Catalan independence, with a majority (57%) opposing.
Among the major political parties (those that run candidates everywhere in Spain), those who voted for Unidas Podemos in the November 2019 election were the most likely to support a referendum on Catalan independence (47%), followed by those who voted for PSOE (28% support). Meanwhile, only 18% of those who voted for PP and Ciudadanos and 17% of those who voted for Vox said they would support a referendum in Catalonia. This variation is present despite the fact that all of these parties are formally opposed to Catalan independence.
Although Basque independence has not been a major subject of debate in Spain recently in the same way as Catalan independence, there are nonetheless still parties with parliamentary representation (such as EH Bildu) whose ultimate goal is Basque independence. Our poll found that a plurality of Spanish respondents (45%) oppose holding a referendum on Basque independence, compared to 25% who expressed support for holding a referendum.
These findings are very similar to the ones for Catalonia, suggesting that the public is not approaching the Catalan and Basque independence movements each in a sui generis way, but rather through the lens of opposing the fragmentation of Spain altogether.
Once again, the youngest group of respondents (those aged 18-24) were 10% more likely to support a referendum on Basque independence than the oldest group of respondents (those aged 65 and above). As was the case in Catalonia, a plurality of respondents from all age groups (other than those aged 18-24) said they oppose holding a referendum on Basque independence. Likewise, those who voted for Unidas Podemos were the most supportive of a Basque referendum (38%), followed by those who voted for PSOE (28%), PP (19%), Ciudadanos (17%), and Vox (17%). As with Catalonia, all major Spanish political parties are formally opposed to Basque independence.
Among respondents in the Basque Country, 41% support and 31% oppose holding a referendum of Basque independence. Interestingly, a greater proportion of respondents in Catalonia (52%) than in the Basque Country (41%) think that the Basques should have a referendum on their own Basque independence. This phenomenon is not present in the reverse direction, as a greater proportion of respondents in Catalonia (58%) than in the Basque Country (43%) support holding a referendum in Catalonia on Catalan independence.
Beyond Catalan and Basque separatism, another contentious issue in Spanish politics today is the way in which the legacy of Francisco Franco is remembered by the public. Our poll found that 35% of respondents think the Spanish public is too generous in its historical assessment of Franco, whereas 25% think it is too critical in how it remembers Spain’s former ruler. Meanwhile, only 27% said they think the Spanish public is about right in its historical assessment of Franco.
Older respondents were somewhat more likely than younger respondents to think that Franco is remembered more critically than he should be (31% for those aged 65 and above, compared to 22% of those aged 18-24). Nonetheless, a plurality of those aged 65 and above (36%) still thinks that Franco is remembered by the Spanish more generously than he should be. Overall, the split of our results suggests a country that is roughly divided in thirds in how they think the historical memory of Franco is being handled.
There were also clear partisan divisions when it came to evaluating how Spaniards remember Franco’s rule. Whereas a strong majority of those who voted for Unidas Podemos (72%) think that Franco is remembered too generously by Spaniards, a majority of those who voted for far-right party Vox (61%) think he is remembered too critically. Among the two more centrist parties, a plurality of PSOE voters (45%) said Franco is remembered too generously, whereas a plurality of PP voters (38%) think he is remembered too critically.
Lastly, another controversial development in contemporary Spanish politics is the increasing frequency in which centre-right and right-wing politicians are making allusions to Basque separatist terrorist group ETA and its victims as part of their political discourse. For example, as part of her campaigning for the recent regional elections in the Basque Country and Galicia, Macarena Olona, a prominent politician from Vox, made a series of provocative speeches across Basque cities. She referred to separatist politicians as “ETA’s spawn,” implying that many Basque nationalist politicians sympathised with the terrorist organisation.
Our poll found that 36% support and 37% oppose Olona’s use of the term “ETA’s spawn” to refer to Basque nationalist politicians. This degree of support for Olona’s comments is particularly surprising, as they are particularly incendiary within the context of the Basque reconciliation process in which separatist groups were brought into the Spanish political process to enable their peaceful participation in the region’s governance.
Her controversial rhetoric clearly has support within her party: 79% of Vox voters said they support Olona’s usage of the term “ETA’s spawn”. They are joined by a majority (54%) of PP voters. On the other hand, a strong plurality of those who voted for PSOE (48%) and a majority of those who voted for Unidas Podemos (72%) oppose Olona’s choice of words. Given the delicate nature of the reconciliation process, a higher proportion of respondents in the Basque Country (55%) than in Spain as a whole (37%) disapprove of the use of this term by the Vox politician.
More generally, our poll also found that a plurality of Spaniards (42%) disapprove of how references to ETA and its victims have become increasingly common in Spanish political discourse. Meanwhile, 26% said that they approve of this development, including 53% of Vox voters and 37% of PP voters. Meanwhile, majorities of PSOE voters (51%) and Unidas Podemos voters (80%) said they disapprove.
Ultimately, despite the delicate nature of the various issues covered in our poll, our results show that the majority of Spaniards favour reducing confrontation and incendiary language, and they also wish to preserve the status quo when it comes to the autonomous communities of Catalonia and the Basque Country. The Spanish public does not want referenda on Catalan and Basque independence, and it does not approve of the increased frequency of references to ETA and its victims by politicians. However, on the issue of how to remember Franco, the country remains as divided as ever, with a third saying he is remembered too generously, a third saying he is remembered too critically, and the remaining third saying Franco and his legacy are remembered appropriately. Over the coming months, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies will continue to track movements in Spanish public opinion.