Catalan vote marks the end of an era

Ban on bullfighting in Catalonia exposes deeper tensions as the region continues to fight for indepe

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Centuries of cultural tradition came to a close last week when Catalonia became the first region in Spain to vote in favour of banning bullfighting. In recent weeks, political tensions have been high in Spain, following the Constitutional Court's decision to negate Catalonia's legal status as a nation.

Though many will simply see the ban as an attempt to reassert Catalan identity, it has gone a step further, politicising one of Spain's most culturally divisive traditions.

The vote took place as the result of a petition signed by 180,000 people, and was brought before parliament by the animal rights activist group Prou! (Catalan for "enough") in November 2008. As groups of protesters congregated outside parliament in slaughtered bull costumes, 68 members of parliament backed a legislative ban while 55 voted against it. Nine MPs abstained.

The majority of votes in favour came from Convergència i Unió (CiU), the Catalan nationalist party, whereas those against came from the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC), the Catalan Socialist Party. But together there were enough to sound the death knell for bullfighting in the region. Following further approval, the ban is due to take effect from January 2012 and will see Barcelona's one remaining bullring, La Monumental, close its doors.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that just this year Madrid awarded bullfighting elevated cultural status, a move that angered animal rights activists, as it gave the activity protective rights normally reserved for the city's most historical and important monuments and listed buildings. The difference in popularity is clear: Madrid's Las Ventas bullring attracts approximately 19,000 season ticket-holders, whereas La Monumental attracts roughly 400.

The outcome was all the more significant contrasted with the Catalan demonstration on 10 July, which went virtually unnoticed by comparison. The demonstration was staged in protest at the Constitutional Court's recent revisions to the 2006 Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia, rejecting parts of the statute as unconstitutional.

The notion of Catalonia's legal status as a nation has been rejected, thus stripping it of certain taxation and judicial powers it has enjoyed over the past four years and denying Catalan status as the region's first language. Thousands of Catalans congregated on the streets of Barcelona, waving high their esteladas (a flag symbolising Catalan independence) in protest.

It was a different matter the next day, when Spain's victory in the World Cup brought thousands on to the streets, waving Spanish flags. In spite of the notorious rivalry between Madrid and Barcelona's football teams, it was thought that the win might have been enough to unify the country. However, there were still a number of Catalans rooting for the Dutch, and more who were unsure whether they should be seen to be supporting Spain or not. Many were angry that the euphoria of the victory overshadowed the previous day's protest.

The timing of the ban has caused many to see it as a direct retaliation against the constitution, which continually curtails its powers. Yet it is both that and so much more. As the Catalan newspaper el Periódico pointed out, the view among foreign publications that Catalonia has an obsession with imposing bans (referring to its moves to ban the burqa) is farcical and somewhat naive.

Following the vote, Catalonia's president, José Montilla, who voted against the ban, warned people against interpreting the debate as a "thermometer for relations between Catalonia and Spain". The reaction across Spain was varied, with traditional bullfighting regions such as Andalucía and Murcia denouncing the ban, while others would have preferred it if the matter had remained out of the political domain.

As the world speculates what the ban means for the rest of the country and whether it signals the end of an era for a tradition that is so intrinsically Spanish by nature, it is clear that this is not just a question of politics. In terms of what the future will hold, perhaps the vice-president of the Generalitat, Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira, who voted in favour of a ban, explained it best when he commented that "torturing animals as a spectacle is not compatible with 21st-century life".

"All traditions," he added, "however Catalan they may be, have to adapt to the times we live in."

Ruth Collins is a freelance journalist living in London. She contributes articles on Afghanistan, Africa, Europe, Latin America and Russia to a variety of publications. She has lived and worked in Spain and Russia, and speaks five languages, including Catalan, Portuguese and Russian.