Artur Mas had always been in the shadow of the legendary Catalan President Jordi Pujol, who had presided over Catalonia from 1980 to 2003, and I suppose that was one of the reasons why Mas never made much of an impression on me.
I vaguely remember Pujol naming him Conseller en Cap, effectively Deputy Prime Minister in 2001, and when he stood as President of the Generalitat in Pujol's place in 2003, I was hoping he would fail more than anything else. After 23 years of Pujol's conservatism and dominance of Catalan politics by his Convergència i Unió party, I felt it was time for a change. His main rival was former socialist Mayor of Barcelona Pasqual Maragall and given my left-wing leanings, it was pretty clear where my support would go.
There was also something rather unsubstantial about Artur Mas in comparison with the elder statesmen of Catalan politics. I'd always been something of an admirer of Pasqual Maragall, the crusty old socialist who had brought the Olympics to Barcelona and who also happened to be the grandson of the great Catalan poet Joan Maragall, author of works of the importance of the anthem Cant de la Senyera and the vitriolic Oda a Espanya. This was when the S and C in PSC seemed to carry equal weight and the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya was both a socialist and Catalanist party. It was the only political option that represented both the Catalan identity and the mainly Spanish-speaking working classes, who had migrated to the Barcelona Metropolitan Area since the 1950s.
Artur Mas also paled in comparison to Convergència founder and leader Jordi Pujol, who had been President of the Generalitat since 1980 and was already a Catalan institution when I arrived in Barcelona in 1988. His eccentric gnome-like looks, wild hair and finger-jabbing gestures didn't make him the most attractive of politicians but Pujol typified an old eccentric deep Catalonia that certainly resonated with a large traditional section of the Catalan population.
Neither Maragall nor Pujol were in favour of independence for Catalonia, though, but at the time very few people were. Maragall is known for the phrase "I'm a Catalanist who is not a nationalist" and his Catalan socialist PSC was very much in line with the Spanish socialist PSOE party, first under Felipe González and then under José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, particularly when it came to politics on a national level. As mayor of the Barcelona cosmopolitan melting pot, it made sense not to be too exclusively Catalan, so I was interested to see the contribution he'd make as President of the Generalitat.
Pujol, on the other hand, represented a much less tolerant version of Catalanism but despite his strange looks, he certainly wasn't lacking in charisma. An early impression of him back in 1989 was seeing him on TV news report standing on a car bonnet berating Spanish-speakers at a Feria de Abril in one of the satellite towns on the outskirts of Barcelona. A Christian ex-doctor and founder not only of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya but also of the Banca Catalana, he seemed to sum up everything that was vaguely unpleasant but yet quite compelling about conservative Catalan culture.
I liked it when he said that "Anyone who spoke Catalan to their children could consider themselves a Catalan" because it opened a door to me and many other new arrivals with different origins. I didn't like the CiU policy of pacting with whichever government was in power in Madrid in order to gain minor benefits for Catalonia, though. This practice was known as Peix al Cove, literally Fish in the Basket, but closer in meaning to Take the Money and Run! in standard English and revealed a degree of hypocrisy hard to stomach, particularly when in later years the ally in Madrid was the openly anti-Catalan Partido Popular under José Maria Aznar.
In comparison to these two towering figures of Catalan politics, Artur Mas just seemed too lightweight, too young and good-looking to be taken seriously, a pre-packaged product that wouldn't be around for long. In fact, I heard rumours at the time that Mas was just keeping the CiU leadership seat warm for Jordi Pujol's son, Oriol, the true heir to conservative Catalanism, who would inherit the throne after a perfunctory pause. One of the political skit programmes on Catalan TV portrayed Mas as an automaton, a faceless robotic technocrat. My view, as a casual observer on Catalan politics, was that Artur Mas didn't have what it takes to leave a mark on Catalan politics.
This view looked like being confirmed during the election campaign in the autumn of 2003, which was marked by the vacuum left by Jordi Pujol. The PSC led by Pasqual Maragall were clear front runners and the left-wing Catalanists of Esquerra Republicana continued advancing in popularity and eating away at the traditional CiU vote.
When voting day came on November 16th, the results weren't as damning for Artur Mas and CiU as expected. The PSC was the most voted party with 31.16% followed very closely by CiU with 30.94%. However, due to a quirk of parliamentary seat distribution throughout Catalonia, CiU ended up with 46 seats compared to PSC's 42.
This was a respectable first result for Artur Mas but with 135 deputies in the Parliament of Catalonia, 46 seats was a long way from an absolute majority. After 23 years in power, CiU had no obvious allies and at the Pact of the Tinell, PSC came to an agreement with Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and the eco-socialists of Inciativa per Catalunya-Verds (ICV) to form a Govern Catalanista i d'Esquerres, a Left-Wing Catalanist Government, with Pasqual Maragall as President of the Generalitat. Popularly known as the Tripartit, this seemed like a step in the right direction with the Government of the Generalitat reflecting the political and demographic make-up of cosmopolitan Barcelona rather than the archaic conservatism of rural Catalonia.
As Leader of the Opposition, for Artur Mas it meant being sidelined politically, at least as far as the general public were concerned. The two main media figures of the Tripartit were obviously President Pasqual Maragall and the always controversial leader of Esquerra Republicana, Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira. My impression at the time was that even ICV leader Joan Saura seemed to get more media coverage than Mas.
The main political issue of the first Tripartit legislature was the negotiation of Catalonia's new Statute of Autonomy, known as the Estatut, with José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's PSOE government in Madrid. Artur Mas was one of the three main Catalan negotiators along with PSC's Manuela de Madre and ERC's Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira. In January 2006, it was Artur Mas who, after a one-to-one meeting with Zapatero, came back to Catalonia with the definitive text of the Estatut that would be voted on that June.
The final version of the Estatut ceded on many key points and was a much gentler document than the one originally drafted by the Catalan Parliament. This, and the fact that Mas and Zapatero had also come to an agreement on future Peix-al-Cova-style collaborations between CiU and PSOE, provoked extreme annoyance amongst the ERC ranks and is probably the root of Esquerra's almost obsessive mistrust of Mas.
To the casual observer, it was an early example of the pragmatic Artur Mas overcoming obstacles and just getting things done. I've also since learned that Artur Mas strongly resented Esquerra's pact with PSC. They had chosen socialism over Catalanism and deprived Mas of a presidency, which he felt he had legitimately won.
ERC ended up recommending their supporters to vote against the Estatut in the referendum, which first led Maragall to expel them from his government and finally to call early elections for September 2006. The elections were held at the height of a vitriolic anti-Catalan campaign run by the Partido Popular, who had appealed against the Estatut through the Spanish Constitutional Court.
The elections to Parliament of Catalonia of September 2006 were a case of history repeating itself. The CiU share of the votes increased slightly and although they were the most voted party with 48 seats, ERC decided to pact with PSC and ICV to form a Tripartit for the second time. Once again left-wing loyalties and an evident mistrust of Artur Mas and CiU obviously outweighed any temptation Esquerra might have had to take part in a Catalanist alliance.
The second Tripartit is better known for its in-fighting and failures than any political achievements. Maragall had been replaced by José Montilla from the Spanish PSOE wing of PSC, who increasingly distanced themselves from Catalanism. So Esquerra's decision to exclude Mas from the presidency again was even more unforgivable.
However, for Artur Mas, the second Tripartit was a defining period during which time he began to stamp his own mark onto the leadership of CiU. His proposal of "refounding Catalanism" clearly came from personal conviction under what he termed the Casa Gran del Catalanisme also brought to light internal differences within the Convergència i Unió federation.
Until that point I'd always seen CiU as a single party rather than a federation of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), presided by Artur Mas, and Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC), whose general secretary was Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida. The idea behind the Casa Gran del Catalanisme, which was inspired by the anti-Catalan campaign that was still raging throughout Spain, was to form an alliance of Catalanist forces, including members of CiU as well as like-minded people in ERC, PSC, ICV and independents. Independence was still a long way from being on Artur Mas's agenda but even so Duran i Lleida and Unió decided not to take part.
The 2008 General Elections to the Spanish Congress came and went without too much fuss. Zapatero continued as President of Spain and Duran i Lleida remained as leader of the CiU block in Madrid. Mas continued developing his concept of the plurinational Spanish state, whereby without being independent Catalonia would have a greater role to play. It is in this period when he first began using the expressing "The Right to Decide" with respect to Catalonia's status as a sovereign nation.
In the summer of 2010, Spain dropped a cultural and political bomb on Catalonia. After a delay of four years, the Spanish Constitutional Court declared most of the Estatut unconstitutional and a schism opened in Catalan society. The main political difference was now clearly no longer between left and right but rather the divide between Catalanists and Spanish nationalists.
Two weeks after the ruling a massive demonstration under the slogan "Som una Nació. Nosaltres Decidim" - "We Are a Nation. We Decide" - was held in Barcelona and more than a million Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona. Whilst admitting to having been moved by the demonstration, Mas was typically prudent in his response and spoke of Catalan dignity rather than independence. Later that summer, Spain won the football 2010 World Cup in South Africa and Spanish football shirts were conspicuous by their absence on the streets of Catalonia.
Voices in favour of independence for Catalonia had been growing in strength since the first informal ballot on independence in the coastal town of Arenys de Munt in September 2009 but in the wake of the Constitutional Court ruling and with elections to the Parliament of Catalonia due in November 2010, they got louder. In August, Ara o Mai (Now or Never) was formed and was the first organisation to call for a single pro-independence candidacy with all the Catalanist parties standing together on one list. However, the distance between CiU and ERC remained as wide as ever.
During the campaign, many of the candidates appeared on the programme Tengo Una Pregunta Para Usted - I Have a Question For You - which was shown on Spanish national public television channel RTVE1 and involved the audience asking questions to the candidates. In the programme dedicated to Artur Mas, the questions covered the typical topics of social and welfare policy and solutions and although support for Catalan independence still only stood at around 25% at the time, the question was bound to come up.
A member of the audience directly asked Artur Mas whether or not he would vote in favour of independence for Catalonia in the case of a hypothetical referendum. After skirting around the issue by saying that he was standing as President of Catalonia and so had to represent the views not only of his own party Convergència i Unió but in the case of being elected of all Catalans, Mas openly admitted that if it was down to him personally he would definitely vote in favour of independence. However, he was clear that he would not initiate a process that might end up dividing Catalan society.
In answer to a later question in the same programme, Mas made reference to the adverse ruling on the Estatut and use stated very clearly that Catalonia was a nation with the right to decide its own political future. Once again he stated clearly that he didn't want to create tension and so considered an improvement of the fiscal pact between Catalonia and central government the main objective for the time being. He also mentioned that he didn't celebrate Spain's football World Cup victory that summer and certainly didn't go out onto the streets waving a Spanish flag.
Statements made around the same time in the biography La Màscara del Rei Artur, written by political commentator Pilar Rahola, confirmed Mas's commitment to Catalan independence. "The idea of independence is not for the impatient, but is a question of perseverance."
The elections for the Parliament of Catalonia of November 2010 were third time lucky for Artur Mas. With 62 seats and over 38% of the votes, CiU were the clear winners and given that the Tripartit concept had burnt itself out, CiU were able to form a government. Artur Mas became President of the Generalitat of Catalonia for the first time.
However, 62 was still 6 seats short of the absolute majority of 68 and CiU would need the support of other parties in order to push through their policies. Unfortunately, given Esquerra's unwillingness, this support came principally from the Partido Popular. Unaware of the rivalry within Catalanism, the impression to the casual observer was that we were back with a traditional conservative CiU government of old.
The crisis was a definite complication for Artur Mas's first government, which like in the rest of Spain was forced to introduce severe cuts in social and health services. The situation wasn't help by the Generalitat's growing debt and it became increasingly difficult to pay civil servants' salaries. In March 2011, after 100 days in government, Artur Mas made a speech blaming Catalonia's woes on central government but for most people the left-right debate had taken centre stage again.
In May 2011, the 15-M or Indignats movement of peaceful protests against the cuts organised its first demonstrations throughout Spain and a revolutionary camp was set up in Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona. The attempted eviction by the police on May 27th resulted in injuries to 84 protesters and 37 police officers. Convergència i Unió's right-wing Catalanist government was definitely seen as the enemy, with Interior Minister Felip Puig being a particular object of hate. Things reached a head on June 15th when demonstrators tried to stop deputies entering a session of the Parliament of Catalonia and President of the Generalitat Artur Mas was only able to gain access by helicopter.
Not surprisingly, Mas's first Diada on September 11th 2011 was a relatively low-key affair with a demonstration of only around 10,000 in Barcelona. Catalan independence was not the central point on the agenda with the main bone of contention being yet a Spanish Supreme Court obliging the use of Castilian Spanish in Catalan schools. In his Diada speech, Artur Mas said that "The national transition is happening. A greater feeling of sovereignty and freedom is setting in the minds of the Catalan people" but at the time a clear Catalanist project seemed a long way away.
In many respects the turning point was the Spanish General Elections of November 2011 in which, despite the economic crisis, Mariano Rajoy's Partido Popular won a comfortable majority. Apart from the still socialist province of Seville and the nationalist Basque Country, almost the whole of Spain's political map turned blue. In Catalonia, Convergència i Unió won in the provinces of Girona, Tarragona and Lleida whilst PSC retained control in the their traditional stronghold of Barcelona province.
With such a strong majority culled from the rest of Spain, it was clear that the Partido Popular didn't need Catalan support in order to be able to form a government. Added to natural feelings of antipathy towards the Catalans, no concession needed to be made in order to win votes. Only three days after coming to power, Rajoy refused to release €1,450,000,000 to Catalonia from the competitivity fund. The same thing happened when Artur Mas asked for €5,000,000,000 from the FLA, the liquidity fund for the autonomous communities and to make matters worse central government refused to settle debts to Catalonia that it had accumulated over previous budgets.
Not only did Catalonia pay around 8% of its yearly GDP amounting to around €16,000,000,000 in taxes that it didn't get back but central government refused to bail out a badly hit Catalan economy when requested. Artur Mas's negotiations with Madrid would centre on gaining the more equitable tax-investment relationship known as the fiscal pact. Meanwhile, throughout 2012, the calls from Catalan society for independence began to get louder.