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Towards autonomy: the Commonwealth of Catalonia, 1914-1925
Enric Prat de la Riba, the first president of the Commonwealth (1914-1917)
Josep Puig i Cadafalch, president of the Commonwealth (1917-1924)

The introduction of universal male suffrage in 1890 and the unification of the plains of Barcelona, which created a municipal entity of a half million people, substantially changed the political scene in Catalonia’s capital and, indirectly and progressively, the rest of Catalonia. After the clean municipal elections held in 1901, the dynastic parties found themselves cornered and the structure of a specific party-based system came into view for the first time, with the Regionalist League and the republicans emerging as the dominant forces. Following this electoral victory, which was repeated in 1903, the Provincial Councils, previously reviled by regionalists, became a target of conquest. After the city of Barcelona, the Councils became the second most important platform for reconstructing the political personality of Catalonia.

In 1903, Minister Antoni Maura presented a project for local-government reform that called for “municipal commonwealths”, which would provide services of common interest. In 1904, representatives of the League presented an amendment to Maura’s project that requested that the right to form commonwealths be extended to the Provincial Councils in order to offer technical, agricultural and commercial education; create libraries and museums; preserve monuments; promote reforestation; carry out public works of all sorts; and create other institutions to encourage exportation. Catalan Solidarity was formed in 1906, the year of the first general assembly of the Provincial Councils of Spain. At this assembly, Enric Prat de la Riba presented a design for provincial commonwealths that would give them authority over public works, communications, public welfare and university education and provide them with the tax money needed to carry out these activities. Catalan Solidarity scored a major victory in the provincial elections of 10 March 1907, giving Prat de la Riba the post of president of the Provincial Council of Barcelona. He was re-elected repeatedly until his premature death in 1917. One of Prat de la Riba’s first decisions was to create the Institute of Catalan Studies, which was located at the Palace of the Government of Catalonia. The new version of Maura’s project presented to the Courts in June 1907 recognised the right to form provincial commonwealths. In fall of 1911, the four Provincial Councils of Catalonia agreed on the conditions for forming commonwealths. Prat de la Riba presented these conditions to Prime Minister José Canalejas as “the most solid, irresistible proof of a people’s ability to aspire to broad self-government functions”.

Solidarity’s crisis in 1908, the Tragic Week, caused the downfall of Maura’s government. Canalejas was assassinated in 1912. These and other obstacles delayed and finally thwarted the approval of the law on local-government reform. However, since 1911 the project for a Commonwealth of Catalonia had become detached from the overall reforms. That same year, Rovira i Virgili declared that the new organisation should not be called a Commonwealth (“Mancomunitat”, which was considered a Spanish archaism), but rather “Generalitat”, a word that connoted a desire for autonomy. On 12 December 1913, Eduardo Dato’s government finally issued a decree granting the Spanish Provincial Councils the power to form commonwealths to deal with shared administrative needs. Only the Catalan provinces—Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona—seized this opportunity. As a result, Catalonia flourished once again as a political entity within Spain.

The assembly, which was made up of representatives of the four provinces (36 for Barcelona and 20 for each of the others), elected Enric Prat de la Riba, leader of the Regionalist League, as president of the Commonwealth on 6 April 1914. In addition to the assembly and the president, the Commonwealth included an eight-member Executive council. Two members came from each province, and together they represented the political range of Catalonia. Even though the state transferred only those powers and resources held by the Provincial Councils to the Commonwealth, the relative weight of the new organisation and the political unity of the Catalan nationalists under the strong leadership of Prat de la Riba made it possible to take major steps in public works, welfare services, education and culture with exemplary and long-lasting effects. When Prat de la Riba died in 1917, the presidency went to Josep Puig i Cadafalch. The second president of the Commonwealth tried to stabilize the institution’s positive action in an increasingly strained economic and social context, which ultimately prompted the League to support Primo de Rivera’s coup d’état in 1923. The dictator dismissed Puig and replaced him with the monarchist Alfons Sala, the Count of Egara, and proceeded to abolish the Commonwealth on 20 March 1925.


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