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Spanish bullfighting arena has entered the political one

We witnessed the climax of the Ajalvir’s ‘fiesta’. Credit: ITV News

The little girl was sitting with her family, making her way through a bag of crisps.

It was Sunday afternoon in Ajalvir.

The planes from nearby Madrid airport flew above her in the clear skies of a Spanish winter and the family entertainment had just begun.

In the UK, the little girl might have been watching a film or an outdoor concert.

But this is Spain.

And as she munched her way through her crisps with Mum and Dad watching beside her, the first of six bulls was about to be killed.

I was feeling a little on edge.

The girl – of about five or six years old – might have been to a bullfight before.

I, however, had not.

Nor had my producer and cameraman – both British like me and bullfighting virgins.

What shocked me the most – although I now don’t know why – was that there was more than one bull released into the ring that Sunday afternoon.

This was Spain’s first bullfight of the year – and was the climax of the Ajalvir’s "fiesta" which had been running all week.

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The first bull came in. The bullfighters and the matador all dressed in bright sparkling outfits went through the routine.

I could detail what happens in those final minutes of the bull’s life – however I won’t.

But in summary, one bull comes into the ring after another.

Within ten minutes, the animal is dead and it’s dragged out of the arena and the crowds cheer. Then the next bull is released into the shaky, red temporary bullring on the edge of the town.

The animal will meet the same fate as the one which came in before.

Why were we here?

It is not for the spectacle of this most Spanish of traditions (some call it a sport, but in Spain they say bullfighting is an art).

We are here to examine how, in Spain, the bullfighting arena has entered the political one.

The government in Madrid is in paralysis. Last year, they got the kind of election result we were expecting in our general election (which never materialised). No party has a majority.

And two parties together – with the left or right as the bigger partner – still does not cross the line to create a functioning government. So nothing is happening - nor has happened for the last two months.

But the newest and fastest growing political party which helped create this paralysis – Podemos – is not just anti-austerity, it’s anti-bullfighting. And unlike the two mainstream parties, Podemos would like this tradition to be consigned to history.

Rather like they have done in Catalonia. The bullring in the Catalan capital, Barcelona, is empty. Eighteen thousand people used to pack into the Monumental bullring. The only creatures we found here were pigeons pecking away in the grit in the centre of the deserted arena.

Bullfighting was outlawed by the regional government here in 2010.

Why? Because the Catalans – many of whom are pushing for independence from Spain - want to accentuate their differences with the establishment in Madrid.

Banning bullfighting helps them do that.

Many Catalans are pushing for independence. Credit: ITV News

Sitting in the empty rows of seats in the Monumental bullring, you can almost hear the shouts and cheers from the crowds who used to flock here. Inside its quiet and motionless but you can still hear the traffic in the bustling city outside.

Catalonia has 7.5 million people and accounts for 20% of Spain’s economy. You can make comparisons with Scotland’s push for independence in 2014 – but for Madrid to lose Catalonia would be like London losing the South East of England.

Madrid is doing everything it can to stop that from happening.

Many think this region will be independent within the next 18 months – partly because half of those who voted in Catalan elections last year supported parties which want to break away from Spain.

And for politicians pushing for independence, bullfighting has been part of the strategy to make Catalonia culturally and traditionally different from Spain.

So in Barcelona you can visit the Monumental "Museo de Toros" and experience the lifeless, still arena. While in Madrid, you can, if you so choose, visit a "Plaza de Toros" and still witness bulls being killed. Just like that little girl – who thought it was a perfectly normal thing to do on a Sunday afternoon.

  • Watch On Assignment at 10.40pm on Tuesday on ITV.