Catalonia's separatism put to test in election

  1. Outcome is 'like a dice in the air'
  2. Lack of EU support broke separatists' spirits
  3. Money at the root of much discontent

WikiTribune’s been covering the Catalan crisis since its inception.

Spain faces a critical test of its post-fascist integrity with regional elections in Catalonia on Thursday. The vote – which polls suggest is neck and neck – will show whether the central government in Madrid has snuffed out, suppressed or reignited separatist political forces.

Voting starts at 9am local time and finishes eleven hours later.

Madrid moved aggressively against a separatist-led regional government in October – sacking the administration and pursuing its leaders on treason and sedition charges – after what Spanish authorities deemed an illegal referendum in which a predominantly-separatist electorate voted to break with Spain.

The regional elections will show whether that brinksmanship against the political forces of separatism has worked for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy or whether moving against Carles Puigdemont – who fled to Brussels to avoid arrest – has backfired and in fact enflamed separatists sentiments.

Rolling the dice

Opinion polls (FT) and analysis of historic voting patterns (El País) suggest the outcome is on a knife-edge. The unionist-bloc of parties in favor of retaining the constitutional relationship with the rest of Spain, are neck and neck with the bloc of separatist parties. Each side is a web of interlinking parties that will try to form coalitions in the 135-seat Parlament to then elect a president who will form a new government – the Generalitat.

A map showing the political boundaries of the autonomous community of Catalonia (highlighted in red). Catalan language and culture extend well beyond these administrative boundaries. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Jorge Galindo, a political analyst and editor of Politikon website, told WikiTribune that the election’s results are suspended like “a dice in the air.”

The elections are another phase in what has become a test of the Spanish constitution. It is also a test of the forces in favor of separatism. Secessionists effectively had their leadership decapitated when Madrid nullified the regional government, refused to recognise the results of the October independence referendum and arrested key leaders.

The pressure for independence isn’t going to go away and may build again in the future but the momentum for unilateral secession appears to have been stalled by Madrid’s tactics. The most charismatic secessionist leaders have effectively been barred from the election campaign. The pro-independence bloc also appear to have bet on support from the European Union which never emerged.

“The fact that they were expecting more support from Europe suggests that they were living very much in a bubble,” said Sebastian Balfour, emeritus professor of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Joan Culla, a professor of contemporary Catalan history at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, told WikiTribune that these elections are unprecedented, unlike anything he has witnessed since Spain’s transition back to democracy.

“We’re talking about absolutely atypical, absolutely extraordinary elections. Different from the previous eleven [ones] since 1980,” says Culla.

Separatists decapitated

With the former regional president in self-imposed exile having feared arrest, many of his colleagues under arrest, and Catalonia increasingly split between pro and anti-independence viewpoints – existing divisions aggravated by what moderates and hardliners saw as heavy-handed tactics from Madrid – the climate is febrile.

As many as 5.5 million Catalonian voters (El País) are eligible to vote on December 21 to elect a new parliament.

Madrid hopes the elections will defuse Spain’s most pressing political crisis since the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. It also wants an end to the ensuing economic uncertainty that Spain’s economy minister blamed for next year’s reduced growth forecast.

Neither side in Catalonia appears to have the upper hand.

Rajoy’s application of Article 155 of Spain’s constitution meant that for the first time in the country’s roughly four decades of democracy, the central government imposed direct rule over one region. As well as dissolving the Parlament and calling for early elections, Rajoy  sacked Catalonia’s president Puigdemont and his entire government, and placed the region’s police force – the Mossos d’Esquadra – under Madrid’s control.

The unprecedented moves followed two months of increasingly acrimonious confrontations between separatists and the Spanish state on a national level, and Catalan separatists and unionists on a regional stage (see WikiTribune‘s coverage).

In the weeks after Madrid dissolved Catalonia’s semi-autonomous status, prominent separatist leaders – including Oriol Junqueras, the ousted vice-president and the president of leading separatist party Esquerra Republicana (ERC) – were arrested and placed into preventative custody pending an investigation into their role in the independence push. Junqueras faces potential charges of rebellion and sedition. The more serious charge of rebellion carries up to 30 years in prison, sedition carries 15 (The Guardian). On December 4, he and another three separatist leaders were refused bail by a Spanish Supreme Court judge and will remain in preventative custody until after the elections. Another eight were set bail of €100,000 (U$S117,730).

The one to watch?

Coalition-building among parties will be essential for either bloc to be able to form a government. But with neither side polling over 51 percent, and with mainstream separatist parties ERC and Junts per Catalunya falling out with unilateral separatist hardliners CUP over their approach to independence, Balfour says one non-aligned party may hold the keys to the Palau de la Generalitat: Catalunya en Comu-Podem, or simply, Comuns.

Comuns is a coalition of left-and-green parties led by Xavier Domènech and Barcelona mayor Ada Colau. It champions Catalonia’s right to self-determination but opposes outright independence.

Balfour said the crucial question moving forward will be: “What will they ask and what will they be given?”

He added: “Catalunya en Comú/Podem is caught between two fires. In the sense that its message has been buried under the polarization that is taking place.”

The cost of independence

For the moment, leading separatists appear to have chosen to moderate their demands for unilateral independence. In an interview with The Financial Times, Marta Rovira, a frontrunner for the regional presidency from leading separatist party Esquerra Republicana (ERC), said: “We have put an end to the part of the democratic process of these more symbolic declarations.”

Rovira said she was not giving up on independence – the “only solution” for the region – but was rather switching strategies to push for a break with Spain without specifying a deadline.

In an interview in Brussels with Spanish online news agency, Carles Puigdemont chose his words carefully when the conversation turned to the subject of any future unilateral declaration of independence.  Asked whether, if he were in the same position again, he would consider another unilateral declaration of independence, Puigdemont turned to the subject of constitutional reform.

“We must base our work on the recognition of reality and if there was a majority of people in Catalonia who wanted a constitutional reform and vote for parties who are proposing a constitutional reform, we should work on that reality, not on independence,” he said.

Carles Puigdemont, former Catalan president, who fled to Belgium after the unilateral declaration of independence. Photo: Wikimedia/CC

Politikon’s Galindo says this moderation has been heavily influenced by the Spanish state’s severe backlash against the separatist movement, which others say violated democratic principles. “What [separatists] had done until now which was a unilateral movement for secession has had some costs – including jail – that they are seemingly not willing to pay,” says Galindo. By taking part in the December 21 elections, separatists have implicitly acknowledged that unilateralism won’t work, he said.

Galindo says that very moderation may put separatist leaders offside with their supporters.

Has Rajoy broken separatism?

Experts WikiTribune interviewed were divided on whether Rajoy had broken the separatist movement. . Balfour, from the LSE, said he believes the lack of support from the EU was a big factor.

“The fact that they were expecting more support from Europe suggests that they were living very much in a bubble,” said Balfour. “Expecting that kind of thing without really appreciating the strains within Europe about sub-state nationalism, that suggests that the whole independence strategy was a bit of a mirage.”

Galindo said only the December 21 election would show whether Rajoy’s tactics had worked. He may appear to have one lately but had spent the last five years aggravating the Catalonia situation: “It looks like he [Rajoy] has (broken separatism) in the last month, but no. In the last month yes, in the last five years no. “

Spain’s Prime Minister and PP (People’s Party) leader Mariano Rajoy delivers a speech at a campaign rally in Salou, Spain, December 17, 2017. REUTERS/David Gonzalez

Professor Culla has a different view: “I don’t think Rajoy has fractured the separatist coalition at all…To fracture the separatist bloc Rajoy shouldn’t have activated [Article] 155 and imprisoned a handful of politicians.”

Elisenda Paluzie, who supports independence and is associate professor of economics and director of the Centre for Economic Analysis and Social Policy at the University of Barcelona, echoes that view: “I think the two million people that support it [independence] are never going to change their minds now, after all that’s happened. Of course, operationally, he [Rajoy] has been successful in stopping the effectiveness of independence. I think he stopped independence but has not broken independentism.”

An uneasy fiscal arrangement

Paluzie has written extensively on the hotly debated fiscal relationship between the Spanish state and prosperous Catalonia, a long-running wellspring of separatist discontent. Although Catalonia enjoyed broad powers in areas like education, healthcare, security, and culture, most of its taxes are collected by the central government (see accompanying piece from the WikiTribune community).

According to her research, which was partly based on Spanish Treasury data, between 1986 and 2011 Catalonia provided almost a fifth of Spain’s tax income, but received between 11 and 14 percent of the central government’s expenditure.

Madrid-based policy makers and anti-independence Catalan parties present a very different analysis. They believe the separatist crisis in Catalonia masks a social and economic crisis that emerged when the global financial crisis pummelled Spain.

LSE’s Balfour says: “What the separatist movement has done… is to channel a lot of social grievances that people have felt, questions of employment, questions of corruption as well… into a mirage of independence. That it could all be solved if Catalonia was independent.”

WikiTribune’s been covering the Catalan crisis since its inception.

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