Elections in Catalonia: it takes two to tango

On Sunday November 25, the Catalan elections illustrated the fact that, in politics, nothing is ever sure. But also, and more importantly, that nothing is ever as simple as politicians would like it to be.

Nationalist leader Mas addresses his supporters after last Sunday's election. Demotix/Matthias Oesterle. All rights reserved.Nationalist leader Mas addresses his supporters after last Sunday's election. Demotix/Matthias Oesterle. All rights reserved.

The right wing government of Mr Mariano Rajoy has been able to loudly rejoice at the setback that has been visited upon conservative nationalist leader Artur Mas - prime minister of this autonomous region's government. His CIU party had been hoping for an absolute majority in order to implement by referendum the “right to choose” between the present status quo and a “Proper State” within or outside of Spain. Nevertheless, the dreaded separatists have, in all, increased substantially their share of the votes, thus making a political solution between Madrid and Barcelona look ever more precarious. 

Contrary to what CIU had expected, they lost twelve seats while remaining, by far, the leading party. But also, in contradiction to the hopes and claims of the Spanish establishment – Mr Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) and the opposition Socialists of the PSOE alike – these elections have clearly reinforced the nationalist, separatist or pro-independence majority. This time, by increasing massively the score of two leftists parties, the Republican, anti-monarchic, ERC and the Communist-Green coalition ICV-EUiA. ERC has more than doubled his seats. The pro-independence MPs are now 87 – five more than in the 2010 elections - out of 135. In terms of votes, while the voting numbers increased by one million to reach 65.5 percent, the share of the nationalist vote has surged three points to 57.6 percent.

So, in terms of numbers, Mr Mas's defeat has been more than compensated for by the spectacular surge of the nationalist left. And this defeat, branded by the Spanish political establishment and media in Madrid as humiliating for the man who had dared to challenge the central government might well turn to be a hollow victory for them, as a weakened Mas might be tempted to outbid the nationalist left - he now needs to govern by pushing his “right to decide” even further. And this left might also be a far more difficult negotiating partner than the bourgeois, moderate, long-used-to-compromise, CIU.

The nationalist vote is now almost the double of the pro-Spain vote, even if the PP has gained a seat and the Spanish ultra-nationalist Ciutadans tripled their score, while the Catalan branch of PSOE (Socialist Party), or PSC, has suffered its worst defeat ever, slipping to third place. The PSC, which was defeated by CIU two years ago, has paid the price for having been in power when the economic crisis started. And – just like the PP and CIU – it is also paying the price for its bitter divisions and its lack of a clear strategy. They have been walking a tight rope, wanting at one and the same time to be a Catalan party while remaining obedient to the centralist PSOE. Divided between the pro and anti-choice (for, or against a separate state or independence), the PSC switched lately, in rather vague terms, towards an improved federalism, a position grudgingly accepted by a PSOE leadership almost as bitterly opposed to any kind of Catalan self-determination as the PP.       

This might all look rather complicated and outdated as Europe – and especially the eurozone – is going in for more and more integration. And this has been the main argument used by Madrid to oppose the separatist majority's ambitions, accompanied by various threats of retaliation. Yet, Catalans are looking with envy towards Scotland, which is due to vote on independence in 2014. Its media and politicians refer to the Scottish example almost on a daily basis, sometimes with a nod as well to the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia between the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993 -  in order to emphasize the possibility that they too could go independent within Europe, where they would sit among the medium countries with a spoken language and an economy of the size of Denmark.       

But, for a majority of Catalans, things look simple. Recent polls have shown that 52 percent were in favour of independence, roughly two-thirds of Catalan speakers – the provincial education is bilingual Catalan-Spanish - and 30 percent of the more recent immigrants from the rest of Spain and Latin America. By far the largest regional economy of the peninsula, even if they are also the most indebted, they resent being, or feeling betrayed, and milked by Madrid, paying more than their fair share of taxes while receiving less than the other provinces, most of them now ruled by PP. They had been hoping for an improved status, voting by referendum in 2006, a decision that had already been ratified by the Spanish Parliament before being emasculated in 2010 by the Constitutional Court to which it had been referred by the PP. 

When the PP was returned to power last year, its relations with the CIU were good, as between two conservative parties looking to solve the crisis by slashing the welfare state. Barcelona was the first in Spain to introduce a much criticised 1€ tax on each medical treatment. Both parties cooperated on the regional level until Madrid started to use the belt-tightening they claimed necessary to fight the crisis, which involved them in recentralising some powers and rights devolved to the regions after the dictator Franco’s death in 1975. Last summer's meeting between Rajoy and Mas was a disaster, the national prime minister refusing to even discuss his Catalan counterpart's plan to regionalise tax collection. After the ‘Status fiasco’ of 2010, it was too much for many Catalans, bringing to the streets of Barcelona over one million angry demonstrators on 11 September.       

One example among many of this disillusionment from people who had long wanted to be at the same time Catalans and Spaniards has been well conveyed in the November issue of Barcelona's monthly L'Avenç by Arnau González Vilalta, modern history professor at Barcelona Autonomous University, who has also taught in the USA and China: “If someone bothered publicising the anger felt by these immigrants who now are Catalans (like himself) when they visit their original lands where they are insulted as 'Catalans', or when people pretend that they are 'returnable' to Extremadura, he could explain to the Spanish public opinion what the Catalan reality is”. González also expressed his rejection of being “forced to be Spanish, and not being persuaded to love Spain”. Surely the wrong strategy when the future of Spain is hanging in the balance. 

He was answering, after a fashion, Madrid's Education minister who had urged the “hispanicisation” of Catalan pupils; but perhaps also those “Castilian” politicians – right or left – who have compared, not always in veiled terms, Catalan nationalism and Mas himself to the national socialism of the 30's - the very Nazi regime that had helped Franco to overthrow the Republic and smash Catalan autonomy. Some PP members have gone further by asking for the Guardia Civil (national armed police force) to intervene militarily in the event that Catalans organised an – illegal according to the Spanish Constitution - referendum on self determination. 

In Spain, as elsewhere, it takes two to tango and Spanish as well as Catalan leaders have until now seemed more interested in playing on nationalist feelings than in trying to find a middle ground. Polls have shown, for instance, than the number of pro-independence Catalans would shrink to 40 percent if Barcelona were to get fiscal autonomy. Compromise is always a two-way street and the idea that Barcelona might be persuaded to kowtow all the way without getting anything in return, all the while fanning the flames with fiery words, seems at best unrealistic. By pushing too hard a peaceful people – Catalans are not Basques, CIU is not ETA, and there has never been Catalan terrorism – these patriots might very well have exacerbated a national feeling long suppressed by centuries of centralisation, making of an uncharismatic quinquagenarian father of four who once worked in investment and trade promotion, the unwilling leader of a crusade for independence, a word he has always been reluctant to use. 

The problem is that both governments – Madrid's perhaps even more so as Mr Rajoy is now the most unpopular politician in Spain – have used nationalism to reroute and distract voters' anger away from the brutal impact of the massive social cuts designed to fight the present crisis,  which have massively hit the lower and middle classes all over a country with a rate of unemployment exceeding 25 percent. And this is certainly one of the main reasons for Mr Mas's setback, even before his nationalist tactics bedded in, tactics much more prudent than those of many Catalans, as he has admitted on Sunday night.

Finally, this strong urge of many Catalans for independence, if it were to materialise, could give a fatal blow to the Spain gradually built by the monarchy since the Reconquista victory against the last Arab kingdom in 1492. Its economic, but even more political impact could be devastating for the national establishment. Spain could lose about a fourth of its economy, its second city with its major harbour and its principal gateway to the rest of Europe and its markets, the rail and motorway Mediterranean axis going through Catalonia and France. A great asset for a new Catalonia but also an asset Madrid cannot afford to do without.