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Catalan elections: all that for that?

Facilitators, middlemen, discrete openings so that both sides could start to talk to – and not scream at – each other again and try to reach a compromise, are these now European dirty words?

lead Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy speaks during final stretch before crux elections on December 21. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.All that for that? The December 21 Catalan elections have, as might have been expected, given a new mandate to the three pro-independence parties. Yes, with a majority cut from 4 to 2 seats (70 in total), and a percentage of voters of 47.4%, 0.4% lower than in 2015, but with a number of voters boosted by almost 200,000, allowing them to overtake the symbolic threshold of 2 million.

All that despite massive hostile propaganda, including from many media, a number of leaders in jail or in exile and the regional administration taken over by Madrid.

On the other side, the modern right of Ciudadanos (Ciutadans in Catalonia) has trounced the old right Popular Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which has come last with a humiliating 3 seats.

Ciudadanos is now the most voted for party in Catalunya, with 37 seats and 1.1 million votes. But with little chance of being able to form a government, as local Socialists have once again failed in their dreams of becoming a major player, and the local branch of Podemos’ new left, with a meagre 8 seats, can’t expect to play power broker. Even more important, Ciudadanos has become the leading conservative force in the country, boosted by their young and dynamic leaders who are not tainted, as is the PP, by its corrupt image. For how long can the PP, now leading a minority national government elected by only 29% of voters in 2015, cling to power despite the parallel weakness of their historical Socialist rivals, the PSOE?

Rajoy’s self-defeat

So, all that for that? A crisis which has destabilised Catalonia and could well spread to Spain itself. Could Mr Rajoy and his party’s ten-year-long offensive against Catalanist parties become his nemesis? Looking back in history is often interesting, even for politicians well known for their short memories. Remember 2006, when Catalan “government” and José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Socialist (PSOE) government signed an agreement, ratified by the Spanish Cortes and Catalan voters, giving the Principality a new status – or Estatut – with increased autonomous power, which seemed then the best solution for a then low-key dispute. This was a compromise rejected by the PP who asked the Constitutional Court to rule it out of order. Which the Court agreed to do in 2010, with regard to its major provisions.

What happened then? Since he was returned to power in 2012, Rajoy has refused any negotiation on the Statute with Barcelona. And, in parallel, the marginal number of independentists in a region – which had gained in 2006 and lost in 2010 the right to call itself a state within Spain and had appeared for a time well satisfied by this autonomy plus – skyrocketed, climbing in seven years from 300,000 to over 2 million. And what do we have now? Federalists turned into independentists and a new crisis engineered by Mr Rajoy which could, and should have been avoided. Which pro-independence leader could have dreamt of a better result?

Why such a self defeating strategy? Was it deliberate or just a succession of errors and failures by politicians having lost sync with the richest region, long known for its finicky attachment to its traditions, culture and language? Or was it a way for equally discredited traditional national parties, left and right, to cling to power by searching for a scapegoat made responsible for the economic social and political crisis Spain has been going through? New parties, Ciudadanos like Podemos, don’t seem to have more workable solutions, the first too much prone to fanning the flames of Spanish nationalism, while the other is torn between conflicting factions.

Polarisation and force

So, where are we now? An almost equally, divided country. Anti-independence parties are still seats away from a majority. Their propaganda leitmotiv of a reunified Catalonia back into the fold was marred by Mr. Rajoy’s imposition of the state of emergency through article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. And their aim of reducing Catalan government’s powers, specifically in the touchy fields of education and language, has also harmed their image among the 2/3 of Catalans in favour of more devolved powers. Would it not be better to convince Catalans that they are welcome back in the fold rather than threatening them with a brutal return to the “rule of law”? The carrot rather than the big stick?

On the other hand, Madrid’s repressive policy in the name of law and order drove thousands of moderate voters towards the centrist PDeCat of former Premier Carles Puigdemont – in exile in Brussels – which remains the major independentist force, and Republican ERC of – detained – leader Oriol Junqueras, while many disillusioned voters have left the radical left CUP. But, with newly (re)elected representatives still locked up or threatened to be jailed if they come back, putting in place a new government won’t be plain sailing. Especially as Mr Rajoy has promised to reimpose art. 155 it they were to proclaim once again their desire to achieve independence, accusing them of breaking the law, and has rejected Mr Puigdemont’s offer of starting negotiations without preconditions after years at a standstill since the PP’s return to power in 2011.

Meanwhile magistrates are pursuing their enquiries into charges of “rebellion” or “sedition” against a wider number of independentist figures, which could threaten any future negotiation process. But could they go as far as destroying any hope of a solution by sending enough independentists deputies to jail, to the great satisfaction of extremists from both sides?

Whatever happened to diplomacy? 

Now we have a Catalonia still miles away from a consensus. Uncrushed, pro-independence movements feel much more confident, even after bungling their own independence process through overconfidence and under experience. Compromises appear as hard to achieve, the parties advocating for it – Socialists and Podemos – having failed to convince enough voters. And, bolstered by his personal success, against Madrid as well as against his ERC rival Junqueras, Mr Puigdemont feels more confident than ever. Another standstill. For how long, when Catalans are desperately wanting a solution and a return to stability?

Spain as a whole needs politicians of a higher calibre and moral standard, but also with a vision. Yet they have to do what they can with what is available. This is where the European Union, the institution, like its members, should have a role to play.

Yes, they have to abide by EU rules and not let down a member state. But what is diplomacy all about? Facilitators, middlemen, discrete openings so that both sides could start to talk to – and not scream at – each other again and try to reach a – difficult and painful – compromise, are these now European dirty words? Is helping a member state through a friendly hand up to extract itself from a deadly conundrum which could well taint one day the whole Union and threaten its economy at a time when Brexit and other crises are brewing, a treacherous move? Or are we going towards new Catalan and, possibly, new Spanish elections whose outcome might not be any clearer?


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