Rajoy's iron-fisted approach to the Catalan question has only made the independence movement stronger. Now he must negotiate or risk losing Catalonia for good.
Catalan nationalists finally got what they wanted. 2.3 million people voted on Sunday, November 9 for or against independence in an unofficial poll which had been declared illegal by Madrid. 80% voted for independence for the autonomous region, 10% for more autonomy within Spain and 4.5% for the status quo. These are the bare results which have enabled the pro-independence movement to claim victory.
Catalan nationalists were able to organise voting operations in the four provinces without incident and with outstanding popularity - as many people voted in the referendum as had participated in the last two demonstrations for the September 11 Diada (National Day).
On the other hand, the Popular Party's (PP, right) central government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claimed that the “N9” was a “vain travesty”, a violation of the Constitution and a political failure, as less Catalans voted than in the 2012 regional elections (3.6 million).
As always in statistics, everyone has been able to twist results for their own ends. But the political results are there: 90% of voters against the status quo (instead of two thirds in 2012) and a massive, peaceful manifestation - devoid of violence, Basque style - of a vast majority of Catalans for change. Whatever Mr. Rajoy – or his PSOE (Socialist) opposition, equally hostile to granting more autonomy to Catalonia – can say, demonstration after demonstration, vote after vote, have shown a growing chasm between Madrid and Barcelona politicians together with a growing dissatisfaction within the richest and most developed region of the peninsula.
In Monday's editorials in Madrid, centre-left daily El País encapsulated the national establishment's disarray when presented with a situation they are unable to contain or repress. One editorial asked Mr. Rajoy and Mr. Artur Mas (the Catalan head of government) to “come back to the (negotiating) table”; another denounced the “day of disloyalty” in Catalonia; a third said that, now, “Rajoy knows who is the leader (in Catalonia)” and the last that “refusing to see the political effects of the N9 would be following the ostrich policy” while, in its Catalan edition, it wrote that “Mas has seized back the rudder”.
The strong arm policy adopted by the PP since its victory at the 2011 national elections, has refused to engage in dialogue not based on an iron clad status quo. Meanwhile, the PP have been playing the strategy of death by a thousand cuts, i.e. of local prerogatives, first of all on language and education – considered as provocations by Catalans so proud of their own culture. With such an obstinate attitude to Catalonia, it is no wonder tensions have been increasing steadily – then dramatically – for years.
What strikes one most when one looks at statistics is that, since 2010 when, at the PP's request, the Constitutional Court cancelled key provisions of a new Statute which had been ratified by referendum by the Catalans and a vote of the Spanish Cortes, the percentage of pro-independence has doubled to reach just under 50% (49.5% in recent polls).
A large number of “new” nationalists have joined the “old” ones. Bourgeoisie from Mr. Mas’ centre right CiU coalition, as well as leftists from Esquerra Republicana (ERC) have united to protest the lack of prospects for their nation within Spain. Another crucial reason has been Madrid's refusal to grant Catalonia a “fiscal pact” allowing them to collect taxes, a privilege which the Basque Country enjoys.
Contrary to what most Spanish politicians say, or think, Catalan leaders are not irresponsible firebrands who have been pushing Catalans to the streets only to protect their own interests (financial or others) but have merely followed their voters for fear of losing touch with them. Mr. Mas is almost as conservative, economically and socially, as Mr. Rajoy.
Far from being a revolutionary he has felt the rising tide of nationalism, independentism or separatism – depending on which camp you are in – which has, since 2010, frenetically grown to the point of threatening his party's leadership, as shown in the last European elections and on recent polls showing that the ERC had passed ahead of the CiU.
But, surprisingly enough, his bold move might pay off. After weeks of hesitation - one step forward towards organising his plebiscite, one step backwards when Madrid was threatening him with court action - he has finally held to his promise.
Unable to use government resources, as the Spanish Constitution does not allow local referenda, he has banded together with civic movements and their joint organisation has been flawless. Massive queues but no incidents. And his image as the legitimate leader of a new Catalonia might well have been boosted. He voted, and expressed himself after the vote as a statesman, by renewing his demand for negotiations on the basis of the N9 results. Far ahead of other nationalist leaders, and before his main rival, ERC's Oriol Junqueras. And he has reinforced his position as Mr. Rajoy's unavoidable interlocutor as the latter can no more bank on an illusory “silent majority”, even if many Catalans remain weary if not afraid of going it alone.
That is assuming that he wants to negotiate and not to sue Mr. Mas for violation of the law. It is clear that the Spanish head of government is under tremendous pressure from his own party as well as from other national parties, including the PSOE, not to cave in to the Catalans in the name of a united Spain. A Spain still ruled for several centuries by a centralist elite in Madrid which has failed, unlike neighbouring France, to unify a diverse country.
Yet, Spain is now a democracy and, despite claims from a tiny neo-fascist fringe to send the Guardia Civil or tanks to rebel Catalonia, the present crisis will have to be solved peacefully through negotiations and not by sticking stubbornly to the letter of the Constitution as more and more are now suggesting.
The present tactics have not worked: Catalans who were said to cave in after the first threat now look determined to soldier on. And the bunker diplomacy has shown its limits. The objective is now to reduce tensions and start talking. That is, provided both parties agree to what to talk about and have the political credibility to move forward in a country rotted to the core by corruption, which is affecting all political parties - PP, PSOE or CiU - to the benefit of catch-all “protest” parties like Podemos.
All this will be difficult, as elections are looming ahead, next spring in Spain and before 2016 in Catalonia. At this time, politics usually reverts to type as parties promulgate short term vote-winning policies and try to outflank each others’ deeply-rooted nationalism, whether it be Catalan or Castillian.
Will PP and CiU do it and look for a - difficult - consensus? Will both sides accept their differences and be able, or willing, to make the long term necessary efforts to understand each other within a pluralist state? Will Catalan parties show enough statesmanship and band together around crucial issues or, as they often do, bicker against each other for more seats in Barcelona's Parliament? Otherwise it is clear that Catalans, and Artur Mas, will go on restlessly demanding a referendum on self determination - and the crisis will become harder and harder to resolve.
Only history and common sense can tell us what will happen.