Spain's traditional parties: past their sell by date?

This week's TV debate between the young leaders of the new parties made clear that a fresh political scenario is being thrashed out between the left and the right, the past and the future.

Liz Cooper
20 October 2015

For the second time within the last 12 months the electorate in Catalonia has traipsed off to the polling stations to decide whether their region, with a population of over 7.5 million and considerable autonomous powers, should opt for secession from Spain and go it alone as a separate nation and state. Independence from Spain has been an issue in Catalonia on and off for centuries including in the new post Franco democracy. Locally pressure has increased as the conservative party that has governed the region, the Converjencia I Unió (CiU) has been losing support partly due to a mixture of spending cuts and alleged corruption of its leaders.  Jordi Pujol who as the leader of the CiU and in Government for 23 years, has retired and is accused of corrupt practice when in Government, as is the new CiU party leader Artur Mas. On November 9th last year, the CiU, with Artur Mas prominent in the role of leader for independence, called for a “consultation” for voters to decide on whether Catalonia should be secede from Spain. The Spanish Government claimed that any such consultation would be illegal and therefore the results would be irrelevant. It was Act 1 of the 2014/15 “Independence Show”.

As the results of the “consultation” came in, Artur Mas and fellow secessionists claimed that the region had voted for independence. In reality the results were impossible to verify, not because of their so-called illegal nature, but because there was no agreed statistical base for the numbers entitled to vote and voting was allowed to continue for several days after the results were announced. Unsubstantiated claims were made that 80% of Catalans had voted for independence. In fact 80% of those who actually went to the polls and voted, had given their vote for independence. Much of the international press picked up the 80% figure, hailing independence as now inevitable: an incorrect interpretation of the figures.

Photo: OneAgency TR

The curtain came down on the regional elections for the Catalan parliament (El Generalitat) on 27 September. Act Two. The main pro-independence parties on the right and on the left formed a new party Junts pel Si, (Together for Yes) with Artur Mas as the major figurehead for these elections. With the hard left secessionist party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) they called for the electorate to treat the opportunity as a plebiscite on secession from Spain.

This time around the basic facts are clearer.  On 27 September there was a record turnout of over 77% of the electorate.  Junts pel Si and CUP together won 72 of the 135 seats available and 47.7% of the share of the vote. Non-independence voters made up just over 52% of the total. Most of the Madrid based newspapers agreed that the independence movement in general had won the parliamentary elections (in numbers of seats) but had lost the plebiscite (in the percentage of the vote). What is not known is how many voters in the 52% ignored the call to treat the elections as a plebiscite and voted simply for their parliament, but against the leaders of the current independence parties.

There looks as if there will be at least an Act 3 of the “Independence Show”. The Podemos backed coalition (Catalunya si que es Pot) firmly not in favour of independence, but pro the right to decide, lost 2 seats from their position in the 2012 elections. The 8.9 % of votes they did receive however, has been high-jacked by Junts pel Si and CUP as part of the pro-independence vote. The assumption apparently is that voting for the right to decide on independence is synonymous with voting for independence. This kind of strategy will not help clarify what the Catalans really want. As more claims and counter-claims surface in the post-electoral period, the Spanish Courts have thrown their penny-worth into the mix by requiring Artur Mas to appear in court to face accusations of disobedience, amongst other things, for calling the November “consultation”. The Spanish Government insists the timing of the court appearance is nothing to do with them, although to many observers it is obviously deliberate, appears to be fanning the fire and has caused great anger amongst many voters and members of the Government of Catalonia.

The current Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, leader of the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and clearly deaf to debate is adamant that secession from Spain is not a possibility for the region of Catalonia.  He cites the Constitution of 1978 and to underline his remarks his Government forced through an amendment to the law on the Constitutional Court, just 10 days before the september elections, allowing the Court to force a public employee to accept a resolution of the Government if the Court merely suspects non-compliance with the law, an amendment clearly aimed at Artur Mas.

On 27 September Rajoy’s party did very badly, losing 8 seats in the Catalan parliament, and now it seems that Mariano Rajoy is not entirely certain of the law on Spanish nationality.  He claimed in a radio interview just before the elections that if the region became independent the Catalans would lose their Spanish nationality. How dreadful he said, and how wrong he actually is. If a person born in Spain lives in another country they continue to be of Spanish nationality unless they choose to reject it.  The Prime Minister needs to re-read the Constitution or perhaps check on Wikipedia.

Generally accepted as the only winners in the Show and with their eyes now set on the general elections is the relatively new party Ciudadanos (C’s). They improved their showing in the Government of Catalonia jumping from 9 seats in 2012 to 25 seats in these elections and took 17.92% of the vote. The C’s are a non-independence party, first standing only in Catalonia in 2006 but going national after the irruption of the left in the shape of Podemos in the European elections of 2014. They are also the only party in these elections to present a woman, Inés Arrimadas, as a candidate for the leadership of the Catalonian Parliament (El Generalitat)

Only a few months ago the sonorous voice of the right, the newspaper ABC, asked where do the Cs stand: on the left or on the right?  They are often thought to be a younger version of the PP but there is in fact a significant difference between the two parties. The PP is the traditional party of the right that came out of the transition to democracy, under a different name, with many aspects of the dictatorship still in place, above all their support for the Catholic Church and their backing for impunity for those responsible for much of the horrors of the dictatorship. The Cs are young, not rooted in the dictatorship, in favour of a secular state and most importantly are intent on making a final break with the Francoist past. The leader Albert Rivera has said somewhat rashly that he considers anyone born before 1978, the date of the acceptance by the electorate of the new Spanish Constitution, as unsuited for government.  The C’s are as vociferous as the left in their attacks on existing political corruption and have made corruption the front runner in their electoral platform.

Podemos represents a voting base that differs in many ways from the C’s and has gone much further in attempting to set up a new and more participative democratic system than any other party: the famous “asembleas” (large meetings) and “circulos” (small groups) that gathered all over Spain where much of the initial policy was hammered out.  Now with the intention to govern they have formed a party that backs a secular state and equal rights and have published a 70 page document on their new economic politics written by a couple of eminent economists. They back a woman’s right to decide on abortion; are committed to ensure free health and educational provision for all and are ready to fight the Banks on their own ground by setting up a public bank. They have a more detailed programme than the C’s of what needs to be done to build a real democracy.  Podemos is seen by some commentators as the party that is selling ideas as well as programmes, the C’s being the pragmatists, allegedly ambiguous when it suits, selling a limited package.


 January 31st 2015 March for Change called by Podemos. Photo: Marta Jara

It is said that Spanish politics suffer from "inmovilismo" ( reactionary). However, since the early days of the “Indignados” in 2011, where one of the movement’s chief claims was that the national political leaders did not represent them, it is clear that a new political scenario is being thrashed out between the old and the new, the left and the right, the past and the future. A TV debate this week between the two young leaders of the new parties, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos, made history. Watched by over 5.2 million people, that is nearly three times the number watching “Big Brother”, it took place in a bar in Barcelona, monitored by the most popular interviewer in Spain, Jordi Évoli. El País was positively lyrical in response, referring to the “naturalidad, transparencia y madurez democratica” (natural behaviour, openness and democratic maturity) of the two speakers, describing the traditional parties as past their sell by date.

No doubt the “Independence Show” will keep going until it spills over into the polling booths of the general election on 20th December, after which there may be a new national Government. According to the latest polls in August on the intention to vote, Podemos is losing ground, the C’s are gaining and, although with a heavily reduced vote, the PP is set to scrape by and win the next elections. With still two months to go however, history may be made again before Christmas.


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