Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia: no fast track to independence

As much as many people deeply disliked the way the PP was facing the elections, they feared the prospect of a wide open scenario with no guarantees whatsoever. Español

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
28 September 2015

One year ago, failing to win the independence referendum, Scottish PM Alex Salmond swiftly resigned. This has not been the case of President Artur Mas. At the end of the day, Spain, as the local cliché goes, is different, and Catalonia remains part of Spain.

Following a very emotional and tense campaign, the pro-independence parties have won an absolute majority of seats in the Catalan regional parliamentary elections of September 27. Yet, they have lost the plebiscite they had claimed this election would be. They wanted a clear and overwhelming mandate, and a clear and overwhelming mandate there is not.

They now backtrack by saying there are many "yes" votes hidden in not pro-independence parties' vote. But the truth is that the explicit "yes" obtained 1.957.467 ballots, and the "others" 2.120.467 ballots. The difference is exactly 163.000 ballots. The rest is hot air.

Many in the pro-independence ranks are ready to go ahead with a roadmap that will lead to secession from Spain in 18 months. No matter if there is not a majority of vote, an electoral majority will suffice.

The mainstream “yes” coalition (Junts pel Sí: Together for Yes) was aiming at an absolute majority, but they fell short by 6 seats. The other pro-independence party, the radical anti-capitalist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidacy - CUP) was aiming at a clear majority of “yes” votes in the “plebiscite”. They fell short by a few thousand votes. In short: there will be no free ride to independence, if there is going to be a ride at all.

All in all, the pro-independence tide seems to have reached a tremendous high, and there is no clear alternative on the other side of the shore. This is a stalemate scenario where everyone but the radicals on both sides loses ground. It has happened before, in other similar secession processes - in Canada and, more recently, in Scotland: under the stress of having to decide on independence, a society ends up deeply divided. 

In addition to this, the nationalists’ strategy in calling for early elections three months ahead of the forthcoming general elections in Spain (due in December) has, up to a certain point, failed. With a stubborn Spanish right acting stupidly, their calculation assumed that, unless major concessions were obtained such as the right to hold a referendum, Catalans would give them a clear mandate to speed up the so-called “Process” and to unilaterally secede.

Nationalists seemed convinced that, by leading an irresistible and positive campaign of unity and hope, they would clearly overcome the negative, reactive, threatening campaign of the People’s Party (PP). As much as many people deeply disliked the way the PP was facing the elections, they feared the prospect of a wide open scenario with no guarantees whatsoever the independence was offering, and voted for other less extreme options.

Invertebrate Spain

Nationalists wanted to take advantage of the perennial error of the Spanish right, unable to admit that the Catalan issue needs to be solved with a soft hand and an appeasing mood. To stir anti-Catalan sentiment as a reaction to mounting anti-Spanish feeling is a hopeless proposition. President Rajoy and people to his right within the party have been mismanaging the situation so much that, most probably, they are bound to lose the next general election which they were eager to win. 

The People’s Party believed that the incipient economic recovery would bring back to their side many disenchanted voters, deeply hit by the recession and the austerity policies, and fed up with the corruption scandals affecting the party at all levels. Attacking Catalan secessionists would bring extra votes.

Over and above this, however, Spaniards just cannot afford to lose a significant part of its population, its territory and its GDP. The right has proved astonishingly unable to prevent this threat, and people will probably turn left in December, looking for a federal answer that can secure today's seriously endangered Spanish unity.

The mismanagement of the territorial crisis will quite probably prove to be lethal for the PP before it becomes lethal to Spain as such. People want the government to govern, that is, to deal with the existing problems, instead of exacerbating them. And the “Catalan problem” is a secular one.

Almost one hundred years ago, Spain’s most notorious twentieth century intellectual José Ortega y Gasset published an influential essay entitled Invertebrate Spain (1922), accusing the Spanish elites of an incapacity in preventing national disintegration, enduringly promoted by peripheral nationalisms. 

Ortega saw the breakdown coming. Never before has his prophecy been closer to becoming true. Many might argue that Catalan nationalism has radicalised its position and that it has been unfaithful to the constitutional pact reached after Franco’s death, but Spanish nationalists have done no better.

Ciudadanos have just come second in Catalonia.

Ciudadanos have just come second in Catalonia. Demotix/Daniel Ferrer Paez.All rights reserved.

No fast track

The impact of the Catalan election results on the upcoming Spanish general elections next December 20 is uncertain. Yet one thing seems clear: the People’s Party has lost Catalonia, and without Catalonia you cannot govern Spain. Will the Socialist Party, the natural alternative at national level, be able to overcome its internal contradictions and come up with a credible federalist proposal and an attractive offer? Isn't it too late?

The prospects of a socialist victory in the general elections will probably ease tensions and unite the party in opening the discussion for constitutional reform. To carry out such a complex and transcendental reform, the Socialists need to, and probably will, find allies to their right (the emerging centre-right Ciudadanos, which have just come second in Catalonia, an unprecedented success) and to their left (the now not-so emerging Podemos, the results for whom have been disappointing, short of a credible position in favour or against independence in a heavily polarised campaign).

Another mandate seems to have emerged from the polls: neither Mariano Rajoy nor Artur Mas are suitable partners in the inevitable negotiation which will take place after December 20. The inconclusive nature of the Catalan results will most probably highlight the many contradictions underlying the “yes” coalition, which was build under one single premise: a fast-track to independence led by president Mas. Rajoy’s party, on the other hand, with a meagre 8.5 percent of the vote, is in complete disarray in Catalonia.

Now, not being able to secure an absolute majority (68 MPs) by themselves, the “yes” coalition, whose parties had won 71 MPs in 2012 and are now down to 62, is prisoner of the CUP, a far-left anti-capitalist group which vows to accelerate the road map but refuses to help the swearing in of Mas as president. An alternative "consensus" leader might emerge from the “yes” coalition, but definitely not the strong chief the “Process” desperately needed. Optimism and hope is the virtue of winners, and the victory is strong. But Catalan politics are intrincate, opposition led by Ciutadans is going to be vocal, and an MP's daily life is not much fun. Division, instability and ultimately some frustration are likely to characterize a parliament that some already see doomed to hold new elections in the very near future.

Most importantly, for the independence project to be credible and legitimate, a clear victory in votes was essential. The international community is not going to endorse a unilateral secession with 1.95 million votes out of a census of 5.30 million. Very many, but not enough. And without international recognition, independence there is not.  

Next stop: Spain.

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