La Meridiana Avenue of Barcelona during a mass demonstration calling for the independence of Catalonia on 11 September, 2015. Jordi Boixareu/ Flickr. Some rights reserved.176. This is the magic number in Spanish politics. Half+1 members of Congress, which is a 350-seat semicircle now plagued with as many as twelve different political groups. Or even fifteen, if you dare to count in the three regional-based confluences finally included within the Podemos “Confederal” brand that was unable to get a deal to obtain a separate group of their own.
Spain used to be a game of two. The Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) would often rely on regional-based forces such as Convergència i Unió (CiU) in Catalonia to secure comfortable majorities either to the right or to the left. Jordi Pujol, president of Catalonia for 23 years and indisputable leader of CiU, was celebrated as a key negotiator and even named “Spanish Man of the Year” in 1993 by conservative newspaper ABC.
Yet these times are long gone. Jordi Pujol is facing trial for alleged corruption and has vanished from the political arena, while his former coalition Convergència i Unió doesn’t even exist as such anymore. Many Catalans have turned their eyes to independence, and the Republican Left (ERC) and Democràcia i Llibertat (DiL, a coalition that engulfed part of the former CiU) are their new fierce representatives. They won’t settle for less than a Scotland-like self-determination referendum. Most importantly, as we shall see, they hold seventeen seats in Congress.
With a downsized PP that won the general election in December 2015 with only 122 seats, the game of power has become a nightmare that may well soon lead to a snap election. Under Spain’s political system, Congress appoints the President by absolute majority – or by relative majority on a second vote that takes place 48 hours later.
Yet, the sum of PP and the new centre-right party Ciudadanos (163 seats) or PSOE plus the number of leftist coalitions under the umbrella of Podemos (159 seats) simply don’t add up. Now, add the seventeen pro-independence MPs into the equation: the centre-right coalition would reach 180 votes, whereas the leftist pact would also get to the magic number of 176.
What do either of the blocks need to unlock ERC and DiL’s votes? Probably setting a realistic calendar for a self-determination referendum would be enough. The United Kingdom and Canada did it, why can’t Spain do the same?
To begin with, Spain can’t for the same reason PP and PSOE can’t seem to be able to strike a deal. “Compromise” is a rare word in Spanish politics. Actually, it doesn’t even have a valid Spanish translation, like John Carlin recently pointed out at El País newspaper. The unity of Spain, and even the existence of different cultural nations within Spain, is a taboo in Spanish politics. To admit that Spain is a plurinational state is seen as a threat to the Spanish nation and the possible beginning of its dissolution. The fact is that monarchs and dictators have not missed any effort over centuries to reassure the “Grand Spanish nation”, as Felipe VI only recently called his Spaniards in his Christmas-speech.
When the Second World War ended, European democrats won over Mussolini and Hitler, but not in Spain, where dictator Francisco Franco held on to power for 40 years more. When Franco died in 1975, his entourage realised that the only way to guarantee their control over Spain was to make a treaty with the democrats. The Spanish transition allowed for a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward the military and high level bureaucrats, while guaranteeing impunity to judges and politicians (for example, Franco’s Minister Manuel Fraga Irribarne became the president of Alianza Popular, the predecessor of today’s ruling Popular Party).
Having been oppressed for so long, the democrats embraced the chance and voted massively in favour of a brand new constitution. A parliamentary monarchy and a vaguely regionalist “Estado de las Autonomías” were installed (not only for Catalonia and Basque Country but for every region) and maybe there was indeed a chance of becoming the state that Spain had the potential to transform into.
As opinion polls have consistenly shown, however, many Spaniards did not reject Franco’s principles, much less the absolutist concept of “only one nation”. It is 2016, and the Spanish Parliament keeps on blocking any official statement against Franco. Post-Franco bureaucrats made sure Madrid keep all checks in order by setting up a regionalist system where the regions get to spend only what the central government allows for, as there is no decentralisation in tax collection. Actually, the Autonomies may have turned out as a clever strategy to weaken the Catalan and Basque nations among all the rest of Autonomous Regions.
The difficulties of finding a real federal accommodation that would respect the will of the Catalans and therefore allow for a conflict-free accommodation within Spain became evident when the politically appointed Constitutional Court dramatically cut back the Catalan Autonomous Statute in 2010.
What is federalism? German scholar Walter Rudolf defined federalism as “a compromise between two extremes” and yet a compromise is precisely what Spanish politics seem neither willing nor able to reach. Compromise would mean recognising Catalonia’s parliament as an equal political player to Spain’s.
To be fair, leader of Podemos and professor of politics Pablo Iglesias recognises the “plurinational reality” of Spain and the need for a self-determination referendum in Catalonia as the only way to make Spain progress.
Neither PSOE, PP nor Ciutadanos consider this an option, however. In the last election campaign, while they did mention a potential modification of the Constitution, this was most probably a change in the opposite direction: all of them clearly rejected any asymmetric federal solution for the Catalan conflict. Actually, PP and C’s campaigned for the thinning of regional administration – meaning a stronger centralization of power. So, no matter what Podemos thinks, the fact is that true reforms of the Constitution to fit Catalonia into Spain, which require at least 2/3 of the votes in Congress plus popular referendums etc., seem impossible.
Now, the key votes of the pro-independence Catalan MPs in the Spanish Parliament have an unusual role. They won’t support the left (PSOE) or the right (PP, Ciudadanos). They are in Madrid to negotiate a referendum and, if necessary, a win-win transition towards independence.
If nobody is willing to compromise, Spain may be heading for a snap election and even more instability.