New Government in Catalonia Looks to Speed up Secession From Spain
JANUARY 11, 2016, 4:58 AM EST
The pressure is now on the national politicians to form a government in Madrid.
On Sunday night, after more than two months of failed negotiations, bitter public recriminations, and a supposed do-or-die vote that ended in a 1,515-1,515 tie, the two secessionist parties in the parliament in the Spanish region of Catalonia managed what seemed impossible only days before: they agreed on a new prime minister and, just two hours before hitting the midnight deadline that would have forced new elections, formed a government.
“The [independence] process is saved. The Parliament will begin to function immediately,” Artur Mas, the outgoing Catalan Prime Minister, said when the preliminary agreement was reached on Saturday evening.
And with that, the already unstable Spanish political situation got even more complicated.
In Sept. 27 regional elections, the two pro-independence groups—the anti-capitalist leftist party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), and Junts pel Sí (Together for the Yes, or JxSí), a coalition of center-right, center-left, and civil society groups—won a majority of 72 out of 135 parliamentary seats with about 48% of the vote.
But the two quickly deadlocked over who would be prime minister, as the CUP refused to support another term for Artur Mas, who pushed austerity policies during Spain’s economic crisis and who heads a political party (Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, or CDC) that is the focus of multiple corruption investigations. Mas, in turn, refused to back down.
On Saturday afternoon, however, the groups reached an agreement: Mas, 59, would step aside and be replaced by Carles Puigdemont, 53, the mayor of the Catalan city of Girona. In return, the CUP agreed to vote for Puigdemont and declared that it would not vote against JxSí in any situation where parliamentary “stability” was at stake.
“Next stop, Independence!” Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Catalan Left) party, which forms part of JxSí, tweeted minutes later.
In what Omar Encarnación, the director of the political studies program at Bard College, calls “Democracy Without Justice,” political leaders both left and right informally agreed to move forward by ignoring the atrocities committed during and after Spain’s Civil War. A comprehensive amnesty law was passed; there would be no truth and reconciliation committees, no wrestling with the past.
The challenges of this willful ignorance became clear when two secessionist parties in the wealthy region of Catalonia formed a government over the weekend, just hours before a deadline would have sent the region to new elections. Immediately, pressure heightened on lawmakers in Madrid—who have been bickering since December elections left the country without a ruling party or coalition—to form a national government and deal with Catalonia.
Until the two opposing Catalan pro-independence parties came to their unlikely eleventh-hour agreement, it seemed like the national parties might be able to again join in a pacto del olvido. The odds had been that Catalonia would go to new elections and that support for the secessionist parties would recede.
If that happened, the thinking went, the future would be clear. Afraid to face new elections amid his own declining support, Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the center-left PSOE party—the second group in parliament with 90 of the 350 seats—would feel obliged to tragarse el sapo (make a painful decision; literally, “swallow the frog”) and allow the re-election of current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the arch-rival center-right Partido Popular (PP), which controls 123 seats. And Spain would return to its regular programming.
The deal in Catalonia has killed that potential scenario.
Now, the independence movement in Catalonia does not have majority support. In September regional elections, the two secessionist groups received just short of 48% of the vote (or, viewed more broadly, the support of 36% of the electorate). That’s not enough to claim a mandate for secession. But because of election rules, the parties received 72 of the 135 seats in Catalonia’s parliament. With seats in hand and no government in Madrid, the opportunity was too good to let percentages stand in the way. And so, on Sunday evening, new Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont declared that his government was embarking on an 18-month roadmap to a Catalan republic.
It didn’t have to be this way.
Tensions have risen in recent years in part because Prime Minister Rajoy and the PP have exhibited a mix of antipathy towards the regional government and an almost pathological inability to address the Catalan issue openly. When the region negotiated an autonomy statute with the government of Prime Minister Zapatero in 2006, Rajoy and his party responded by appealing—successfully—to have Spain’s Constitutional Court strike down large parts of it. He did the same when the Catalan government tried to hold a regional referendum-opinion poll on independence in 2014.
These moves made Rajoy’s later suggestion that the Catalan government should stop complaining and seek more autonomy through constitutional reform—which would have required support from the PP—seem disingenuous, to put it mildly.
Rajoy’s strategy has inflamed tensions. While, by all measurements, most Catalans do not support secession, a clear majority wants more regional autonomy and the right to be heard. As a Catalan friend — who is no fan of secession — asked me recently, “Why are they so afraid of a referendum?”
Faced with the increasing possibility of a political train wreck, Spanish intellectuals have floated solutions. Political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University, has pushed for a two-step process of constitutional reform, then referendum.
First, Spain’s Parliament would negotiate a constitutional reform that would give more powers to the nation’s regions, and Spanish voters as a whole would vote on it. If the reform passed nationally and in Catalonia, the issue would be considered closed. But if the reform failed, or if it passed nationally but a majority of Catalans voted against it, Catalonia would go to the polls and vote on a binding referendum with a clear question (in or out), a high threshold (half the electorate, as a proxy for a true majority), and limited repeatability (no sooner than 10 years).
While this may seem logical, it does not benefit those who are currently in power. The PP appeals to its core conservative supporters as a defender of national sovereignty. And the best, albeit small, chance that Catalan secession parties have for independence lies not in negotiation but in taking provocative steps—by creating an independent tax authority, for example—that could inspire the central government to respond with heavy-handed measures, such as eliminating the region’s self-government powers, that might move the international community to get involved.
There are obstacles beyond the political. Constitutional reform requires an ample majority in both the Parliament and the Senate, which means that the PP would have to be somehow convinced, however grudgingly, to let it pass. But it is worth the effort. While another 18 months of inflexible standoff probably won’t lead to independence for Catalonia, it will almost certainly lead to more bitterness, recrimination, and pain.
Omar G. Encarnación
For Catalonia’s newly inaugurated government, the stakes could not be higher. It is likely now or never for the proponents of Catalan independence. For the first time since Spain became a democracy in 1978, after four decades of dictatorship under the regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (a regime so profoundly antiregional that it banned all symbols of Catalan culture, such as the Catalan language and flag), a political movement laser-focused on independence has won the majority of seats in the Catalan parliament. Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a coalition of Catalan parties supportive of independence, won last September’s Catalan regional elections. Upon assuming power, Catalonia’s new premier, Carles Puigdemont, announced plans for the creation of the Republic of Catalonia within 18 months. To underscore the seriousness of his intentions, Puigdemont, in open defiance of tradition and the law, did not pledge loyalty to the Spanish constitution or the Spanish crown. Adding insult to injury, the portrait of King Felipe, which hangs in the chamber where Puigdemont’s swearing-in took place, was covered with a veil during the ceremony.
For the central administration in Madrid, the standoff with Catalonia, which accounts for 20 percent of Spain’s economic activity and represents about the same percentage of the Spanish population, could not have come at a worse time. Spain is politically deadlocked after the inconclusive results of the December 20 national elections, which generated a fragmented parliament. Neither of the two parties that have ruled Spain for decades won a sufficient number of parliamentary seats to form a government without needing alliances with other political parties. Led by incumbent Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the conservative Popular Party (PP) won 28.7 percent of the vote to emerge as the winner, and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) won 22 percent of the vote, enough to become the second most important party in the new parliament. Together, two new upstarts, the left-wing Podemos (We Can) and the center-right Cuidadanos (Citizens), got a third of the vote, a testament to the dissatisfaction of the electorate with the traditional parties. The PP and PSOE’s share of the electorate fell from 80 percent in 2011 to 50 percent in 2015.
Two options for a coalition government in Spain — which would be the first government of this kind for the country since the tumultuous Second Republic, the interwar regime that ushered in the Spanish Civil War — are generating the most buzz. The first one is a grand right-left coalition between traditional opponents PP and PSOE. It would be modeled on Germany’s current government, which incorporates former rivals Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. The second option is a leftist “coalition of the losers”, similar to the one currently in power in Portugal, encompassing the PSOE, Podemos, and Izquierda Unida (United Left), an assortment of left-wing parties including the once mighty Spanish Communist Party and the Verdes (Greens). If neither option materializes, Rajoy will be forced to call new elections. Polls suggest that the majority of Spaniards want the parties to agree to a coalition rather than to holding a new election.
PROTECTING THE HOMELAND
As might be expected, all the talk of independence in Catalonia brings to mind last year’s epic struggle for independence in Scotland. Despite the heartbreaking outcome for Scottish ationalists, Scotland’s independence referendum is the source of inspiration for the Catalans. Yet there are many compelling reasons to believe that the Catalans face a considerably steeper struggle for independence than the Scots ever did. For one thing, a legally binding referendum, the main vehicle to potential independence for Scotland, is not a realistic option for Catalonia. Madrid has at its disposal a large arsenal of tools to block any referendum on Catalan independence, including, most notably, the Spanish constitution, which explicitly forbids any region in Spain from exercising self-determination.
Madrid can also block an independence vote in Catalonia by working through the national parliament, which would have to approve any referendum on independence in Catalonia or any other region. There is a history of Spanish political administrations, from both the left and the right, using the parliament to block separatist movements. During the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, the socialist administration of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero used a series of parliamentary votes to derail a drive for independence in the Basque Country. Last fall, the Rajoy administration secured a vote in the parliament declaring any Catalan referendum illegal and nonbinding. That vote enjoyed the support of all the political parties represented in the parliament, save for the Basque and Catalan nationalist ones.
Additionally, the central government in Madrid could always force Catalonia into abandoning its independence ambitions. It could financially starve the regional government by, among other things, moving state resources outside of Catalonia. It could move the national military into the region to intimidate the local government and secure pledges from foreign nations and the European Union not to recognize an independent Catalonia. If all else fails, Madrid could pick the nuclear option: canceling outright Catalonia’s regional self-governance charter, something permitted under the constitution. Of course, no one in Spain expects the present standoff to come to any of this, but Rajoy has made it clear that he will use any means necessary to protect the integrity of the nation. “I will not allow anything that could harm the unity and sovereignty of Spain,” said Rajoy as the Catalans were about to vote in a new separatist leader.
A BYZANTINE WORLD
The View from Catalonia: The Ins and Outs of the Independence Movement
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