24 September 2015

Catalan voters will head to the polls on Sunday. It will not be an ordinary regional election. The vote will essentially serve as a proxy for an independence referendum. As a result, the traditional left/right division of political parties in Catalonia has de facto been replaced by the pro-independence/anti-independence one – with Podemos somewhere in between.

The pro-independence camp

Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the centre-right party of outgoing Catalan President Artur Mas, has joined forces with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). These parties, along with a number of pro-independence associations, have formed an alliance called ‘Together for Yes’ (Junts pel Sí). In a bid to reach out to as many voters as possible, the ticket is led by an independent candidate – Raül Romeva i Rueda, a former Catalan Green MEP – but Mas would stay on as President in case of victory.

If pro-independence forces were to secure an absolute majority in the next Catalan parliament, ‘Together for Yes’ has promised to immediately launch an 18-month roadmap that would involve the creation of state structures (central bank, social security, tax authority, etc.), a new Catalan Constitution and, crucially, a declaration of independence.

According to recent opinion polls, ‘Together for Yes’ may fall just short of an absolute majority – but could in theory reach it with the support of a smaller left-wing pro-independence party called Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP).

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However, sealing such an alliance may not be straightforward – since the CUP is campaigning for an independence declaration immediately after Sunday’s vote.

The anti-independence camp

This side of the political spectrum looks far less united.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular is strongly opposed to Catalan independence and rejects the idea of holding a binding referendum on the subject. The party has also been sending mixed messages with regards to the prospect of amending the Spanish Constitution during the next parliament.

Conversely, the opposition Socialist Party is campaigning for a thorough constitutional reform that would turn Spain into a fully-fledged federal state – meaning more devolution of powers to Spanish regions, including Catalonia. The revamped Constitution would then be put to a referendum in the whole country.

The centrist Ciudadanos has been calling for a grand coalition of all anti-secession parties – potentially including Podemos. However, the idea looks unlikely to fly.

And then there’s Podemos

Podemos will contest this regional election on a ticket with other left-wing Catalan parties. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said in a recent interview,

I don’t want Catalonia to leave Spain, which doesn’t mean that I’m against independence. We’re democrats and we’re in favour of the right to decide, of respecting what the Catalans decide…But in order to do so, we first need to break the 1978 padlock [the Spanish Constitution].

In other words, Podemos appears to back the idea of a binding independence referendum in Catalonia – but only after the Spanish Constitution has been changed to allow for it. This puts the anti-establishment party somewhere in between the pro- and the anti-secession camps.

Uncertainty won’t go away after the vote

Crucial questions will remain unanswered after Sunday’s vote. First, due to the electoral system, the pro-independence parties could well secure an absolute majority (at least 68 seats) in the Catalan parliament with less than 50% of the vote. Could that really be considered as the ‘plebiscite’ in favour of secession that Mas and his allies are looking for?

Second, is this 18-month roadmap to independence the ultimate negotiating tool to convince the Spanish government to settle the Catalan question once and for all, or are the pro-independence parties really prepared for a head-on clash with Madrid?

I am inclined to think the former is truer, at least as far as Mas and his moderate nationalist CDC party are concerned. In principle, the roadmap gives the Catalan leadership enough time to return to the negotiating table and – ideally – obtain some concessions from the new Spanish government that will take over after the general election due later this year. Indeed, this would not be a risk-free strategy. Unless the concessions from Madrid are obvious and clear cut, pro-secession Catalan voters would likely feel betrayed if the roadmap were not followed – which could further exacerbate tensions within the region.

However, the situation would possibly be even more unpredictable if a new pro-independence Catalan government were to actually push ahead with the roadmap in spite of Madrid’s objections. Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution gives the central government the power to “adopt the necessary measures” to force a region to comply with its obligations. The thing is, nobody really knows what that means in practice. If Madrid and Barcelona were to keep talking past each other, we may enter uncharted territory in a few months’ time – especially if Rajoy’s Partido Popular remains in power after the upcoming general election.

Incidentally, I would not rule out that a victory for the pro-independence camp in the Catalan election could have an impact on the outcome of the Spanish general election too. In fact, it may well help mobilise voters in other parts of Spain who feel most strongly about national unity. This could ultimately lead to a boost for the most intransigent anti-independence (and anti-referendum) parties at the national level – that is, Partido Popular and Ciudadanos. That said, the general election campaign will be fought on a much wider range of issues (the economy very likely being the most prominent one) – making it far from easy to foresee exactly to what extent what happens in Catalonia in the coming days and weeks will influence voters across the rest of Spain.

Whoever wins the Catalan election on Sunday, I remain of the idea that mistakes have been made on both sides. For years, Rajoy and his government have stubbornly kept giving legal answers to what is a political problem. On the other hand, Mas and the other pro-independence Catalan leaders have not been fully honest with the electorate about what the secession from Spain would entail – particularly when it comes to Catalonia’s continued membership of the EU. The reality is that regaining membership of the Eurozone and the EU would take significant time and is far from guaranteed. The double whammy of leaving a currency union and then a customs union could indeed be a significant economic shock for an independent Catalonia.

If the political will for significant constitutional reform can be mustered, a viable compromise can still be found. The upcoming Catalan election will most likely be yet another reminder that time is running out.