Catalonia’s Elections Take Spain Back to Square One

Catalonia’s Elections Take Spain Back to Square One

Catalonia’s Elections Take Spain Back to Square One

They made clear that the Spanish left lacks a convincing national project to counter the right’s reactionary, centralist patriotism.


“Could either of you tell me the unemployment rate in Catalonia?” Jordi Évole asked Inés Arrimadas and Marta Rovira on his TV show Salvados in what became the inaugural debate of Catalonia’s December 21 regional-election campaign, held just nine days before the vote.

“I think it’s around 19–20 percent,” Arrimadas, the leader in Catalonia of the right-wing Ciudadanos party, said before noting that it depended on whether one used statistics collected by the national organization or by the regional, Catalan organization. “I agree,” Rovira, secretary-general of the center-left Left Republican party (ERC), replied, adding that the Catalan economy had shown signs of recovery in October. “There I disagree,” Arrimadas shot back. “The October numbers have been very bad for Catalonia because the unemployment rate in Catalonia has increased at twice the rate of the rest of Spain.” Évole interjected to avoid a shouting match: “I just asked for the figure.” That figure, he revealed, was 12.5 percent.

Évole continued with his opening round of questions, asking for the number of refugees currently given asylum in Catalonia, the number of temporary buildings used in Catalan schools, and the number of Catalan women murdered by their partners in the year to date. Neither of the candidates could provide any of the answers. And that, it quickly became clear, was the point of the exercise: One issue—Catalan independence—had so polarized an entire region of Spain that many other important issues, from corruption to austerity, were being completely ignored. And the rhetoric on both sides had reached such a fever pitch that it had managed to distort the basic picture of reality.

However that picture might have changed in recent months, it has changed Catalan politics very little. The snap regional election on December 21, called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy after he used Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to sack the entire regional government and impose direct rule on Catalonia in late October, effectively produced a similar result to the previous election, held in September 2015. The pro-independence parties maintained a slight parliamentary majority, despite receiving around 48 percent of the popular vote. The self-proclaimed “constitutionalist” parties—Ciudadanos, Rajoy’s conservative Partido Popular (PP), and the center-left Socialist Party—together received around 44 percent of the vote, meaning they have no conceivable road map to form any kind of coalition government. Stuck somewhere in the middle and losing ground to both sides was the coalition known as the Comuns (“Commons”), which includes the group behind Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau as well as the Catalan arm of Podemos. The Comuns, whose campaign had emphasized social and economic issues while rejecting the debate over independence as a distraction, slid from nearly 9 percent of the vote two years ago down to less than 8 percent of the vote.

Curiously, some of the biggest winners and losers of the night came from the same side of the aisle. The Arrimadas-led Ciudadanos party, which was born out of Catalan anti-independence sentiment 11 years ago, captured just over 25 percent of the vote, making it the largest party in the region, exceeding even its own lofty expectations. The PP, meanwhile, lost nearly half of its support, dropping to a bit over 4 percent—its most marginal position in any of Spain’s 17 regions. The win and loss are intimately related. Having a viable, homegrown anti-independence alternative in Ciudadanos gave voters who would otherwise cast their lot with the PP an opportunity to have their votes matter without having to sacrifice ideological commitments. This switching of right-wing allegiances likely accounts for half of Ciudadanos’ surge. The other half almost certainly comes from the 82 percent turnout, the highest in the democratic era in Catalonia. Ciudadanos managed to convince several hundred thousand more voters to cast their ballots on Election Day, a significant number in a region that is home to 5.3 million voters.

Arrimadas’s successful strategy combined hawkishness on independence with lip service to feminism and issues of social welfare. Her party made significant inroads among the working-class suburbs surrounding Catalonia’s largest cities—the so-called “Red Belt”—that have traditionally been a social-democratic stronghold. According to the journalist Guillem Martínez, the Spanish migrant families that populate these areas have felt ignored by the independence movement. The tidal shift in pro-independence sentiment during the early 2010s replaced the long-standing inclusiveness of the Catalan social project with a for-us-or-against-us mentality; skeptics of the independence process were seen as traitors. This has opened the door to Ciudadanos’ brand of radical Spanish nationalism, which, as an editorial in the magazine CTXT points out, takes its cues from the French National Front. An unintended but major consequence of the independence process, Martínez notes, may well be “the birth of a new Spanish nationalist right in Catalonia.”

Since the debate over independence took center stage during the campaign, few managed to challenge Arrimadas on other issues, which might have revealed her party’s startling similarities on economic policy to those of the pro-independence Democratic Party of Catalonia (PDeCAT). The question over independence may turn out to be a Trojan horse through which to continue the destruction of the Catalan welfare state. Arrimadas has repeatedly questioned that welfare state, proposing “checks,” “salary supplements,” and other kinds of “help” in lieu of investment in more robust health care, education, and other social services. María-José Fariñas Dulce, a professor of legal philosophy at the University of Carlos III, has called Ciudadanos’ strategy “neoliberal pragmatism.” They advocate “the triumph of systemic individualism,” she wrote on the eve of the Catalan elections, “of those who resort to the social system only to obtain private advantages. The neoliberal utopia of a society of free individuals in an ultra-minimalist state.”

The results of the election were a triple failure for Rajoy. His party lost nearly two-thirds of its representatives in the Catalan parliament, while its direct competitor on the right won the election and now has nine times more representatives. The election also failed to produce what the prime minister had hoped for: a loss of the pro-independence majority after their failed bid to proclaim an independent republic. Instead, Catalan voters made clear they wouldn’t be intimidated by Rajoy’s de facto rule over the region. Turning out in record numbers, they unexpectedly heeded deposed president Carles Puigdemont’s call, from his exile in Brussels, to leverage the artificially imposed election and reinstate the government that Rajoy had fired. The campaign also revealed the PP’s lack of strategy going into the Catalan elections. “We are running in these elections in order to recover a Catalonia that is stronger, more prosperous, freer, more just, and with a brighter future,” read the only document the PP released during the campaign. Catalan voters, it appears, saw through this empty rhetoric.

The PP’s strategy, instead, has remained at the national level. With Catalan autonomy still revoked, the region is now ruled by a party that won barely more than 4 percent of the vote. (Rajoy has said that he will restore Catalonia’s regional autonomy once a government is formed, but his party’s rhetoric over the past few months suggests that that is far from a guarantee.) The PP has deployed what can only be called a McCarthy-style criminalization of any challenge to Spain’s territorial makeup. The leaders of two of the three largest parties in Catalonia, the deposed president Puigdemont of PDeCAT and vice president Oriol Junqueras of the ERC, were forced to campaign from exile and prison, respectively. And the number of politicians and civic leaders indicted or under investigation is only rising. Since September, dozens have been called to testify in a sweeping judicial investigation coordinated by Spain’s Supreme Court. The charges they face—rebellion, sedition, and embezzlement—carry up to 30 years in prison. Following the lead of the country’s attorney general and the national police, the Court is treating the events leading up to the October 1 referendum and the declaration of independence four weeks later as a giant subversive plot. An extensive police report delivered to the Court on December 15 concluded that the independence movement had systematically encouraged “hatred” of Spain, damaging the country’s “dignity” while “deploying a permanent strategy of carefully planned disobedience.” The report even named former FC Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola for having read a pro-independence text at a public protest in June.

Investigations so opposed to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are in keeping with Rajoy’s policies. Since becoming PM in 2011, Rajoy most famously curbed civil and constitutional liberties with the 2015 “gag law,” which, The New York Times noted, “disturbingly harkens back to the dark days of the Franco regime.” That the judicial system’s investigations today complement Rajoy’s political strategy is far from coincidental. Whether in the opposition or in the government, the PP has often looked to the courts instead of to the Parliament in order to carry out its political objectives. It happened back in 2006, when the PP filed an appeal against a new statute for Catalonia after parliaments in Barcelona and Madrid had already agreed on it. In recent years, the PP-appointed attorney general has appeared to orient investigations into the Catalan pro-independence movement: José Manuel Maza, who unexpectedly died in November, was the one who first framed Catalan claims to self-determination as rebellion or sedition—charges that were then taken at face value by the conservative judges who Maza made sure ended up with the case. And while the Spanish judiciary is notoriously slow when it comes to corruption cases involving politicians or the royal family, in the Catalan case the courts have been in overdrive. Two weeks after the referendum, two civil-society leaders were imprisoned awaiting trial; less than a week after Catalonia’s failed attempt to proclaim the republic, the same fate befell Vice President Junqueras and other members of the government.

The PP’s insistent claim that Spain boasts an exemplary separation of powers came tumbling down when, at a campaign rally in Catalonia on December 16, Rajoy’s second in command, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, bragged that it was Rajoy who had personally “beheaded” the independence movement. It’s no surprise that Spaniards have little faith in the courts. According to the European Union’s annual Justice Scoreboard, almost 60 percent rate their perception of the country’s judicial independence as “fairly bad” or “very bad,” situating Spain third to last among the EU’s 28 member nations. “The courts are acting like electoral agents for the PP and Ciudadanos,” constitutional scholar Javier Pérez Royo wrote in November.

Politicians today have not only made a mockery of Spain’s judicial system, but have practically turned it into a self-parody. On the day after the Catalan election, a court held the leader of a pro-independence organization personally responsible for a massive, minute-long boo during the 2015 soccer final of the King’s Cup between FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao. He was fined $8,500 for offending the king and the national anthem.

Regardless of the angle, the Catalan elections resulted in another defeat for the left, pro-independence or not. While the Catalan branch of the Socialist party increased its share slightly, the Comuns lost votes, despite active support from Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias and Barcelona Mayor Colau. At the last national elections, in 2016, the coalition led by historian Xavier Domènech still came out largest in Catalonia, with around a quarter of the vote. This time, the counter stopped at 7.5 percent. The unexpected dismissal, in October, of Albano Dante Fachin, the Podemos leader in Catalonia, who was seen as one of the most reasonable non-independence politicians in the region, may have had something to do with the poor results.

On the pro-independence side of the left, the assembly-based Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) lost over 40 percent of its support, six parliamentary representatives, and, crucially, a significant amount of leverage within the pro-independence group. When the die-hard independentistes of the small, anticapitalist party decided, in January, to approve a budget that failed to raise taxes on the wealthy, they did so strategically, in exchange for the referendum and subsequent independence process. By the time of the election on December 21, they had neither the redistributive economic policies nor the independent Catalan republic they’d advocated. Unlike in 2015, when the CUP negotiated for then–Catalan President Artur Mas to step down as a condition for forming a coalition government, today the two other pro-independence parties—the ERC and PDeCAT—can do so with a simple abstention from the CUP. And the threat of repeat elections in the spring, in which the CUP could hemorrhage even more votes, now looms large.

The Catalan elections have also made clear that the Spanish left lacks a convincing national project to counter the reactionary, centralist patriotism that’s long been the right’s bedrock. Podemos was founded in 2014 hoping to transcend the left-right divide and break Spain’s two-party system by channeling the electorate’s discontent into a broad popular front. Ironically, that’s what the pro-independence parties and Ciudadanos have managed to pull off in Catalonia. Colau, Iglesias, and Domènech were beaten at their own populist game. “One of the reasons Domènech has lost votes is simply because nobody believes any longer that Podemos has a solution for Spain,” philosopher José Luis Villacañas wrote on December 26.

The future is still unclear in Catalonia. A three-way pro-independence coalition government is by far the most likely scenario, with the Left Republicans joining Puigdemont’s party, with support or abstention from the CUP. But the failed republican adventure has left deep tensions among the coalition partners. While Puigdemont and the Left Republicans have perhaps slowed down or adjusted course, signaling that they are more interested in reforming Spain’s Constitution than seeking full-fledged independence, the CUP has not wavered in its demand for an independent Catalan republic. The judicial persecution of Catalan politicians at the Supreme Court in Madrid also complicates matters. Of the 70 pro-independence deputies elected to Catalonia’s 135-seat parliament, eight are currently in exile or in jail; more were indicted in the days following the election. If Puigdemont returns to Spain for his investiture as president, he faces immediate arrest.

Despite what happens in the negotiations, Catalonia will still have to live with the continued threat of intervention from the central government. The PP, which governs Spain without a parliamentary majority, has discovered that it can cripple its political rivals simply by throwing sand in their engines. Before officially revoking Catalan self-government, Cristóbal Montoro, Spain’s minister of finance, took control of the region’s books. Since then, he has done the same with the city government of Madrid and the regional government of Valencia, which are both ruled by coalitions that include Podemos. In each case, Montoro claimed that the progressive administrations were disobeying his strict, austerity-driven spending rules; in practice, they had cut the budget and planned to use the newly created surplus to invest in social housing and health care. “I do hope it won’t be necessary ever to apply Article 155 again,” Spain’s minister of justice, Rafael Catalá, said on Christmas Day. But, he added, a new Catalan government better not promote “secessionist movements that go against the Constitution.” Faced with this prospect, Catalonia will have little choice but to slow down its push for independence. It’s likely that it will instead increase the pressure on Madrid to sit down and negotiate a new statute for the region.

On Christmas Eve, Spain’s King Felipe VI addressed the nation with his yearly televised holiday message. This year, he said, had affirmed Spaniards’ “deeply felt commitment to the democratic Spain that we’ve built together.” The picture then cut to a wide, reverse-angle shot of the king, with the Spanish and European flags hanging in the background over his left shoulder. The shot was as much a threat to those questioning Spain’s coherence as a nation-state as it was pure kitsch. True Spaniards don’t rebel but rather bow down to the paternal authority of the king and the symbolic authority of the European Union, the clip suggested. This was the second time in three months that the head of state had spoken directly to his subjects. On October 3, two days after the violent crackdown on Catalonia’s independence referendum, Felipe had scolded the Catalan leadership for violating the Constitution “repeatedly, consciously, and deliberately” in a display of “unacceptable disloyalty toward the State.” His tone on Christmas Eve was less dramatic, but the underlying message had not changed. Just as he assured Spaniards that they should feel proud of Spain’s “mature democracy,” he implicitly denied all the signs that the country’s 40-year-old democratic institutions are incapable of solving what continues to be the country’s gravest constitutional crisis since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

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