Will Catalonia’s Regional Elections Lead to the Breakup of Spain?

Will Catalonia’s Regional Elections Lead to the Breakup of Spain?

Will Catalonia’s Regional Elections Lead to the Breakup of Spain?

The drive for independence is growing, sparking similar movements in the Basque Country and Galicia—and complicating politics for the new leftist party Podemos.


When Pep Guardiola, a former star player for the Spanish national soccer team and now one of the world’s most successful club managers, announced in July that he’d joined the electoral coalition in favor of Catalan independence, Spain’s interior minister couldn’t hold back his excitement. “When they take off their masks,” said Jorge Fernández Díaz, “we see that the [Catalans] who played and triumphed with the Spanish national soccer team surely did not do so out of patriotism, but out of greed. Some people have money as their god.”

With a single salvo, Fernández Díaz managed to question Guardiola’s integrity and invoke the age-old stereotype of Catalonia as a region of calculating money-grubbers. For many Catalans, the statement confirmed the central government’s utter lack of understanding of and respect for their culture and identity.

On September 27, for the third time in five years, Catalonia will be holding regional elections. Many have defined the elections as a de facto referendum on independence. The interior minister’s candor showcases the bull-in-a-china-shop approach that the ruling, conservative Partido Popular (PP) has taken to Catalonia’s demand for self-determination. Spain’s federalist center-left hasn’t fared any better. In late August, former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González published an open letter in El País, unambiguously titled “To the Catalans,” comparing the pro-independence movement to Italian Fascism and German Nazism, implying that the Catalans had allowed themselves to be seduced by devious political leaders.

Those leaders replied days later with their own open letter in the same paper, “To the Spanish,” written by Catalan President Artur Mas and signed by seven other party leaders in the pro-independence coalition Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”). Soaked in the language of melodrama, the letter narrated a history of Catalonia’s unrequited love for Spain, only comparable with Charlie Brown’s for the little red-haired girl: “Catalonia has loved Spain and continues to love it,” wrote Mas. “The problem isn’t Spain, it’s the Spanish state.”

Competing nationalisms can baffle many an outsider. Whether Catalan, Basque, Galician, or Spanish, nationalism is Spain’s most divisive issue. To complicate things further, nationalist fault lines cut across the left-right political spectrum. Politicians who would otherwise see eye-to-eye on economic and social policy find themselves deeply at odds when it comes to defining Catalonia vis-à-vis Spain, for example. That’s because in Spain, as opposed to the United States, there exist two political axes, explains Lluís Orriols, a political scientist at the Carlos III University of Madrid. There’s the liberal-conservative axis, which includes moral, economic, and social variations, but can generally be explained within the left-right political continuum. Then there is “the ethnic-nationalist or identitarian” axis, says Orriols, in which the radical left might find itself agreeing with the far right. Neither axis necessarily takes precedence over the other. But for parties that mainly define themselves in left-right terms, a clearly defined position on the topic of nationhood risks alienating a significant part of their constituency.

The PP’s own nationalism—Spanish as opposed to Catalan—has paid electoral dividends in the Castilian heartland and elsewhere. But it has squandered any credit the party once had in Catalonia: It looks to lose a third of its seats in the upcoming elections, possibly becoming the second-smallest party in the Catalan Parliament. Podemos, the new leftist, anti-austerity party, has also had a difficult time walking the tightrope. Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, has promised to reform the Constitution, which currently divides the country into 17 “autonomous communities,” in order to better accommodate Catalonia’s aspirations. Podemos has also said it respects the Catalans’ right to democratically decide on their future. But many Catalans remain wary of any promise from Madrid. They rightly see Podemos as a Madrid-oriented party: Most of Podemos’s founders are madrileños; many in the party have indicated a personal preference for Catalonia to remain a part of Spain; and the party as a whole has wavered on other sensitive issues for Catalonia, such as Spain’s fiscal structure.

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Spain’s territorial conundrum goes back centuries. Among the country’s 17 autonomous communities, three have long thought of themselves as separate nations: Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country. In the late 19th century and during the Second Republic (1931–39), nationalisms flourished. The following nearly four decades saw Franco’s fascist military dictatorship (1939–75) savagely repress any idea that didn’t exalt a unified, imperial, and Catholic Spain. In 1978, several political parties came together to write a new Constitution. These included an earlier incarnation of the PP, the Socialists (PSOE), and the Spanish Communist Party (PCE), as well as Convergència i Unió (CiU), a center-right Catalan coalition that identified as nationalist. Approved three years after the dictator’s death, the Constitution was designed both to acknowledge Spain’s multinational makeup and protect its unity as a nation-state. The system of autonomous communities affords Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country some privileges, including the right to their own official languages alongside Spanish. At the same time, the system breaks up their historical territories and ends up treating all 17 communities as if they were the same.

For Marina Subirats, an emeritus professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona who has served on Barcelona’s city council, language preservation has been one of the most important outcomes of the current system. Schoolchildren in Catalonia learn both Spanish and Catalan. More importantly, she says, “all of the studies have shown that students educated in Catalonia have equal or a better knowledge of Spanish than those educated in communities where only Spanish is spoken.” It’s bilingualism at work: According to many studies, the teaching of two languages from a young age enhances cognitive development.

But the system of autonomous communities hasn’t been finalized, Subirats says. Spain’s federalism is still under construction. Orriols points to the fact that, in Spain, there’s nothing like the US Senate, which would afford equal power to each autonomous community in Madrid’s central government. Each community currently has a certain degree of autonomy, especially on issues of culture and language, but Madrid rules the country’s economics by fiat. This leads to a situation that many Catalans consider unfair. While Catalonia makes up about 6 percent of Spain’s territory, it holds 16 percent of the population and is responsible for 19 percent of Spain’s GDP. Yet it only receives 12 percent from the national budget. Many Catalans feel they are pulling too much of the country’s weight, that Spain is holding them back, and that they would be better off on their own.

The consensus in Spain today is that there are roughly three alternatives to the status quo: more centralism (toward a unitary nation in the French mold), more federalism (toward a German or an American model), or independence, meaning a definitive breakup of the Spanish state. All three positions come in an array of political flavors, ranging from the extreme right, through neoliberalism, traditional liberalism, and social democracy, to the radical left.

This makes for rather unusual bedfellows. The coalition Guardiola joined is a case in point. Junts pel Sí yokes together the right and left wing in a sort of grand coalition for Catalan independence. The Convergència party, led by Catalan president Mas, is business-friendly, austerity-happy, and deeply corrupt. (Last year, for example, party icon Jordi Pujol, the president of Catalonia from 1980 to 2003, admitted to three decades of tax evasion.) Convergència’s main coalition partner is Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Catalan Republican Left), a left-wing, anti-monarchist party led by Oriol Junqueras that has long challenged Convergència’s dominance in Catalonia. A number of well-known public figures like Guardiola have joined Junqueras and Mas. In fact, neither of the two party leaders sits at the top of the list. In that spot is Raül Romeva, a charismatic radical-left academic who served in the European Parliament for the Catalan Green Party. Romeva also has a distinguished track record as a peace and disarmament specialist for UNESCO. If Junts pel Sí wins the elections, however, Romeva will step aside and Mas will resume his presidency of the Catalan regional government, known as the Generalitat.

Mas’s successful seduction of the ERC and activists like Romeva has driven a wedge into the Catalan left. For progressive Catalans, three options prevail. One is the pro-independence grand coalition Junts pel Sí. Junqueras, Romeva, and other leftists in Junts pel Sí have justified their compromise with the right in terms of time and leverage: The coalition will only exist for this election, and its sole purpose is to gather enough votes to leverage support for independence, putting Madrid in a bind. Another option, further on the left, is the small but growing Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which decided against joining the grand coalition but is firmly pro-independence and wants to leave the European Union. Recent polls suggest that CUP may hold the key to the election: Junts pel Sí may need its votes to form a pro-independence government. Finally, leftists may also choose the hands-off federalist coalition, Catalunya Sí que es Pot, which includes Podemos, the United Left (IU), and a pair of green parties (one of which is Romeva’s former political home). This broad coalition may reap the same rewards as Barcelona en Comú at the local elections in May, which attracted the many in the regional capital who are agnostic on independence. Barcelona en Comú’s victory in May catapulted its leader, Ada Colau, into the mayoralty.

Podemos and its coalition partners have tried hard to reframe the debate. Instead of adjudicating the question of independence, they’ve instead emphasized the primacy of democracy, anti-austerity, and social justice. Podemos’s position was perhaps best expressed by the novelist and op-ed columnist Isaac Rosa a couple of years ago. “I am convinced,” Rosa wrote, “that the majority of Catalans don’t want to leave Spain: they want to leave this Spain, which is not the same thing. But there are many of us who want to leave this Spain—and who don’t have independence as an option.” The message, in sum, is to transform Spain together.

The Podemos coalition has also denounced Mas’s bid for independence and the PP’s headstrong resistance as electoral ploys that mask both parties’ regressive economic policies and moral bankruptcy. “Mas and Rajoy represent the same [kind of] corruption,” Iglesias said in late August. “A vote for us serves to get rid of both.” The comparison is misleading, says Stanford professor of Iberian and Latin American Cultures Joan Ramon Resina, a longtime analyst of Catalan affairs. Podemos’s discourse on Catalonia, he says, is based “on a false and impossible equidistance.” Iglesias is “blaming the victim and the victimizer”—which, he says, is “a cowardly way of siding with the victimizer.” Iglesias’s tactic may be a strategic appeal to Podemos’s own federalist base: According to recent polls, two-thirds of its supporters outside of Catalonia disapprove of Catalan independence. But what to the rest of Spain may sound progressive has a very different ring to Catalan ears. “When Pablo Iglesias attacks Rajoy and Junts pel Sí in one breath,” says Resina, “he cuts nothing short of a counter-revolutionary figure.” “I don’t think Catalans can trust Podemos,” says Eulàlia Comas, a young filmmaker who works for Catalan television. “Their discourse on Catalonia has been extremely ambiguous and opportunistic.”

Opposite Podemos, the Catalan right stands to gain significantly from the elections. “Mas has hijacked the soberanista [sovereignty] movement,” says journalist Guillem Martínez. “It is true that the Spanish government did not let the Catalans vote on their future, but neither did the Catalan government allow the Catalans to vote on the largest cutback of democracy and rights in Europe since 1945,” he added, referring to Mas’s drastic austerity policies. Mas’s propaganda, Martínez underscores, has combined the idea of an independent Catalonia with his party’s neoliberal agenda of privatizing public services. And that economic policy has been devastating. “Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Europe, but its income distribution is increasingly skewed,” wrote journalist Andreu Missé in the magazine Contexto. Poverty has soared, especially among children, while education and healthcare have suffered deep cuts and further privatization. “For five years,” wrote Missé, “the Mas government has turned its back to the ever-growing number of poor in Catalonia.… The ideological debate on independence has eclipsed the urgent and real problems facing millions of people.” Ultimately, “the political culture of Convergència,” Martínez says, “is no different from that of the PP.”

Although the ERC defends its coalition with Mas as “purely strategic,” it is widely suspected that Junqueras was blackmailed into the deal. “Mas held a trump card,” Resina says. “Only he could call early elections for the Generalitat and turn them into a plebiscite.” Mas threatened to call the elections off unless ERC joined his bid. Junqueras, who knew his party would be blamed for the dashed hopes, had little choice. “He gave in,” says Martínez, and “later, in ERC’s national council, no one else was willing to defend that decision.” But the leftist ERC also has a history of supporting the right-wing Convergència: In 1980, during the first regional Catalan elections following Spain’s transition to democracy, it supported Jordi Pujol’s presidency, thwarting the center-left Socialist party’s ability to form a government.

Both Mas and Junqueras have tied their political fate to their marriage of convenience. Many observers have predicted that their coalition will come out winning. Moreover, Spain’s electoral system might grant them a majority in Parliament even with less than 50 percent of the popular vote. Votes in the city of Barcelona, where skepticism about independence is the highest, are not weighed equally with those in rural parts of Catalonia, where the pro-independence sentiment runs deepest. Still, Mas has said a parliamentary majority is enough of a mandate to move forward on independence. In fact, he and his partners have claimed that 18 months is all they need to prepare a new, independent Catalan state. But they have yet to answer many pressing, basic questions. Will Catalonia have to reapply for membership to the European Union? Will it have to create a parallel currency, until it’s admitted to the eurozone? Will it form an army? What role will the parts of the ruling coalition play in drafting a new Constitution? Will F.C. Barcelona leave the Spanish soccer league?

Although tensions now seem to have reached a breaking point, the current standoff was long in the making. Catalan governments have actively tried to change their relation to the Spanish state for years, but Madrid has consistently met these efforts with silence, derision, or flat-out rejection. When the Catalan Parliament voted for a new statute of autonomy in 2006, defining Catalonia for the first time as a nation rather than a mere “nationality,” the Spanish Constitutional Court conveniently took four years to declare it illegal.

“The verdict sent a shockwave through Catalan society,” says journalist Martínez. For Barcelona, “it became clear that any change within the Spanish state was impossible,” he says. On September 11, 2012—Catalonia’s annual remembrance of its loss of self-government in 1714—a million outraged Catalans took to the streets to declare Catalonia a “new state in Europe.” The protests were, in part, a response to Madrid’s reshuffling of the tax burden to regions such as Catalonia and Andalusia. In Catalonia, the changes were justified as addressing the region’s high levels of debt. Artur Mas, then leader of the long-ruling CiU, which had traditionally been moderate on the national issue, saw his chance to boost lackluster electoral support and distract from his party’s mounting corruption scandals. He called for elections in November of that year, embarked on a blitzkrieg for self-determination, and won with 30 percent of the vote.

Mas practically became a full-blown soberanista overnight. And as the self-appointed champion of Catalan sovereignty for the past three years, he has convinced an overwhelming majority of Catalans (75 percent) and a little less than half of Spaniards (46 percent) to support the “right to decide,” regardless of their views on independence. In November last year, Mas called for a referendum, asking Catalans to answer two simple questions: Do you want Catalonia to be a state? If so, should it be independent? Madrid declared the referendum illegal, claiming that Spain’s 1978 Constitution does not allow autonomies to secede on their own accord. The only sovereign body able to make such a decision would be the entire Spanish people. Mas defied the prohibition and charged on. On November 9, 2014, 2.3 million Catalans—about a third of eligible voters—participated in a massive act of civil disobedience by casting a vote. More than 80 percent voted yes for independence. Two weeks later, Spain’s attorney general filed charges against Mas for “disobedience, breach of public duties, misuse of public money and usurpation of powers.” The case is still in court.

“The joke’s over,” Xavier García Albiol, the PP’s candidate in Catalonia, recently boasted. He and other PP members have been puffing out their chests following the central government’s latest attempt to put Catalonia back in line: a change in the role of the Constitutional Court, allowing it to sanction the Catalan president without recourse should he (or she) declare independence. Politicians and constitutional experts alike are appalled at the PP’s blatant use of the judiciary as an electoral tool. The defense minister, meanwhile, did not rule out sending tanks to Barcelona. But Madrid’s overreaction only reinforces Mas’s position, says Martínez: “One of Europe’s most ruthless proponents of austerity, whose party has a proven track record of corruption, is now a civic hero, taken to court for defending democracy.”

Thanks to the PP’s intransigence, the soberanista movement has mushroomed across Spain. In the Basque Country and Navarre, Bildu, a leftist Basque nationalist coalition, is currently negotiating with other parties to form a broad left-wing, pro-independence party for the upcoming national elections in December. Earlier this year in Galicia, a group of intellectuals published a manifest calling for a “Galician Wave” coalition that would join together the region’s leftist and pro-independence parties.

The growing desire for independence, driven by a combination of self-interest and ethnic pride, has also sparked utopian imagination. “Democracy simply works better on a smaller scale,” says Eulàlia Comas, the filmmaker. “Independence means more self-government, more solidarity.” A 2011 pro-independence campaign spot in Catalonia compared the drab present with the prospect of a better future: “An autonomous community of unemployment—or a republic of entrepreneurs. An autonomous community of athletes without a country—or a republic of world champions. An autonomous community of nothing will change—or a republic of everything is possible.”

This message of hope, pride, and possibility—which the Junts pel Sí coalition has perfected by injecting it with a strong dose of inclusion and progressivism—is proving almost irresistible. On September 10, a number of prominent intellectuals from the small leftist parties that joined the Podemos coalition broke ranks, calling on their constituencies to support the pro-independence ticket instead. A vote for independence, they said in a joint statement, will help bring about “a Catalonia that is more democratic, more free, more progressive, and more leftist.” “The independence movement is extremely transversal,” says Comas. “The main actor in the process has been organized civil society.” Marina Subirats, who is also playing a ceremonial role in the Podemos-backed coalition, says that she hasn’t seen so much idealism since the transition to democracy. But she is skeptical nevertheless. “People are drunk on hope,” she says. And as with any night of too much drinking, “it’s bound to end in a hangover of frustration.”

It’s unclear to what extent the Catalan elections will serve as a dress rehearsal for Spain’s upcoming national elections, likely to take place in mid-December. For the country’s two major parties—the ruling PP and the Socialists—the Catalan elections prompt desperate attempts at damage control. But for Podemos and its counterpart, Cuitadans (“Citizens”)—a Catalonia-based anti-independence party that recently jumped to the national stage with a center-right, anti-corruption profile—these Catalan elections will be their last chance to test their political strategies. Returning to home soil, Cuitadans may become the second-largest party in the Catalan government, a huge improvement over its underwhelming performance in May’s local and regional elections.

Podemos, whose plan was to bridge the left-right divide and to channel Spaniards’ widespread frustration into direct participation in the political process, has seen Junts pel Sí beat it at its own populist game. The Catalan coalition has created a near-majority of support for independence that cuts across the political spectrum. Still, Podemos is drawing important lessons from the citizen’s platforms that remarkably led to the mayoral elections of Ada Colau in Barcelona and Manuela Carmena in Madrid. If Catalunya Sí que es Pot is any indication, Podemos is shifting its approach toward supporting joint coalitions that broadly appeal to the left, as opposed to the brand-name approach it has used so far. It’s a strategy with strong potential—even if the Catalan nut has proven harder to crack.

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