Spain’s Political Struggle Reinvigorates the Catalan Issue

Matthew Davenport is a Spring 2016 intern at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. He is currently a Master’s student at University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. In his post below, he discusses the Spanish political crisis following the national elections last December.davenport_1

On March third the Spanish Socialists (PSOE) failed to secure enough votes in the parliament to form a minority coalition government. As Spain enters its third month without a government and the threat of new elections to oust the current parliament becomes more of a reality, the issue of Catalan independence has reemerged as a powerful political tool to make or break any potential settlement. Spain’s general elections last December put an end to the two party rule which saw power alternating between the conservative PP (People’s Party) and socialist PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) parties ever since the death of former dictator Francisco Franco. Podemos’ meteoric rise from unorganized protest movement to Spain’s third largest party, as well as Ciudadanos’ strong showing as the “Podemos of the right,” broke down the former political order making a coalition government dominated by one side of the political spectrum nearly impossible.

Stuck in the middle of this political balancing act are the nationalist political parties of the autonomous provinces of Catalonia and Basque Country. By mid-February, PP leader and incumbent PM Mariano Rajoy failed to secure an agreement for a grand coalition involving the PP and the PSOE—the PP’s only real option to retain control of the country— and the responsibility to form a government has now passed to the PSOE. PSOE needs support from the nationalist parties, either by joining a coalition or simply abstaining in a vote to approve a new government. The Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, wrote before the failure of the PSOE coalition to get past parliament that Catalan support cannot be given without guarantees of a referendum vote. This gives major leverage to the Catalan parties, whose issue of independence from Spain cuts across the whole spectrum of Spanish politics.

davenport_3.pngThe issue of Catalan independence is a potential spoiler for any PSOE-Podemos coalition given that PSOE and Podemos are on opposite sides of the issue. PSOE has continuously rejected any referendum vote for Catalonia’s secession from Spain, preferring instead to address any grievances in Catalonia with a constitutional reorganization, modifying how the regions are financed by the central government but stopping short of any possibility of independence. A Podemos surge in Catalonia in the December elections was originally viewed as detrimental to the separatist cause as both center-left and center-right nationalist parties lost votes to Podemos and Ciudadanos. But Catalan separatist hopes were lifted when on February 15, Podemos released a 98-page plan for a coalition government. That plan calls for a referendum to be held on the issue of Catalonia’s succession that, “allows its male and female citizens to exercise the right to decide on their political future.” It is important to note that official Podemos policy is not necessarily pro-independence for Catalonia, but simply pro-referendum.

Podemos’ position can be seen as a way to consolidate the party’s growing support base in Catalonia vis-à-vis the Catalan nationalist parties. Podemos has been surging in Catalonia ever since the Podemos-allied candidate Ana Colau became Barcelona’s mayor following the May 2015 municipal elections. In Barcelona the issue of independence can be contentious, but the issue of holding a referendum has broad popular support, Podemos’ statements are not so much ideology as they are political calculations. Even within the party there is not a clear stance on independence. Ms. Colau claimed to have voted for independence in the unofficial referendum in 2014, whereas Pablo Inglesias has said, “I do not want Catalonia to leave Spain.”

davenport_2.pngThe issue of Catalan independence from Spain dates back centuries, but in recent years it has been characterized as a battle between Catalan regional politicians and the conservative central government. The Spanish Supreme Court consistently blocks bids for independence coming from Catalan lawmakers. Although the Catalan government is fractured into a shaky coalition government, the Catalan parties Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), the center-right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) party, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party, and the far-left minority partner Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) are all united around the issue of holding a referendum.

In February, the PSOE made its first significant step towards forming a government by inking a deal with Ciudadanos, but saw just how tough the formation of a coalition would be when Podemos promptly rejected the coalition in parliament. Although all three opposition parties are committed to ousting the incumbent PP, coalition politics may come down to the issue of the Catalan referendum. A collapse of this coalition effort, thus forcing new elections, would not only hurt confidence in the steadily recovering Spanish economy, but it is likely to empower the fringe Podemos and Ciudadanos, making a coalition even more difficult the second time around. As left and right fringe parties make massive gains across the EU, Europe is sure to be watching Spain closely as the country’s political balancing act plays out.

Image sources: The Guardian (image 1) Reuters (images 2 & 3)