In this article, Max Graham continues his analysis of Spanish politics for CABLE. Casting an eye across the fallout from last month’s election in Catalonia, there is, he asserts, no end in sight to the current constitutional impasse.
In Catalan nativity scenes, there is a tradition of including a little porcelain doll in the act of defecation. This is known as el caganer which more or less translates as ‘the shitter’. A modern twist depicts the caganer as a topical public figure – Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is frequently portrayed in this way. One could theoretically combine this with the Spanish phrase “la ha cagado” – using the informal verb for defecating, to mean ‘he’s screwed it up’. In the Rajoy doll, we have an apt metaphor for the outcome of December’s Catalan elections.
If Rajoy thought he would be able to begin 2018 on the front foot, returning Spain to ‘normality and calm’ after the Catalan election that he arranged last month, he was very wrong. Having gone to the polls in record-breaking numbers on 21 December, Catalans voted to restore a pro-independence majority to the Catalan parliament, albeit by a very narrow margin.
The result invites a question which has been asked many times before: what does this outcome mean for the key political actors, both in Catalonia and across Spain? This article will cast an eye over the key players and assess where they go from here.
The biggest loser after the December election is undoubtedly Mariano Rajoy. Not only did his party lose more than half its parliamentary seats (from 10 to 4), his gamble – calling an election which , he hoped, would see defeat inflicted on Catalonia’s pro-independence parties – backfired spectacularly. It is irrelevant that the nationalists’ majority has been reduced from 9 to 5 seats. Their parliamentary majority remains and thus Rajoy has failed.
He admitted after calling the election that he had no “plan B” for the post-election landscape. Xavier García Albiol, leader of the Catalan PP, supposedly offered his resignation to the Prime Minister in order to absorb blame for the humiliating defeat. Rajoy did not accept this, arguing that it was not an opportune moment for an internal contest, given the “delicate situation” in Catalonia.
The PP’s desperation in encouraging Ciudadanos to try and form a government in the days following the election belies their fear of a nationalist coalition back in power. Rajoy is back to square one, and he knows it. The independence agenda still has considerable traction in the Catalan parliament.
This state of uncertainty relates to his own political position as well as to Spain’s uneasy constitutional position. Rajoy reiterated recently his desire to lead the PP into the next general election, due in 2020 (he has been party leader since 2004). The terrible result for his party in Catalonia has not yet thrown his authority into doubt within the ranks of the PP, but a continued failure to make progress in the constitutional crisis may be enough to precipitate a challenge to Rajoy’s leadership in the future.
The terrible result for his party in Catalonia has not yet thrown his authority into doubt within the ranks of the PP, but a continued failure to make progress in the constitutional crisis may be enough to precipitate a challenge to Rajoy’s leadership in the future.
It is significant to note that it may not be Rajoy who bears the brunt of the December result at the Catalan polls. Many in his PP party have pointed the finger at the deputy Prime Minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, the designated Minister responsible for Catalonia. She may yet be sacrificed as a scapegoat for the election result, having been Rajoy’s right hand woman since 2011.
Regardless, the impression that Rajoy is a worn-out model next to Ciudadanos’ young leader, Albert Rivera, will now be even harder to shake. By any account, the PP is weakened. With no majority in the Spanish Congress, and with no ‘Plan B’, its future – like Spain’s – is uncertain.
If we turn our attention to the leading anti-independence grouping, we see a different picture. Despite his youth, it cannot be said that Albert Rivera lacks experience. He has led Ciudadanos since its formation in 2006 – when he was only 27 years old. In that short space of time, it has become the largest party in the Catalan Parlament, winning 36 seats and 1.1 million votes on the 21st December.
This is an extraordinary achievement. But it is also a testament to how far the constitutional question has come to define Catalan politics and how Catalans vote. Despite this great success, Ciudadanos’ leader in Catalonia, Ines Arrimadas, still has no obvious path to securing the Catalan presidency, and for securing minority government for her party. Indeed, it would be political suicide for any of the pro-independence parties even to abstain on an investiture vote for their constitutional arch-rival. Allowing Ciudadanos to govern would be seen as the worst possible betrayal by supporters of independence.
Whatever form an eventual nationalist government takes in Catalonia, Arrimadas will be the one to lead the opposition. Looking ahead to the next general election in Spain, this is a strong position from which Ciudadanos might make its pitch to govern at the national level. A more moderate, modern alternative to the PP, free of the stench of corruption – and capable of bolstering Spain’s territorial integrity – could have wide appeal. Ciudadanos is well placed to be that alternative and Albert Rivera knows that he is the person to lead it.
PARTIDO SOCIALISTA OBRERO ESPAÑOL
Catalonia’s socialist party also finds itself under something of a cloud. The attacks deployed against it as being untrustworthy – ‘unreliable unionists’ – by Ciudadanos seem to have cut through in this election, which saw the Catalan Socialists lose three of their 20 seats. The party’s Catalan leader Miquel Iceta ran a spirited campaign – based upon opposing Catalan independence and fostering reconciliation – which ultimately fell short.
The PSOE’s national leader, Pedro Sánchez, has maintained his approach since the election, emphasising Spain’s need for a progressive government based on constitutionality and solidarity. He will no doubt continue to pressure Prime Minister Rajoy on the necessity of constitutional reform to solve the Catalan crisis. With the Catalan population split down the middle, it appears as the only plausible solution which might satisfy a majority of Catalans. A greater level of autonomy would likely be acceptable to both unionists and to a further 20-30 per cent of Catalans who might be regarded as ‘soft’ supporters of independence.
Podemos and its affiliate, CeC, also lost three of their 11 seats in the December election. The party’s more nuanced position on the question of Catalan independence resulted in an inevitable squeeze on their support in this constitutional contest. The party is opposed to independence itself, but favours holding an official, binding referendum on the issue.
While this vision makes sense, it may not be realistic to suggest that it offers a clear solution to Spain’s constitutional crisis. Any such Catalan referendum would likely produce a very close result which would do little to reduce tensions. And beyond this suggestion, Podemos has produced no concrete proposals for constitutional reform beyond the recognition of Spain as a ‘multinational state’, a largely symbolic gesture with no tangible impact upon said state’s governance. Given its sense that it can somehow speak to both sides of the constitutional debate, the party had hoped to emerge as a powerbroker from the December election. Instead, it finds itself relegated to the same minor role in this legislature as in the previous – as a radical element, jostled into the middle ground.
With their leaders (the most prominent being Carles Puigdemont) either languishing in jail or in self-imposed exile, the Catalan nationalist parties could have been expected to perform poorly in December’s election – it was, after all, an election intended to curb their power. However, whilst this election saw the highest turnout ever recorded for a Spanish election (82 percent), the three pro-independence formations retained a majority of seats in the Parlament.
However, these results put the separatists – once again – on a combined vote share of 48 per cent, a total they have not exceeded since 1999. And thus the tentative Catalan stalemate continues: this was a victory for the nationalists, but there remains no clear majority for independence.
It was a triumphant night for deposed president Carles Puigdemont, whose party, Junts per Catalunya (JxCat), surged in the polls to come second. He promised that should he win the election, he would return to Catalonia from Belgium where he currently resides. There are conflicting interpretations as to whether he did in fact ‘win’ – whether he did or not, it seems questionable that he could claim the presidency of the Generalitat from Belgium.
These results put the separatists – once again – on a combined vote share of 48 per cent, a total they have not exceeded since 1999. And thus the tentative Catalan stalemate continues: this was a victory for the nationalists, but there remains no clear majority for independence.
There has been talk of swearing in Puigdemont via a televised link. Meanwhile, Oriol Junqueras, leader of the other main nationalist party, ERC, remains in prison in Spain. Not for the first time in the past few months, Spain is in uncharted waters. Puigdemont reclaiming the presidency would be a severe setback for Rajoy, reversing completely the outcome of invoking Article 155 which suspended Catalan autonomy, and removed Puigdemont’s government.
It remains unclear what approach the nationalist parties might take if, and when, they form a government. They are, after all, not a monolithic bloc. The radical CUP takes a hard-line stance on independence, making ‘building the (Catalan) Republic’ a precondition of any coalition agreement with the other nationalist parties. Its four deputies would be required at least to abstain in order for JxCat and ERC to form a government. These two parties have softened their rhetoric, stepping back from unilateral independence, and now seek dialogue with Madrid to advance the cause of independence. This stance may be seen to represent a sober assessment of the landscape on the part of Catalonia’s nationalist leaders: namely, that the unilateral path to independence is – for the time-being at least – at a dead end. They may have won the election but are no closer to achieving independence.
And so Spain enters 2018 no closer to resolving its complicated constitutional question. Off the back of December’s election, the economic repercussions are beginning to manifest themselves: businesses have left Catalonia; investment decisions have been put on hold; and growth has been dampened. There is a risk that Spain’s nascent economic recovery may falter.
The option that would appear to satisfy the greatest number would be meaningful constitutional reform which would grant new powers, especially over taxation, to Catalonia. But this is a route beset with obstacles which would require deft political manoeuvring and compromise from a variety of actors. At this point in time, that kind of arrangement seems unlikely.
Solutions based around meaningful constitutional reform would go some way to dissipating this situation, but a sizeable minority will be satisfied with nothing short of full Catalan sovereignty. This aspiration is going nowhere.
What is certain is that it’s still appropriate to refer to a ‘Catalan crisis’. Predictions that the fervour for independence in Catalonia would quickly recede were always dubious – they now lie in tatters. Solutions based around meaningful constitutional reform would go some way to dissipating this situation, but a sizeable minority will be satisfied with nothing short of full Catalan sovereignty. This aspiration is going nowhere.
So the options appear extremely limited. And even those options which do present themselves herald little chance of prompting meaningful progress. For example, when we look at the shaky peg upon which Rajoy’s coat now hangs, an obvious move is to change Spain’s Prime Minister. Perhaps it’s time for a different caganer on the scene? But there is no obvious candidate waiting to replace him. And even if there was one, would it make any difference in cutting through the current impasse? Unlikely.
Max Graham is a graduate of the University of St Andrews and has just completed a year of postgraduate study at Emory University in Atlanta. He has previously interned with the European Union and the Carter Center and works for the charity Mary’s Meals. He can be found on Twitter at @maxjgraham
Feature image: The Spanish and Catalan flags fly outside the Palau de la Generalitat, Catalonia’s seat of government. Image: max_jam (CC0)