Mixed message from Catalonia
There is one clear consequence from the otherwise confusing outcome of Sunday’s elections to the autonomous parliament of Catalonia: there will be continuing instability in a key region of Spain. This is bad news for Madrid, just when it needs to instil confidence in its EU partners, in preparation for an almost inevitable bailout deal. True, the news could certainly have been worse, from Spain’s conservative Partido Popular (PP) government’s viewpoint.
Arturo Mas, Catalan first minister and leader of Convergència i Unió (CiU), a centre-right Catalan nationalist coalition, had called early elections on the single issue of whether Catalonia should hold a referendum on independence. He appealed to voters to give CiU an “exceptional” overall majority – an extra six seats. Instead he lost 12. Nevertheless, CiU remains, by far, the biggest party in parliament.
Had Mas achieved his goal, CiU would have been irrevocably committed to full independence, an aspiration some PP ideologues regard as tantamount to treason. Now, as CiU nurses its wounds, its strong pragmatic tendency is likely to resurface.
Spain’s conservatives can take some satisfaction in CiU’s losses, and in the slight increase in the PP vote, despite the deep unpopularity of their austerity measures. And under normal circumstances, CiU would now surely attempt to return to its traditional focus on simply enjoying, and extending, Catalonia’s already extensive autonomous powers. But these are not normal circumstances. The election did not show any decline in support for Catalan independence, but rather a radicalisation of that support. Most of the votes that Mas lost went to the leftist ERC, unequivocally committed to full Catalan statehood. Its representation doubled to become the region’s second party. With two other leftist parties, the Catalan assembly is now split 87 - 48 in favour of independence – if CiU does not row back from its current stance.
Mas, it appears, was punished by his electorate not because he made a sudden push for independence, but because he had imposed a very severe regional austerity programme of his own – with the support of the PP. He now faces a chronic dilemma: with whose support can he govern a turbulent situation?
ERC is the most likely option, but it will not only demand that CiU stick firmly to an independence agenda, but that it abandon austerity. Conversely, the PP shares CiU’s faith in cutbacks, but rejects any increased Catalan powers. Anyway, a CiU-PP pact would be anathema to supporters on both sides.
That leaves the newly “federalist” Socialist Party (PSC), currently in steep decline. A CiU-PSC partnership just might work for a while, but would hardly resolve the grave problems facing both the Catalan and Spanish nations.