Electoral focus on independence backfires spectacularly for Catalan president Mas

Tue, Nov 27, 2012, 00:00

ANALYSIS:As Catalan president Artur Mas addressed his supporters on Sunday night after winning re-election in regional elections, there was no disguising his disappointment.

He had failed to secure the “exceptional majority” he had sought to push ahead with a referendum on breaking away from Spain.

“The referendum process is going to go ahead,” Mas said in Catalan, before adding: “It is possible but it’s more difficult now than it was a few days ago.”

Mas’s mainstream nationalists, Convergència i Unió (CiU), won the biggest share of the vote. However, their share of seats in the 135-member parliament slid by 12 to 50, meaning his decision to call the election two years early in a bid to win a resounding mandate on independence backfired spectacularly. “He had asked for an absolute majority so the stakes were very high,” said Ramón Pacheco Pardo, a lecturer at the department of European and international studies at King’s College, London. “This was one of those rare occasions when a Spanish political party actually acknowledged that it had failed in an election.”

While CiU lost ground, the big winners were the more radical nationalists of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), who doubled their seats to 21, becoming the region’s second political force. The ICV eco-socialists and radical leftist CUP, both of which back independence, also made gains, ensuring that the Catalan parliament maintains a predominantly separatist tone.

Independence

Pacheco Pardo says CiU’s relatively recent embracing of outright independence for the northeastern region worked against it. Many voters who liked the home-rule message will have backed the more traditionally pro-independence ERC, he said.

In addition, Mas’s regional government has been implementing a programme of severe austerity, cutting wages and social spending and making Catalans pay extra for medication. His electoral campaign, which focused intensely on Catalan identity, did not chime with the more pressing economic worries of many voters.

Mas’s failure to clinch a majority has not halted the push for independence, but he will now have to court other parties to back the referendum. ERC is the most likely, although its left-wing approach to economic and social matters could hinder negotiations with the more conservative CiU.

“The whole independence process has been slowed down by this result,” said Fernando Vallespín, a sociologist at Madrid’s Autónoma University. He considers it a potentially helpful breathing space for those wanting to break away from Spain.

“Pro-independence parties will now have time to see what happens with Scotland’s [2014] referendum,” he said. Catalans have been watching the Scottish independence bid closely and nationalists often cite London’s willingness to go ahead with a referendum as an example Madrid should follow.

But though Catalonia’s independence project seems to have been delayed, easing tensions with Madrid in the short term, there is a sense that the ball is now in the court of the central government and that at some point Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy will have to make a move.

Vallespín expects Rajoy to wait for the beleaguered economy to improve before attempting to sweeten Catalonia with piecemeal financial rewards – a practice that has often worked in Spain’s recent past. However, it may be too late for such a strategy.

“The Catalans won’t accept that any more. They want institutional change,” said Vallespín.