Election will determine the balance of power in Catalonia

Calling an election in Catalonia following its failed bid for independence was a bold move by Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy. As election date nears, the region remains deeply divided

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy delivers a speech during a visit to the Freixenet winery in Barcelona last Wednesday. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy delivers a speech during a visit to the Freixenet winery in Barcelona last Wednesday. Photograph: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

 

On October 27th, as his government took the unprecedented move of introducing direct rule in Catalonia, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy tweeted: “I appeal to all Spaniards for calm. The rule of law will restore legality in Catalonia.”

Earlier that day, the Catalan parliament had issued a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain. Within minutes, the Spanish senate responded by approving article 155 of the constitution, allowing the central government to take direct control of the northeastern region.

Among his first measures following that approval, Rajoy announced the removal from office of the entire Catalan government which had led the secessionist drive. He also called a regional election for December 21st.

The conservative prime minister had been widely expected to introduce direct rule. But Rajoy’s decision to call an election within two months was seen as an uncharacteristically bold decision from a politician famed for his caution and equivocation.

“This is a risky manoeuvre which, nonetheless, opens up the way for Catalonia’s return to a fully democratic normality,” noted Madrid’s El Mundo newspaper, in an editorial that hoped for a unionist victory in the election.

But nearly two months on from Rajoy’s confident tweet, Catalonia’s future remains deeply uncertain given how deeply divided the region remains over the independence issue.

The Catalan issue has been by far the stiffest of several challenges for the prime minister since he took power in 2011

Polls show that the three main separatist parties are heading for a greater share of seats in the regional parliament than their three unionist counterparts. However, the pro-independence parties might fall short of a majority, leading to lengthy negotiations which could see either side form a new government.

“Catalonia’s independence is not at stake on December 21st – that moment has passed,” noted columnist Enric Juliana in La Vanguardia newspaper. “What will be decided is the balance of power in a fragmented Catalonia.”

Soveriegn bailout

The Catalan issue has been by far the stiffest of several challenges for the prime minister since he took power in 2011. His first major test, in 2012, was an economic crisis, during which he refused to follow Ireland, Greece and Portugal in requesting a sovereign bailout, until finally asking for a €100 billion financial rescue from the European Union to stave off a full-blown banking collapse.

Then, in 2013, a corruption scandal broke, stemming from allegations that Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP) had for years run a cash fund financed by corporate bribes. After sitting tight, the prime minister was bruised by the affair but survived thanks to his parliamentary majority.

In 2016, his political career appeared to have ended when a newly fragmented congress caused him to lose that majority, but after months of watching his opponents burn themselves out, Rajoy emerged as prime minister once again.

“Mariano Rajoy is at heart a civil servant who wants stability and calm, and in that sense he connects with a large part of his electoral base,” says Pablo Simón, a sociologist at Madrid’s Carlos III University. “Rajoy is the first prime minister we’ve had who is a pure conservative. He’s someone who will leave things alone if he can.”

Rajoy then introduced direct rule, following intense lobbying for him to do so from the Madrid media and the political right

Many attribute Rajoy’s equivocal, often passive, style of governing to his roots in Galicia. The people of that region, in Spain’s northwestern corner, are often characterised as being hard to read, ironic and reluctant to commit, all traits associated with the 62-year-old former land registrar from Santiago de Compostela.

“Sometimes making a move is good, sometimes it’s not,” Rajoy said in 2014, as tensions between Madrid and Catalonia over the independence issue started to build.

For the next three years he decided not to make a move regarding Catalonia, refusing to engage at a political level. Instead, insisting that the independence drive was unconstitutional, he left it in the hands of the courts.

That legalistic approach culminated in October’s chaotic, disputed independence referendum, when national police attacked Catalan voters in polling stations.

Intense lobbying

Rajoy then introduced direct rule, following intense lobbying for him to do so from the Madrid media and the political right. But in early November the judiciary was back in the spotlight, as eight members of the deposed Catalan government were remanded in custody to face trial on charges that included sedition and rebellion. They joined two civic pro-independence leaders, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sánchez, who were already in jail. Meanwhile, Carles Puigdemont, the deposed president of Catalonia, fled to Brussels, where he claims he is still the legitimate leader of the region.

Six politicians have since been released on bail, but the legal status of Puigdemont and his former colleagues makes this a highly unusual election. Oriol Junqueras, the former vice-president of Catalonia, who is still being held in prison in Madrid, sent Rajoy a letter this week with the sarcastic sign-off: “I wish you a happy Christmas in the company of your loved ones.”

Puigdemont has said he will return to Spain to take up his office if his Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCAT) wins, despite the fact that there is a warrant for his arrest should he do so. Both Puigdemont and Junqueras, of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), have been using their legal status during the campaign to their advantage, presenting themselves as victims of Spanish state repression.

However, with the independence movement divided and still recovering from its recent failure in the autumn, Rajoy arguably has more to fear from within the unionist camp.

Ciudadanos, a relatively new, liberal, party is leading many polls in Catalonia in terms of votes, due to its strident opposition to the independence movement. The 36-year-old head of the party in the region, Inés Arrimadas, has become the leading voice of unionism there, poaching votes from Rajoy’s PP, which is in danger of coming last among the main parties.

If she won on December 21st, the delicately balanced state of Catalan politics might still prevent Arrimadas from becoming the region’s new leader. But with Ciudadanos also performing strongly across Spain thanks to its unalloyed anti-nationalism, this election could be a powerful signal to Rajoy that he doesn’t have a monopoly on Spanish unionism.

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