Legal barriers, potential scandal hinder Catalan independence

Polls indicate election will be tightly fought

With less than a month until Catalonia votes in an election which nationalists hope will see their region start the process of breaking away from Spain, their independence drive must overcome a controversial legal initiative by the central government and a potentially damaging corruption scandal.

The conservative Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) party, led by regional premier Artur Mas, is treating the September 27th Catalan election as a plebiscite on the creation of an independent Catalonia. It has joined forces with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) party and pro-independence grassroots groups to form a political-civic hybrid electoral platform, Junts pel Sí (or Together for Yes).

If they gain more than half of the seats in the Catalan regional parliament, they intend to begin a unilateral secession from Spain, which they expect to be completed in 2016 or 2017.

Polls indicate that it will be a tightly fought vote between separatists and unionists, and the Spanish government has vowed to prevent the region from breaking away, deeming such a move illegal. On Tuesday, the governing Popular Party (PP) unveiled a reform that will introduce harsh sanctions for those who disobey rulings by the constitutional court, including barring politicians from public office.

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The reform, which is expected to receive fast-track treatment with the help of the PP’s parliamentary majority, is widely believed to be tailor-made to hinder Mas and his independence project.

In November 2014, he defied the constitutional court by overseeing an unofficial referendum on secession, and the reform is seen, among other things, as an attempt to prevent him or other Catalan leaders from making a unilateral declaration of independence.

‘Joke has finished’

Shortly after the controversial legislation was unveiled, Xavier García Albiol, the PP candidate in the upcoming election, summed up the government’s approach to the independence project by saying that “the joke has finished”.

Catalan nationalists immediately criticised the reform, with CDC spokesman Pere Macías describing it as a “monumental abuse of democracy” reminiscent of the Franco dictatorship.

All opposition parties in the Spanish Congress also voiced opposition to the PP’s surprise reform. But Mas, who has been the figurehead of the independence drive of recent years, has had a difficult few days for other reasons.

Last Friday, the Civil Guard raided the offices in Barcelona of his CDC party and an allied organisation, the Fundació Catalanista i Demòcrata, as part of a corruption probe. The state anti-corruption office says it has proof that a businessman, Jordi Sumarroca, paid illegal 3 per cent commissions to Mas's party in exchange for lucrative public works contracts.

The development has drawn stinging reactions from parties that oppose the independence plan, with Socialist Miquel Iceta quipping that the Together for Yes platform "will turn into the 'Together for three per cent' candidacy". Pablo Iglesias, leader of Podemos, the new left-leaning party that has promised to clean up Spanish politics, warned that "sovereignty and corruption are incompatible".

CDC has denied any wrongdoing and has even suggested that the Civil Guard was acting on the orders of unionist politicians, with Mas apparently referring to the case a few hours after the raid when he described a “dirty war” being waged by his enemies.

A similar case last year saw CDC founder Jordi Pujol admitting that he had kept several million euro hidden abroad for decades, apparently to avoid taxation.

Catalan nationalists frequently claim that their wealthy region is subsidising a relatively poor and corrupt Spanish state. Any financial scandal surrounding CDC, which has governed Catalonia almost uninterruptedly for the last three decades, is therefore likely to hurt support for the pro-independence electoral platform.

Heighten tensions

The case could also heighten tensions within the electoral coalition, which brings together candidates from a broad array of ideologies who are united by the goal of independence. The powerful ERC, in particular, has had well-documented differences with Mas in recent months over how to proceed with the independence “roadmap”.

In a comment that seemed designed to admonish both his electoral partners and the Spanish authorities, ERC leader Oriol Junqueras said: “We are concerned by corruption and we are concerned that some only investigate it when there is an election campaign.”

While the pro-independence camp attempts to manage the scandal, Spanish unionists received a boost on Tuesday when Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel spoke out in Berlin against Catalonia's potential secession.

"It's very important that legality is observed both on a national and an international scale and on that there are no differences in our positions," she said, in reference to Spain's prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who was standing next to her.

Those comments followed a strident op-ed article published on Sunday by former Socialist prime minister Felipe González in El País.

Appealing to Catalans to accept that they are stronger as part of Spain, the former Spanish leader accused Mas of recklessness and breaking the law. More contentiously, he also made historical comparisons, asserting that the current independence drive “is the closest thing to the German and Italian adventures of the 1930s”.

The article drew support from fellow Socialists and the governing PP. But its tone was heavily criticised by others. In Catalan newspaper El Periódico, columnist Jorge A Rodríguez accused González of being "incapable of interpreting a social and political problem which over two-thirds of Catalan society have raised . . . if we continue like this, anyone who has an opinion against the interests of the status quo will be labelled a Nazi by the country's powers-that-be."