A push towards independence
A double dynamic of great complexity is changing the landscape of Spanish politics in ways almost unimaginable five years ago. Firstly, the two-party system that has dominated the country since its transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1970s is facing strong challenges from both the radical leftists of Podemos and the centre-right reformist party Ciudadanos. The next general election, due this year, offers more significant imponderables than any in Spain’s recent history. Meanwhile, public opinion in the prosperous and populous region of Catalonia has shifted from supporting strong regional self-government towards demanding independence. The September 27th regional election is portrayed as a plebiscite on secession by the pro-independence parties.
It is sometimes suggested that these two dynamics might cancel each other out, benefitting the status quo in Madrid and Barcelona. Many Spaniards, on both left and right, are undoubtedly fearful and angry at Catalonia’s march towards secession, perceived as a refusal to share its wealth. Under other circumstances, these fears might be mobilised by the conservative Partido Popular (PP), heir to a passionate strand of Spanish nationalism, in government in Madrid.
But popular anger with the big parties has been fed by the misery of a long economic crisis for which both the PP and PSOE bear some responsibility, and by credible corruption allegations against both parties. It runs too deep to be diverted by flag-waving from the PP, whose patriotic rhetoric sits uneasily with its reputation for abusing public office for private enrichment.
However, it is certainly true that the irruption of Podemos and its local allies has also queered the pitch of the Catalan nationalists. Support for full independence has historically been the domain of the relatively small Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). The more moderate nationalists of the Convergència y Unió (CiU) coalition, conservatives in economic terms, were once happy with the considerable powers enjoyed by the Catalan autonomous government. But when Madrid quashed Catalan proposals to extend these powers in 2010, the Convergència leader, Arturo Mas, abruptly espoused independence. Since then, he has led a remarkably popular movement towards the brink of secession. But with Podemos’s left-wing allies now chasing a big slice of the Catalan vote, and insisting they will never support an economic conservative like Mas, the decisive majority that the independence movement might have expected only a year ago is no longer guaranteed.
At a time of great unease about the future of the European Union, one of its key members faces critical uncertainties not only about its political direction, but also about its very survival in its current national shape.