Convergencia i Unio, the political party of nationalist President Artur Mas, heads to the polls for the first time openly advocating the independence of Catalonia from Spain, seeking a broad consensus for the holding of a referendum in the very near future.
All this may sound familiar to British readers. There is no doubt that Artur Mas has been inspired by recent moves by Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, and his recent agreement with David Cameron on the terms of a referendum has perhaps granted some legitimacy to the case of Catalan nationalists; that secession in Europe is a possibility.
The lack of a ‘national debate’ within the United Kingdom could be due to confidence of the British public that the Scots do not want independence, or that they are indifferent to it. But it could also be due to the nature of the ‘British nation’, as a gathering of ‘home nations’ into a ‘United Kingdom’.
Spain is no such state, and the Spanish nation is inconceivable without any of its parts. The Spanish constitution, approved by 90.46% of Catalan voters in 1978 (higher than the Spain-wide average of 88.54%) and endorsed by Artur Mas’s own party back in the day, is grounded on
“the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, common and indivisible homeland of all the Spanish people, and recognises and guarantees the right of autonomy of the nationalities and regions which compose it and solidarity and among them all.”
Artur Mas won a plurality of seats (though not a majority) in 2010, ending seven years of chaotic Socialist-green-republican three-party government. He has now called elections two years early, seeking legitimacy for his ‘vision’. These elections are a ‘referendum on the referendum’.
This campaign has sparked a ‘national debate’, not only in Catalonia but throughout Spain, which has been driven by political parties. The Catalan Socialists have now reiterated their support for a federal Spain, although their brand of federalism would acknowledge the ‘singularity’ of Catalonia, giving it a special status over other regions that would seem to against the logical principles of federalism. They have even gone against the party leadership in Madrid in supporting a referendum on Catalan self-determination. The PP has released a video illustrating the ‘nightmare’ of a hypothetical Catalan independence, calling voters to ‘wake up’. On the other hand, CiU’s campaign spot shows an Artur Mas surrounded by Catalan flags displaying ‘the will of a people’. The highlight has to be UPyD’s video titled “a clandestine meeting of the Catalan Front for Liberation”, parodying Mounty Python’s “Life of Brian” and pointing out the benefits of Catalonia being part of Spain. The video has gone viral, with over a million views, but their predicted share of the vote remains at around 1 per cent.
Pre-election polls for the 135-member assembly show an interesting picture. Mas’s conservative nationalist CiU is predicted to add 2 or 3 seats to its current 62, but leaving him a few seats short of the 68 needed for a majority. The Socialist Party, is expected to mirror the collapse of its mother party in the general elections last year, and lose nearly 10 seats of its 28. It will have to fight for second place with the People’s Party, which could add seat or two to its already record-high 18, and a much strengthened Republican Left of Catalonia (going from 10 to 17). Fifth-place will no doubt go to the green-socialist ICV-EUiA, which should keep its 11 seats. The surprise is the social-liberal Ciutadans (of similar ideology to the national UPyD which is confusingly also standing in these elections), which could go from 3 to 7 seats. No other parties are expected to gain representation.
Now, I should point out that polls have always underestimated support for the People’s Party, and overestimated support for the Republican Left. I would not be surprised if the PP obtained over 20 seats and overtook the Socialists as the new second force in Catalan politics, and the Republican Left only got 12. But even assuming a huge margin of error in election polls, there is no doubt that nationalist parties, which would on other issues vote differently, have enough seats between them to approve the holding of a referendum.
However, this referendum is bound to be unilateral and therefore non-binding because, unlike in the United Kingdom, the Spanish government could not simply grant independence to one of its regions without a reform of its constitution. Mas argues that Catalonia, as one of the richest regions of Spain, should look to Brussels and not Madrid. He is perfectly aware that any region seceding from an existing member state would not automatically be a member state of the European Union (as confirmed by present and former European Commissioners) and is framing this referendum as a ‘consultation’. He has admitted that according to a strict interpretation of the EU treaties, Catalonia would not automatically be part of Europe, and has called for a ‘political’ interpretation of what happens in Catalonia and in Spain by the European Union. By this of course, he is hoping for a scenario in which a majority of Catalans have voted to approve independence, and is convinced that this would force Madrid and Brussels to be more flexible in their approach.
The problem is that all the political parties, both pro-Spain and secessionist, are presenting their own vision for the future of Catalonia. The pro-Spain parties must, as the ‘Better Together’ campaign has done in Scotland, present a united front for the benefits of Catalonia remaining in Spain. And the arguments are plentiful, most importantly on the economic front – a recent report by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that Catalonia would lose 19% of its GDP and would hold a deficit of 11% if it were to secede from Spain (and therefore, the European Union). Catalonia is Spain’s most heavily indebted region, and has received bailout funds from the central government several times this year. In September, S&P downgraded Catalonia’s credit rating to junk.
But by framing these elections on the issue of ‘identity’, Mas is distracting voters from the issue which most concerns people in Catalonia and across Spain – the economy. And this is yet another symptom of Spain’s dual political-economic crisis.