Mas calls early elections in November for Catalunya amid growing calls for independence

Artur Mas, the president of Catalunya (pictured above), called early regional elections yesterday, which are set for November 25, and which will now follow two other key regional elections in October — in the other two ‘nationalities’ of Spain, the Basque Country and Galicia.

The decision brings to the forefront of Spanish politics the question of Catalan independence during a period in which Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy is trying to balance increasingly harsh budget cuts against an economy mired in recession and 25% unemployment, trying to keep yields on Spanish debt from climbing too high (which surpassed 6% again this week) while also keeping his pledge never to seek a bailout from the European Union (a pledge that Rajoy seems increasingly unlikely to keep).

Mas’s decision amounts to the latest ploy in a game of chicken between Madrid and Barcelona, despite the fact that it’s a dangerous time for Spain (and for the eurozone) for either to be playing any such game.  After a month in which the eurozone seemed largely on the right track — a pro-European election result in the Netherlands, the European Central Bank’s decision to buy eurozone debt, the German constitutional court’s decision to endorse the European Stability Mechanism and optimism on Greece’s continued membership in the eurozone — a Catalan/Spanish showdown could spook bondholders into another round of eurocrisis.

The elections come more than a year early — elections were not due until November 2013 — and they come after contentious negotiations between Mas and Rajoy over a bailout for Catalunya.  At a time when many regional governments are struggling, Mas’s regional government is seeking a rebate of up to €5 million for Catalunya and a ‘fiscal pact’ under which Catalunya could levy its own revenues to be used solely in Catalunya.  This comes in the shadows of strident pro-independence sentiment, with up to 2 million Catalans participating in pro-independence marches (pictured above) on September 11 earlier this month (that’s Catalan’s national day).

If Mas’s Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), a center-right and autonomist party, wins the election on the strength of a pro-independence wave, and if it garners an absolute majority in the 135-member Catalan parliament (the Parlament de Catalunya), Mas will have more leverage with Rajoy’s national government — and it seems likely that Mas and other Catalan nationalist parties will champion a referendum on either greater Catalan autonomy, a full declaration of Catalan nationhood or actual Catalan independence from Spain.  Some polls now show over 50% of Catalans support independence, which has risen dramatically during the Spanish financial crisis of the past three years — just as Germans balk at sending money to shore up Greek and Portuguese (and Spanish!) finances, Catalans balk at shoring up broader Spanish finances.

If he wins, though, the danger is that Mas will become the unlikely champion of an independence movement that is moving faster than he might otherwise have liked.  The snap elections only risk fanning the flames of Catalan independence further out of control of Mas, Rajoy or anyone in Spanish or Catalan politics.

Rajoy, who certainly has enough headaches of his own, has taken a largely conciliatory public stance, even as he looks for ways to isolate Mas at the federal level — in the broad fight between Mas and Rajoy over concessions to Catalunya, Rajoy has the support of his own party, the center-right Partido Popular (the PP, or the People’s Party) and the opposition leader, Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the national center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), as well as many of the regional presidents, who blanche at Catalunya getting a better deal than their regions.

Catalunya, the second-most populous region in Spain, with 7.5 million people and one of three ‘nationality’ regions (like the Basque Country and Galicia), has as strong a regional identity as the Basque Country — both have their own language and their own culture that were subdued during the Franco era.  The current surge in support for Catalan independence comes from the view that Catalunya, as Spain’s wealthiest — and most indebted — region, has subsidized other (read: lazier) regions that have mired Spain in its current austerity/recession trap, and that money transferred from Catalunya to the federal budget is money that could be better spent shoring up the Catalan budget.

Essentially, Catalan politics since the end of the Franco era has been traditionally a battle between two major parties:

Mas’s CiU (technically it is a federation of two similar parties) essentially ran Catalunya from 1980 until 2003 under the leadership of Catalan president Jordi Pujol. Although it technically won a plurality of seats in the 2003 and 2006 elections under Mas’s leadership, it won nearly an absolute majority in 2010, with 38.5% of the vote and fully 62 seats, just six seats short of such a majority.

The Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC, Socialists’ Party of Catalunya) is the major center-left party in Catalunya, but remains much more federal in nature — it’s the Catalan variant of the national PSOE.  It controlled Catalunya’s government from 2003 to 2010 in coalition with two smaller parties.  It lost a significant number of seats in the prior 2010 election and holds 28 seats currently after receiving just 18% of the vote.

In response to Mas’s latest push, the PSC has called for a federal system, like in Germany (a call that has been met with something far less than enthusiasm from Rajoy’s government).

Meanwhile, five smaller parties also hold seats in the current Catalan parliament and will vie for support in the November elections:

  • the Partit Popular de Catalunya (PPC, People’s Party of Catalunya) — another center-right party, it’s the Catalan variant of Rajoy’s People’s Party. It won 18 seats on 12% of the vote in 2010.
  • Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (ICV, Initiative for Catalunya) — a leftist, green party, it joined in the three-way coalition that the PSC led in government from 2003 to 2010. It currently holds 10 seats after receiving 7% in 2010.
  • Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalunya) — a leftist party in favor of Catalan independence. It currently holds 10 seats after receiving 7% in 2010, but has held more than double the number of seats in the past.  The ERC was the third member of the PSC-led coalition government from 2003 to 2010.
  • Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència (SI, Catalan Solidarity for Independence) — another pro-independence Catalan party formed in 2010 that won around 3.25% and holds three seats.
  • Ciutadans – Partit de la Ciutadania (C’s, Citizens — Party of the Citizenry) –a center-left and federalist Catalan party formed in 2006 that won 3.5% in 2010 and currently holds three seats — it’s euroskeptic, supports a strong federal Spain and opposes Catalan sovereignty.

The Catalan parliament is a unicameral body and Catalan elections are determined by a proportional representation system.

As the November election becomes, in essence, a referendum on Catalan independence, the CiU and the ERC (and the ICV and SI) will have to form a pro-independence bloc.  That would mean the sovereignty axis has overtaken traditional ideology as the main artery of Catalan politics — note that the common thread of the three parties in the 2003-2010 coalition were that they were all leftist parties, each with varying positions on the appropriate level of Catalan sovereignty (and independence).

Early elections on October 21 in the Basque Country will likely return regional-based parties to power as well — Patxi López, who leads the Basque variant of the PSOE and who has served as president (or lehendakari) of the Basque government in coalition with the Basque variant of the PP since 2009, looks likely to come in third place.  Polls show that the centrist, nationalist Partido Nacionalista Vasco (the Basque Nationalist Party or the EAJ-PNV — in Basque, the Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea) are set to return to power, but also that, for the first time, following a ceasefire in the Basque Country in October 2011, a coalition of  leftist Basque nationalists (typically referred to as the ezker abertzalea), the Euskal Herria Bildu (EHB) are in a strong second place.  It’s hard to imagine anything in the Catalan elections moving the needle either for or against the various Basque nationalist groups, at least for now, but a real push for Catalan independence could awaken tensions here and further destabilize the federal Spanish government.

Early elections, also on October 21, in Rajoy’s home province of Galicia are likely to be seen as the first electoral test of Rajoy’s strategy, although Galicia is a stronghold of the PP and Galician president Alberto Núñez Feijóo currently lead polls to win reelection, although the outcome is not completely assured.  Galicia’s regional politics are much less radical — the local versions of the PP and PSOE vie with a third party, the nationalist/leftist Bloque Nacionalista Galego (BNG, the Galician Nationalist Bloc), which remains less powerful than the Basque or Catalan sovereigntist parties.

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