Ultimately, in the game of chicken between Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas and the handful of radical left legislators standing in the way of forming a new executive government, it was Mas who blinked, leading the way for another Catalan moderate, Carles Puigdemont, to take the premiership in an 11th hour drama Sunday night.
On Sunday, he finally gave in, offering to step aside for the sake of winning a majority for a pan-ideological coalition committed to pushing the region’s independence from Spain within the next 18 months. In so doing, Mas acceded to the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP, Popular Unity Candidacy), the far-left group that won around 8% of the vote in the most recent September 27 elections that otherwise delivered a strong plurality to the pro-independence front, Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes).
With six seats short of a majority, Junts pel Sí, dominated by two parties, the center-right Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia) and the center-left Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia) had agreed prior to the election, along with several other minor parties, that it would be Mas to lead any resulting government.
Though the CUP also embraces independence (it also rejects membership in NATO and the European Union), it didn’t formally join the Junts pel Sí coalition. Antonio Baños, the CUP’s leader, steadfastly refused to support Mas’s investiture to form a new Generalitat, the regional executive government, because his party opposes the budget cuts that Mas introduced at the regional level during Spain’s economic crisis and due to longstanding allegations of corruption surrounding CDC governments dating back decades.
By stepping down, Mas made it clear that he wasn’t willing to drag Catalans to their fourth election in five years just to cling to power.
Mas’s replacement, Puigdemont, is another CDC veteran. Though he comes from the same moderate background as Mas, he has long been among the most outspoken advocates of Catalan independence, unlike Mas. For now, at least, that represents sufficient change for Baños and the CUP to support the independence-driven government.
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Increasingly, Mas used the pro-independence fervor to maintain his own grip on power, to the point that it forced a split in the CDC’s longtime two-party governing coalition, Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union) in a bid to hold onto the premiership.
While CiU governed the region consecutively for nearly a quarter-century from the 1980s to the early 2000s, it took a markedly nationalist stand. But, for the most part, it always leaned more toward regional autonomy and not in favor of independence.
Not so with Puigdemont, however, who is much more of a true believer in the independence cause than Mas ever was. Puigdemont is a former journalist and an arts and cultural critic, but his major political breakthrough came in 2011, when he won the mayoral election in Girona, long a stronghold of Spain’s federal socialist party.
The new government, sworn in before a midnight deadline on January 10 that would have otherwise forced snap elections, will now attempt to carry out its program for independence, and Puigdemont Sunday night described himself as the leader of a ‘post-autonomous’ and ‘pre-independence’ Catalonia.
But there are still far more questions than answers.
The CUP’s leftward influence. Unlike the ERC, the CDC and the other leaders of the Junts pel Sí movement, the CUP’s political posture is far more radical. The CUP supports independence not out of a sense of Catalan nationalism as much as a means of pulling the region out of national and international structures that it feels far too neoliberal and orthodox in terms of economic policy. The CUP’s strident left-wing activism will rest uneasily with the relatively moderate and reassuring tone that Junts pel Sí took such pains to project throughout the summer campaign. If the CUP forces the government far to the left, the independence movement could lose a lot of its moderate supporters.
Whither Mas? Another question is what Mas’s behind-the-scenes role will be in the months ahead. Though Puigdemont wasn’t part of the Mas-led governments of the past six years, he still comes from the same political tradition. No one doubts, just months after Poland’s election, that it is Jarosław Kaczyński who is leading the country’s lurch to the right under a new government, while prime minister Beata Szydło seems increasingly like a figurehead. Mas waited literally until the last moment to step down — and just because he’s formally relinquished power doesn’t mean that he intends to do so informally. That could cause a rupture in the Puigdemont’s uneasy coalition as well.
Independence without a majority? Though the leaders of Junts pel Sí argued that the September 2015 elections were, in essence, a referendum on independence, their coalition failed to win even 40% of the vote — and pro-independence parties (including the CUP) fell just short of 50% of the vote. So it’s not clear that the sovereigntists have a credible claim to push forward with separation.
Their legal claim is even weaker. At every step towards independence, both the central government — until recently, headed by conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy — and Spain’s constitutional courts have ruled the various Mas-led machinations to be invalid under Spain’s constitution, including a planned November 2014 direct referendum on independence. Spain’s top court in December 2015 ruled the Junts pel Sí resolution to move forward with independence illegal.
Moreover, if the new Puigdemont government spends more time creating shadow ‘national’ institutions and lobbying foreign governments than it does helping to create jobs and boost economic growth, its support could quickly crumble.
The national coalition talks and a (possible) end to the Rajoy era. Though a steadily rising number of Catalans seem to favor independence today, the movement’s popularity stems in part from two catalysts. First, the eurozone debt crisis and Spain’s broader economic crunch exacerbated longtime gripes among Catalan voters and politicians that the regions sends far too much of its wealth to Madrid, thereby transferring it to poorer regions. As unemployment spread in Catalonia (albeit to a less drastic high as in the rest of Spain), the region’s voters became more sensitive to Spain’s fiscal imbalances. Second, Rajoy’s refusal even to engage in negotiations over greater federalism throughout Spain (like the kind that Germany, Canada and the United States enjoy) or permitting a straight up-down Catalan independence vote (like the kind that Scottish voters enjoyed in September 2014) has polarized attitudes. By ignoring the valid concerns of Catalan moderates, Rajoy has callously pushed them into the arms of the pro-independence camp.
But the December national elections call into question whether Rajoy will lead the next government. With the splitting of Spain’s previously two-party system into four major blocs of support (and a handful of leftists and regional parties), no single party can form a majority. So while Rajoy’s Partido Popular (PP, the People’s Party) holds the largest block of seats in the national parliament, the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) hopes to form an alternative government with one of Spain’s two new upstart parties, the anti-austerity Podemos and the center-right, liberal Ciutadans/Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’ or just the ‘C’s’). While the PP may yet make a deal with the PSOE to form a ‘grand coalition,’ it would almost certainly require Rajoy to relent on the issue of Spanish federalism and it might even require him to stand down in favor of his more moderate deputy, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, a rising star and native Castilian.
A grand coalition or a more left-wing coalition government under PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez would, at a minimum, prioritize a national conversation about regional autonomy and could, thereby, reduce tensions between Madrid and Barcelona.
Differences over Catalan could inhibit a PSOE-led government. Ironically, it may be difference over Catalonia’s future that prohibit the PSOE from forming a broad anti-Rajoy majority. While the PSOE has conceded the need for a national discussion on federalism and regional devolution, Podemos has committed to granting Catalans a referendum on independence. So far, that’s proving a sticking point in negotiations between the two. Meanwhile, Ciudadanos is a movement that began in Catalonia in 2007 as a federalist party aimed at keeping the region a part of Spain. Its leap to national politics in 2015 came after electoral improvement at the regional level, where it now serves as the chief opposition party in Catalonia’s regional parliament.