A Mandate for Catalonian Autonomy, Not Secession
Catalan President Artur Mas claims the results of Sunday's regional election grant secessionist politicians a mandate to proceed toward Catalonia's full independence from Spain. They do nothing of the kind. The election results, however, are another strong signal to the Spanish government in Madrid to return the broad autonomy it clawed back from the Catalans in 2010.
Pro-independence parties won 72 seats out of 135 in the Catalonian legislature, prompting Mas to declare: "We have a strong mandate to push ahead with this project" -- meaning an 18-month transition period toward secession, during which Catalonia will set up its own state institutions. In reality, the Catalan nationalists' showing was no better than in the 2010 and 2012 elections.
The biggest party in Sunday's election was a coalition called Junts pel Si, or Together for Yes. The two most important parties in it are Mas's Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Catalonian politics are extremely fast-moving and contentious, and it's not easy to track how the major players have shifted shape over the past five years. For example, CDC is the product of the breakup of Convergence and Union (CiU), the biggest secessionist force until earlier this year, when a splinter group -- which failed to get representatives into the legislature on Sunday -- decided it wanted nothing to do with Mas's attempts to force Spain to approve Catalonia's break-off. The other secessionist party that got into the legislature on Sunday -- the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) -- didn't take part in the 2010 election, but another nationalist force, Calatan Solidarity for Independence, managed to win seats then.
It's still possible, however, to compare the performance of pro-independence forces in the three elections held in 2010, 2012 and 2015. They have achieved a slightly smaller number of seats every time: 76, 74 and 72.
The combined popular vote was also largely stable, with secessionists achieving 48.7 percent, 47.9 percent and 47.8 percent in the three successive elections:
In other words, Mas shouldn't be happier today than he was after the previous two elections. Support for independence is not growing. Support for Mas, if anything, is on the wane. This election's big breakthrough is the improved showing of the Popular Unity Candidacy, which is not your typical secessionist or nationalist force. Sure, it's a hard-left, anti-capitalist force as well as a pro-independence one, but the party is also in favor of more direct democracy. Its ambitions are mostly on the municipal, community level, the one closest to ordinary voters, and they are supporters of Swiss-style legislation by referendum. The kind of independence the CUP wants goes deeper than what Mas has in mind: It wants power to devolve to towns and individual citizens. This is a popular concept in a part of Spain where local patriotism is often stronger than regional affiliation.
Mas and his allies keep banging their heads against the wall of Spanish resistance, hoping someday there will be an election that will give them an outright majority. They have no choice but to keep doing it; otherwise their cause will dry up. But they're no closer to making a hole in that wall than they were five years ago: All they have is a big plurality and increasing diversity of opinions within it.
Mas knows it. I don't believe he is really planning to take Catalonia independent within the next 18 months, whatever it takes. He just needs a strong negotiating position for the December national election.
The Catalan nationalists want the Popular Party of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to lose that election. That party is the secessionists' nemesis after its appeal to Spain's Constitutional Court ended in the 2010 decision to curb Catalonia's autonomy as approved by a 2006 referendum. Rajoy has used legalistic reasons to reject any Catalonian attempts to get more self-government and, most importantly, fiscal rights, and there's little hope he and his allies will renege on their hard-line stance.
The Popular Party now tops the polls ahead of the December vote, but its victory is definitely not going to be as convincing as it was in 2011, and it's not likely to get an outright majority. Both Rajoy's party and its main rival, the Spanish Socialist Party, may try to forge coalitions with strong anti-establishment parties: the Popular Party with Ciudadanos and the Socialists with Podemos. These coalitions, however, would probably fall short of a majority, too. The Socialists might need the support of Mas and his Catalan separatists to be able to govern, and then he would be in a position to strengthen his region's autonomy to the 2006 level, allowing it to keep more of the taxes it collects and curb Madrid's interference in local matters.
Full independence is not an immediate goal simply because it is not feasible without a broader consensus within Catalonia itself. Autonomy gains, though, are a much less divisive subject, and they are within reach. Mas needs to get a good vote in the Spanish election now to make his hand even stronger.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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