Election Preview: Catalonia 2010

Catalonia, perhaps Spain’s best known autonomía, votes for its 135-seat Parliament on November 28. Catalonia’s autonomous parliament and the government, known as the Generalitat holds considerable powers. The Parliament is elected by closed-list proportional representation with a 3% threshold in the context of the region’s four provinces. Barcelona, by far, holds the most weight electing 85 deputies on its own. The three other provinces have either 15, 17 or 18 deputies. This electoral system seems to give the regionalist CiU an advantage, given that it managed to win the most seats in 1999 and 2003 despite narrowly losing the popular vote.

Catalonia, along with the Basque Country, is also home to Spain’s best known regionalist and nationalist movement. The roots, nature and strategy of the Catalonian nationalist movement warrants some explanation.

Catalan Nationalism

In the nineteenth century, Catalonia (along with the Basque Country) was Spain’s most industrialized region. Barcelona, open to the Mediterranean, was the base of a major industrialist (the textile industry was very important in the region) and merchant elite. Barcelona’s modern industrial bourgeoisie contrasted with Madrid’s bureaucratic or dynastic bourgeoisie, with roots in Castilian Spain’s quasi-feudalistic rural agrarian economy. The Madrid elite, which dominated an increasingly centralized liberal (in the Spanish sense) government, was seen in an increasingly negative light by the Catalonian industrialist elite. The growth of a distinct Catalan industrialist bourgeoisie went hand in hand with the intellectual renaissance of Catalonian culture and language which took pride in Catalonia’s distinct history (notably the County of Barcelona and the Kingdom of Aragon) and in the Catalan language.

Catalan industrialists saw autonomy of some sort for Catalonia as a desirable method to help grow Catalonia’s industrial economy and to separate it from Spain’s feudalistic agrarian economy. They favoured high tariffs to protect the burgeoning textile industry from foreign competition, while the Castilian elite (largely dominated by Spanish liberal thought in vogue since the 1820s) favoured free trade to open markets to their agricultural produce. Catalonia’s industrialist-dominated elite, which was largely conservative and Catholic (though not Carlist or reactionary as Basque nationalism) also used regionalism as a bulwark against the growth of left-wing workers’ movements and anarcho-syndicalism amongst the working-class, which included, as in the Basque Country, a large number of migrants from other parts of Spain (notably from the dirt-poor regions of Andalusia and Extremadura).

Catalan regionalists did not call for the region’s independence from Spain realizing that independence would hurt the economy and realizing that it still needed Spanish markets. The dominant regionalist party until the Republic, the Lliga Regionalista never advocated secession and instead saw itself the Catalan elite as the leaders of a broad national modernizing trend.

As much as Catalanism was born as a largely bourgeois right-wing ideology, Catalan nationalism during the Republic was dominated by the left and a new party, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and its most notable leaders Francesc Macià and Lluís Companys. The ERC originally called for the independence of a Catalan Republic federated with Spain but ended up approving a statute of autonomy which restored Catalonia’s autonomous government. The ERC, along with the anarcho-syndicalist CNT and the Stalinist PSUC during the Civil War, formed an integral part of the Popular Front and made Catalonia the last bulwark against the nationalist advance. The Francoist state, of course, led to the exile of the nationalist leadership as well as repression of Catalan autonomy and the Catalan language itself.

Out of the transition emerged the main regionalist party of present-day Catalonia, Convergència i Unió (CiU) which is in fact a quasi-permament two-party coalition composed of the larger, liberal Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) and the smaller, Christian democratic Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC). The CiU’s best known leader was Jordi Pujol, who led the Generalitat between 1980 and 2003. The CiU is a broadly right-wing party, but its main difference from the Spanish right comes on matters of autonomy. The CiU does not call, at least not openly, for independence. It supports broad autonomy for Catalonia, and Pujol’s government led to very stringent linguistic legislation (a la Quebec) which over time led to an increase in the number of Catalans speaking the language. Paying homage to Catalan nationalism’s historical ability to compromise with Madrid, the CiU instead tries, little by little, to wrestle concessions from the government in Madrid which would further increase the Generalitat’s fiscal autonomy. Traditionally, the CiU’s goal is to make Catalonia an independent member of a broader Spanish federation/confederation; or, simply put, being independent without the hassles of being independent. The CiU recognizes Catalonia as a part of the Spanish state, but rejects Catalonia’s inclusion in the Spanish nation, instead claiming Catalonia as a nation within the broader Spanish state. And thus despite the major disagreements on the issue of autonomy, the CiU has been able to work rather well (at least in the past) with the PP, supporting both of Aznar’s government between 1995 and 2004. In this election, the CiU’s leader, Artur Mas, has taken an unusually adventurous line saying that Catalonia, as a nation, is entitled to choose the dimensions of self-government it wants. It also now calls on Madrid to give the Generalitat full fiscal autonomy, and could make this a pre-condition for supporting any government in Madrid, especially setting its eyes of the aftermath of the 2012 general election.

The CiU’s strength lies in rural areas, being traditionally weak in urban centres and areas which have seen a lot of immigration from other regions of Spain. Catalan is traditionally the language of the upper and middle-classes, thus the language of the local elite. Castilian, on the other hand, is traditionally the language of the working-classes. Local government structures, specifically the comarcas it created in the 1980s, are also set up to favour the CiU and its strong base in small municipalities. Generally, the CiU tends to perform much better in elections to the Catalonian Parliament than in elections to the Spanish Chamber of Deputies. It has topped the poll in all but two of the elections to the former, but has never topped the poll in an election to the latter. In fact, it polled a mere 21% in the 2008 elections when it had won 31.5% in the 2006 elections to the Catalan Parliament. Many theses have been put forward to explain this trend, including higher nationalist turnout in elections to the Catalan Parliament. This trend also means that these elections are a bad predictor of future trends in broader Spanish politics, and explains why almost nobody have called these elections a real “test” for the Zapatero government in Madrid.

The other main nationalist party is the left-wing ERC, the leader of the left-wing current of Catalan nationalism. The ERC vocally supports the independence of a Catalan Republic from Spain, and in this campaign has made the organization of a referendum on the matter a pre-condition for any coalition. The ERC has had a shaky relationship with the CiU and in fact cooperates better with the Socialists (PSC). With 21 seats, they are currently the junior partner in the Socialist-led government of the region. They did exceptionally well in 2003 (16.5%) and 2004 (16%), likely the result of a certain backlash against the CiU’s support of Aznar’s centralist government. Their strength has abetted somewhat, suffering a big drop in the 2008 general elections despite resisting rather well in the 2006 Catalan elections.

The Other Parties

The main party of the left, and some would say the dominant party of Catalan politics, is the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC), associated to the national PSOE and born in 1978 out of the merger of two small socialist parties with the Catalan federation of the PSOE. Led by José Montilla, the President of the Generalitat, the PSC has formed government in Catalonia since 2003. The PSC recognizes Catalonia as a nation and has a definite ‘Catalanist’ orientation, supporting the transformation of Spain into a truly federal state (the Constitution of 1977 being rather centralist in its terms). The PSC is very much a urban party, being dominant in Barcelona and especially in Barcelona’s industrial suburbs where a large share of the population are descended or themselves immigrants from other regions of Spain. The Andalusian community in Barcelona Province is so big that the Andalusian Socialist Party (PSA) managed to win 2 seats in the Catalan Parliament in 1980!

Barcelona and its suburbs, the core of Spain’s industrialization (along with the metal-working industries in the Basque Country) were the heart of a very strong anarcho-syndicalist and later communist movement. The high numbers of migrant workers, mixed in with increasingly poor working conditions and a strong libertarian intellectual elite, made Barcelona the core (alongside Andalusia) of Spain’s anarcho-syndicalist trade union movement (the CNT) as early as 1909. During the Civil War, Barcelona was known as the “red city” or the “red capital” (somewhat erroneously, Valencia was the seat of the Republican government, though Barcelona was the Republican movement’s heart). To this day, the Socialists remain dominant in Barcelona local politics since the fall of Franco.

Aside from the ERC, which proved to be a thorn in the PSC’s side in 2006, the PSC’s favoured coalition partner is the Initiative for Catalonia Greens – United and Alternative Left coalition (ICV-EUiA). The ICV, originally the Initiative for Catalonia (IC) was born in 1987 out of the merger of the PSUC and two smaller hard-left parties. The PSUC, created in 1936, had been a major player in the Civil War as the main Stalinist party in the region, associated with the Comintern. The PSUC, which participated in the Catalan government during the Civil War and played a major role in crushing the Trotskyst POUM in 1937, still counted for around 18% of the electorate between 1977 and 1980 but which entered a period of rapid decline shortly afterwards. Originally a loose coalition of parties, the IC progressively integrated its component parties, notably the PSUC, into a united political party which expanded to small green movements in 1995 and adopted the label ICV in 2002. The smaller United and Alternative Left was formed in 1998 by a left-wing split in the IC by a PSUC faction which refused integration into the IC. Since 2003, however, the EUiA has always run alongside the ICV. Despite its name and ecosocialist creed, the ICV is nothing comparable to the Netherland’s GroenLinks and remains in reality a democratic socialist/eurocommunist party. The party still performs rather strongly in the old PSUC strongholds in Barcelona’s industrial suburbs such as Sabadell and Badalona. The ICV is a soft-nationalist party, supporting amending the Constitution to make Spain a plurinational federal state, or, in the absence of that, holding a referendum with a choice between status-quo, federalism or independence.

The mainstream Spanish right, the PP, remains weak in Catalonia. It broke 20% only in 2000, and usually ranges from a low of 9-10% to roughly 17-18%. Like the Socialists, the PP usually performs better in elections to the Spanish Chamber of Deputies than in elections to the Catalan Parliament. Though it has offered backing to the CiU governments in the Generalitat when the CiU lacked an absolute majority, most recently between 1999 and 2003, the PP diverges dramatically from the CiU on the issue of regional autonomy. The PP does not recognize Catalonia as a nation, defining it as a part of Spain and supports decentralized autonomy within Spain. The PP also is one of the two parliamentary parties which takes a strong position against Catalan linguistic legislation, defending instead equal bilingualism, free school choice (like Quebec, Catalan linguistic legislation also entails limited school choice for parents) and an end to government penalties for businesses which are not sufficiently “Catalanized”. The PP was against the 2006 statute of autonomy and has pledged to support no party which is separatist or which supports the holding of a referendum on the question of independence.

The weakest of the parliamentary parties, winning 3 seats in 2006, the Citizens – Party of the Citizenry (C’s). A centrist libertarian/liberal party, the C’s remind me of the 1820s Spanish liberal by their liberal orientation on issues such as economics, immigration or moral values but also by their very centralist attitude on the question of regional autonomy. The C’s, which are slightly to the right of the ideologically similar UPyD (which holds 1 seat in Madrid and 1 MEP), are probably best placed to the right of the PP on the question of regional autonomy. They clearly define Catalonia as an autonomous community of Spain. On language issues, they support free school choice, equal bilingualism between Castilian and Catalan and ending government subsidies to Catalan media and cultural outlets.

The 2006 election produced these results:

CiU 31.52% winning 48 seats (+2)
PSC-CpC 26.82% winning 37 seats (-5)
ERC 14.03% winning 21 seats (-2)
PP 10.65% winning 14 seats (-1)
ICV-EUiA 9.52% winning 12 seats (+3)
C’s 3.03% winning 3 seats (+3)

turnout 56.04%

A PSC-ERC-ICV government holding 70 seats against 65 for the opposition was formed, led by José Montilla (PSC) with Josep Lluís Carod-Rovira (ERC) as Vice President.

Election Preview

Despite this being the only election in Spain in 2010, few have treated this as a major test for the Spanish government (although undoubtedly a few fools will try to look smarter than they are by perilously making connections). The major test are obviously the much wider regionals and locals being held in the spring of 2011, elections which traditionally predict the winner of the general elections a year later. The Catalan voter’s propensity to split his vote between the two levels of government makes any connection hard to establish, given that these regional elections are very rarely good harbingers of things to come. In 2006, the CiU vote increased while in 2008 it polled 11% lower than it had in 2006. In 1999, the PP got a paltry 9.5% in the regional elections but in the 2000 general elections (a PP landslide nationally) the party polled a record high 22.8%.

To start off the brief overview of what things are shaping up to be like on Sunday, here is the latest poll published in the Periodic d’Andorra (presumably published in Andorra because of a ban on late polls in Spain)

CiU 39.9% winning 65-67 seats (+17 to +19)
PSC 19.5% winning 29-30 seats (-7 to -8)
PP 9.9% winning 13-14 seats (nc to -1)
ICV-EUiA 9.5% winning 11-13 seats (+1 to -1)
ERC 7.0% winning 10-11 seats (-10 to -11)
C’s 3.7% winning 3-4 seats (+1 to nc)
Sol Cat 2.6% winning 0 seats
Others 7.9%

On these numbers, the CiU is on the verge of winning an outright majority of 68 seats (the CiU held outright majorities between 1984 and 1995), while at the same time giving the PSC its worse election result in any Catalan election since the death of Franco. It had collapsed to 24.8% in the 1995 elections, at a point where the national PSOE government was in its worst bout of unpopularity; but has never fallen below 20% in any election. Even if it ends up short of the 68 seats, the CiU on these numbers would have no trouble forming a relatively stable minority government. It could rely on the PP and ERC for issue-by-issue support to get a full majority, but the CiU is used to working in minority situations with outside support from another party, usually the PP.

The CiU seems to be doing very well overall, at the expense mainly of the PSC but also of the ERC which seems headed to a major drubbing. Perhaps Artur Mas’ unusually tough rhetoric on the question of regional autonomy and his insinuation that a referendum of some sort could drew a number of ERC voters who had perhaps abandoned the CiU in the 2003 election where the CiU’s support for the growingly unpopular Aznar PP government hurt it with its most radical nationalist voters.

The result of Solidaritat Catalana (SI) and the Reagrupament (R), two left-wing nationalist separatist parties, should be watched closely. Running to the left of the ERC on a platform which in R’s case includes unilateral declaration of independence, it is possible that one of those parties might squeak in. SI has been polling below the 3% threshold, but it might break 3% in one province and qualify for a seat there. But the problem is that SI’s support will likely be too weak in Barcelona, where the real threshold is 3%; and strength in the other three provinces which hold 15-18 seats will be hurt by the fact that the real threshold there is slightly higher than 3%. Another party, the Platform for Catalonia (PxC) is a populist right-wing anti-immigration/anti-Islam outfit, which will get a few votes but won’t win a seat. UPyD, which doesn’t along well with the C’s, is also running but will do poorly.

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Posted on November 27, 2010, in Catalonia, Election Preview, Spain. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Thank-you. Good & useful overview – I had been looking for something to explain it! Now I will wait for you to make sense of the results.

  1. Pingback: Catalonia 2010 « World Elections

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