General elections were held in Catalonia on November 25, 2012. There are 135 seats in the Parliament of Catalonia (Parlament de Catalunya/Parlamento de Cataluña), elected by d’Hondt closed list proportional representation in the region’s four provinces. There is a 3% threshold in each province to win seats.
The province of Barcelona elects 85 deputies while the provinces of Girona, Lleida and Tarragona elect 17, 15 and 18 deputies respectively. The province of Barcelona, where some 73% of the region’s population lives, is underrepresented to the benefit of the three, smaller, provinces who hold 41% of the seats in the Parliament but only 27% of the region’s population. The Catalan Parliament elects the President of the Generalitat, the government of the autonomous community.
The last regional elections took place in fall 2010 and they resulted in the victory of the Convergence and Union (CiU), a centre-right Catalan nationalist party led by Artur Mas, who became President of the Generalitat. Mas’ CiU had won 62 seats and a healthy plurality of seats, but they fell short of the 68 seats required for an absolute majority.
My Guide to the 2011 Spanish Election offers some background on Catalonia and its history, of particular relevance to the current situation.
Catalonia is Spain’s second most populous community and has long been the industrial motor of Spain, to this day it accounts for 18.6% of the Spanish GDP. Catalonia, which has a strong national identity, is often portrayed as the “civilized” counterpart to Euskadi: Catalan nationalism is expressed peacefully and politically, while Basque nationalism is expressed (in part) through terror and violence. Catalan nationalism is one of the most enduring and potent political issues in Spain and Catalonia is a key piece in the economic, political and social makeup of Spain. The population of Catalonia is 7,535,251 (INE 2011). The capital of Catalonia is Barcelona and the community is composed of the provinces of Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona.
Catalonia has never been a kingdom or a powerful empire of its own, but its language alongside a long history of cultural splendor, political power and prominent role in what became Spain has been a key element in the construction of a Catalan national identity, a national identity which is shared by the vast majority of Catalans to this day. As the Franks pushed the Muslims back in the 8th and 9th centuries, a plethora of vassal counties emerged in present-day Catalonia, with the county of Barcelona becoming the leading force of these increasingly independent counties. In 987, the Count of Barcelona’s refusal to swear loyalty to Hugh Capet of France sealed the division of Catalonia from the Frankish realms. Under the reign of Ramon Berenguer I, Barcelona rose to a position of economic and political prominence in the region. In 1137, the marriage of Ramon Berenguer IV with Petronilla of Aragon (well, technically, she was one year old. Royals were sickos) united the crowns of Barcelona with that of Aragon. While the future ‘counts’ were known as kings of Aragon, Catalonia was very much the driving force. Catalonia’s rising embryo of a future urban bourgeoisie became a very potent political force, organized in parliament (the Corts, a kind of Estates-General) and a governing body, the Generalitat. Catalonia’s economic opulence and cultural influence during this era (13-14th century) was a contributing factor in the early development of a sort of proto-national identity. However, the accession to the Aragonese throne of a Castilian branch in 1410 led to the slow decline of Catalan influence and political power and most of the region’s initial rights were surrendered to the growing power of Castile – especially after the dynastic union of 1469. In 1652, a Catalan revolt aided by France was crushed. In the War of Spanish Succession, the Catalans sided with Archduke Charles, the Habsburg claimant, over the eventual winner, Philip V of Bourbon. Catalonia chose the wrong side and was totally destroyed. In 1716, the institutions of Catalan self-government were abolished. In the next hundred years and more, Catalans showed extraordinary resilience despite losing their particularities, power, influence and wealth. During the nineteenth century, Catalonia experienced rapid industrialization based around the textile industry. Textile production started inland in mills powered by mountain rivers, and later expanded into a large, sprawling textile empire in and around Barcelona. Until the development of Basque industry in the late nineteenth century, Catalonia was the only part of Spain which had entered the new world order of industrialization and even after Basque industrialization it remained an industrial powerhouse in a feudal country where most lived lives of misery in unprofitable and nonviable agriculture. Is it a surprise that Catalans increasingly started perceiving Madrid and the rest of Spain as an uncivilized feudal backwater which seemed to be controlled by creaking old nobles in cahoots with the landed class which profited from the super-protected nonviable feudal agrarian Spanish economy?
Influenced by European Romanticism, Catalonia underwent a cultural rebirth in the late nineteenth century – the Renaixença. The Renaixença represented the creation by the Catalan intelligentsia of a Catalan national identity distinct from Spain, which they viewed with much frustration. The Renaixença placed a role in the birth of Catalan nationalism (sometimes called ‘Catalanism’) as a political movement. The main actors of Catalan nationalism at the turn of the century were Catalonia’s middle-class industrialists, the Catalan elites who aspired to expand their industrial empire to the rest of Spain. Their goal was to increase the power and prestige of Catalonia and Catalan industry within Spain, eventually taking the reins of power in Madrid from the hands of the landed gentry whose interests laid primarily in the feudal agrarian system. Regionalism was used as political tool to gain power and extract concessions from the dominant interests. For obvious reasons, they were certainly not separatists and in fact the Lliga Regionalista used to talk in terms of a “greater Spain”. This moderate, pragmatic stream of Catalan nationalism which seeks power and influence for Catalonia, not separation, and values compromise and dialogue with Madrid exists to this day in the form of the Convergence and Union (CiU) coalition. However, this moderate “we only care about your cash”-type of nationalism did not appeal to the more radical intellectuals, who would slowly go on to form a far more radical, sometimes separatist or sometimes federalist, republican stream of Catalan nationalism which exists to this day in the form of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). The ERC was the driving force of Catalan nationalism during the Republic and Civil War, but the moderate stream emerged victorious as soon as 1977 under what would become the CiU, the heir to the Lliga.
Catalonia accounts for 18.7% of Spain’s GDP, making it the second largest economy in Spain after the Madrid region. Historically, of course, industry was the motor of the Catalan economy and by consequence a motor for a lot of the Spanish economy. Under the inspiration and leadership of Catalonia’s industrious middle-class, the region developed a booming secondary sector based around the production and entire industry of textile. The Catalan textile world used to be concentrated up in the valleys, far inland; but in the 1800s it took its present base in and around Barcelona along the Mediterranean coast. It later diversified beyond textiles into automobiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs or shipbuilding. While industry used to account for up to 40%, it accounts for only 18% of Catalonia’s GDP today. Like most western economies, services (72%) now concentrate most employment. Catalonia is a major financial and banking centre and it is a prized tourist destination (specifically the coasts). Catalonia has long turned industry into wealth, and it has historically been a “shining beacon” of prosperity within a feudal Spain. The region’s GDP per capita of €27,053 places it in fourth place.
As much as Catalonia was a “shining beacon” of prosperity in Spain for a very long time, that shouldn’t be tailored to mean that Catalonia enjoyed wonderful social peace. It didn’t. Influenced by Barcelona’s history of federalism, Barcelona and Catalonia was an anarchist bastion for most of the first half of the twentieth century and Catalonia was often at the heart of labour disputes, notably between 1916 and 1923. Socialism never really gained a foothold in Catalonia until the transition, in fact (when it gained a stronghold).
But to many poorer Spaniards, Catalonia was a ”shining beacon” of prosperity and hope. Its industrial sector needed cheap labour, so it attracted a lot of internal migrants mostly from Andalusia and the poor regions of southern Spain. Immigration from southern Spain to Catalonia was particularly important under Franco’s regime, at the end of which one could talk of Barcelona as “Andalusia’s ninth province”. The Andalusian Party (PA) ran in the 1980 Catalan elections and actually won two seats (and 3% of the vote in Barcelona province). Today, there is little immigration into Catalonia from within Spain. Rather, immigration to Catalonia these days is mostly foreign. Besides South American and Romanian immigration, Catalonia has a very large Muslim North African (Moroccan) community. Many Moroccan and North African youths are attracted to Barcelona by the fabled FC Barcelona (and also economic reasons, of course). 16% of the Catalan population is foreign-born. Today, most Catalans are born in Catalonia itself (77% in a 2010 study). But when Catalans are asked where their parents were born, that same study showed that only a minority – 44-45% – said that their parents were born in Catalonia. Up to 27% said that their parents were born in Andalusia. These people have integrated in Catalan society and culture remarkably well, but it is still common to speak of their parents as “other Catalans” – Catalans, yes, but different. Most of the “other Catalans” came to work in the industrial suburbs of Barcelona and settled in the industrial ‘C’ which surrounds Barcelona.
Catalanism as an ideology whose basis is the recognition and promotion of Catalan national ideology is embraced by a vast majority of Catalan voters and all but two of the current parties in the Catalan Parliament (PP and C’s). The Catalan Socialists (PSC) by far and large embrace the Catalan national identity and support a federal vision of Spain which includes national recognition for Catalonia and Senate reform. It was the PSC-led government of Pasqual Maragall who spearheaded the ambitious 2006 reform of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy. The PSC, however, is unambiguously against Catalan independence. The governing CiU is in practice a pragmatic, moderate nationalist party whose goal is to give Catalonia full fiscal autonomy (like Euskadi) and self-determination within Spain, not independence. Of the parliamentary parties, only the ERC and Joan Laporta’s SI support Catalan independence from Spain. In contrast to Euskadi, the expression of Catalan nationalism has rarely taken a violent form. The terrorist organization Terra Lliure dissolved itself in the early 1990s and it never carried out acts of violence equivalent to ETA’s actions. That is why Catalan nationalism is always described as a “civilized” thing, whose expression is democratic and political. One of the reasons for this is that the issue of nationalism (though obviously not the issue of independence) is not as polarizing in Catalan society as it is in Basque society. ‘Catalanism’ has long been supported by a huge majority of Catalans, and there is a long history of national identification in Catalonia – unlike in Euskadi.
The official languages of Catalonia are Catalan and Spanish. Catalan is, like Spanish, an Ibero-Romance language. It is easy to pick up for a Spanish-speaker and quite similar to Spanish overall. Catalan is close to Occitan, which was spoken in southern France, and as such it appears as an intermediate language between Ibero-Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese) and Gallo-Romance languages (Occitan, French). Roughly 95% of Catalans understand Catalan and around 75% of them can speak it (a lower percentage can write it too). However, Catalan is the primary language of identification for only 32% of Catalans: 50% identify with Spanish, 7% with both Catalan and Spanish and 9% with another language. The use of Spanish, understandably, remains pervasive in media and business. However, the Catalan government is extremely stringent on linguistic policy. Catalan is defined as the “preferred” language of administration, public business, education and cultural activities. All city names are official only in their Catalan forms (for example, Gerona become Girona and Lerida became Lleida). Public servants must speak Catalan and it is the preferred language of business in government. All students must be proficient in both Catalan and Spanish in order to graduate, and Catalan is by far the top language of education in Catalan schools. The government also spends large sums of money on promoting Catalan culture in movies, television, radio or print media. There is some opposition to the very stringent pro-Catalan policies of the Generalitat: the PP and C’s both oppose the current state of language legislation and instead lobby for ‘bilingualism’ which means full equality between both languages, as well as equal education in both Spanish and Catalan. The former leader of the PP in Catalonia and incumbent MEP Alejo Vidal-Quadras described the linguistic policies as some sort of ‘apartheid’. On the other hand, Catalan nationalists claim that tough promotion of Catalan in the public sphere is necessary to preserve the language and prevent Spanish from gaining the upper-hand in everyday life. Spanish is already preferred over Catalan in everyday life situations. Some of the most radical nationalists are opposed to bilingualism. Rather, they would want to see Catalan recognized as the sole official language with the use of Spanish being a “right of individual citizens”.
It is important to note that this system of bilingualism is not universal in Catalonia. The mountainous northwestern territory of the Val d’Aran speaks Aranese, an variant of Occitan. The Val d’Aran has its own directly-elected legislature (general council) and a special status of autonomy. Aranese is co-official there with Catalan and Spanish.
Catalans are ticket-splitters. In general, municipal and European elections they are loyal to the Socialists (PSC). The PSC has been the largest party in all general elections, and has been the largest party in all but one municipal and European election (2011 and 1994 respectively). In 2008, the PSC won 46.1% of the vote against 21.26% for the CiU, 16.65% for the PP, 7.95% for the ERC and 5% for the ICV. The PSC’s landslide – beating even its previous high in 1982 – played a major role in the reelection of the Zapatero government in Madrid. Catalans, also worried in large part of the effects of a new PP government (the PSC did similarly and abnormally well in 1996), rewarded the Socialists for their role in the reform of the Statute in 2006. The CiU’s utter weakness and pitiful state in general elections is a new phenomenon, however. In 2004, the 5.4% margin between the PSC and CiU turned into 18.9% margin in the PSC’s favour and increased to a record-high 24.8% margin in 2008. Between 1986 and 2004, however, the CiU had a high stable vote ranging between 29% and 32%, with the margin between them and the PSC being between 5% and 9%. The PSC also has the edge in municipal and European elections. Most importantly, the PSC has controlled Barcelona’s city hall between 1979 and 2011. During the 1990s, the Socialist-controlled Barcelona was a major counterweight to Jordi Pujol’s control of the Generalitat. Pasqual Maragall was mayor of the Catalan capital between 1982 and 1997.
In elections to the Catalan Parliament, however, voters are far more likely to support the CiU (and to a lesser extent the ERC) at the expense of non-nationalist parties like the PSC or PP. In 1980, despite a poor performance in the 1977 and 1979, Jordi Pujol’s newly-founded nationalist coalition CiU emerged as the strongest force to the PSC’s dismay with 27% and 43 seats against 33 seats for the PSC and 25 seats for the communist PSUC. Pujol, an intelligent, charismatic, competent and shrewd politician would go on to become the embodiment of Catalonia and Catalan nationalism. In 1984, the CiU won 46.8% and an absolute majority in the Parliament which it held on to in 1988 and 1992. By 1995, Pujol’s star had begun fading and he was reduced to a minority. In 1999, Maragall’s PSC won slightly more votes (37.9% vs. 37.7%) though Pujol won more seats. Pujol held on for a final term with the votes of the PP. In 2003, support for both the CiU (now led by Artur Mas) and the PSC fell but Maragall took power from the CiU with an historic tripartite coalition with the ERC and ICV. This coalition was reelected in 2006, though the CiU won more votes and seats. In 2010, the PSC collapsed to a record-low 18.4% and 28 seats, while Artur Mas’ CiU won 62 seats – almost an absolute majority.
The PSC’s base in Catalonia is Barcelona province, which concentrates 73% of the region’s population (though only 63% of seats in the Catalan Parliament). Barcelona has the heaviest concentration of so-called “other Catalans” – Catalans whose parents (oftentimes) were born outside Catalonia and came to work in the industrial hinterland of Barcelona. These voters, though they may feel Catalan, do not identify with Catalan nationalism. Besides, most of them being poor and working-class do not naturally identify either with a right-wing party like the CiU. Industrial suburbs of Barcelona or old working-class towns like L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, Badalona, Terrassa, Sabadell, Santa Coloma, El Prat or Manresa are some of Catalonia’s largest cities and strongholds of the PSC (over 50% in good years). The CiU’s vote is concentrated in rural areas, where Catalan remains the dominant language, and in affluent towns (most of the Catalan middle-class is nationalist) like Sant Cugat. The CiU was the largest party in general elections between 1986 and 2004 in the provinces of Girona and Lleida. Perhaps a trend which should worry the PSC (or is it an ephemeral fad linked to the poor state of the Socialists?) is the rise of the PP and the far-right in its working-class strongholds. Most PP gains in 2010 came from these type of areas, where the economic crisis has prompted anti-immigration feelings (immigrants to Catalonia being largely North African) which are exploited by the PP but also the PxC, a far-right party based in the old textile town of Vic (where it is the second largest party on council behind the CiU). In 2011, the PP won Badalona, the region’s third-largest city and a PSC stronghold.
Catalan politics have evolved rapidly and dramatically since this profile was written last summer. Catalan nationalism, which for decades had been seen as the “civilized” and consensual peripheral nationalism (the so-called seny catalá) in contrast to the Basque Country’s acrimonious, polarizing and violent brand of nationalism. Today, the situation has been reversed. Even as Euskadi elected a nationalist regional government last month, the new Basque government seems to prefer consensus and accommodation rather than confrontation with Madrid over a nationalist agenda. On the other hand, the Catalan government has moved towards is actively pushing a nationalist – many would say downright separatist – agenda, in the process creating a polarizing and divisive national debate within Catalonia and Spain as a whole.
The backdrop to the new crisis between the Generalitat and la Moncloa is the economic crisis, which has played a huge role in the revitalization of Catalan nationalism. Spain’s central government has a big public debt and deficit, but many of the country’s 17 autonomous communities – Catalonia included – have also contracted large debts through years of reckless and profligate spending by careless governments. Their huge debts are coming back to haunt them, and nowhere is this truer than in Catalonia; Spain’s economic powerhouse and traditionally the wealthiest region in Spain.
The central government has pressured regional governments to dramatically reduce their debts and deficits, given that the debt contracted by Spain’s regional governments is one of the major factors weighing on the country’s economic and fiscal situation. The regions, notably Catalonia and Andalusia, have argued that they cannot cut their debt to the threshold imposed by Madrid.
Catalonia’s debt was 21% of the GDP in the first quarter of 2012, up from 14% in the first quarter of 2010; this the largest debt both in raw and percentage terms for any region in Spain (the Valencian Community’s debt is 20.2%). In response, the Generalitat passed strict austerity measures, which aim at reducing the region’s deficit from 4.22% in 2010 to the 1.3% deficit threshold in 2012. These austerity measures have included deep spending cuts, major job cuts in the public sector (notably in education, healthcare or social services), a 5% pay cut for regional government employees, some tax hikes and a commitment to sell public assets. While the government has been fairly successful in its attempts to reduce the deficit, the region’s debt has kept growing because markets have lost trust in Catalonia (a credit rating agency recently downgraded the region’s credit rating). Asphyxiated by debt, the regional government was forced to seek a bailout from the autonomous liquidity fund to stay afloat. The CiU’s campaign promise to reduce unemployment has amounted to hot air, given that the region’s unemployment rate has increased from around 17.5% when the CiU was elected in 2010 to 22.56% today (still below the national average of 25%).
The economic crisis has reignited Catalan complaints about the “fiscal deficit” – the idea that Catalonia pays more to the central government (in taxes) than it gets back (in investments), which means that Catalan taxpayers are “subsidizing” the poorer regions of Spain. The central government has recognized the existence of the fiscal deficit and it has been evaluated at 6 to 9% of the region’s GDP.
Artur Mas’ austerity measures have been fairly unpopular, but they have not caused the same level of social unrest and discontent as the PP government’s similar measures in Madrid. Additionally, Mas’ popularity did not fall significantly, quite unlike Mariano Rajoy. There are two explanations for his party’s resilient support. The first explanation is used by most governments around the world these days: blame the bad stuff on the guys who were there before you. In Catalonia, the CiU government has claimed (with good reason – to an extent) that the tripartite PSC-ERC-ICV coalition which was in power between 2003 and 2010 was a disaster which left a huge deficit.
The other claim which the CiU has made in order to justify its policies is that, as noted above, the current financing of autonomous communities is unfair. The Catalan nationalists have been very good at exploiting the idea that Catalans are getting robbed by Spain (their tax money being used to “subsidize” the poorer regions in the south). These feelings were, of course, present long before the economic crisis but there has unarguably been a surge in nationalist sentiments in Catalonia. People have offered differing explanations to account for this surge, though most will agree that the economic crisis and the ‘fiscal deficit’ have played a major role.
Catalan nationalists, again, have been successful at presenting the situation in simple terms: Catalans are being robbed because of a broken and unfair regional financing model, and that Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest regions, could recover very quickly if its taxes weren’t being used by Madrid to subsidize poorer regions (and if it was an independent country within the EU). With the economic crisis, people have lost their bearings while a lot of Catalans – most of whom are very attached to their cultural identity and proud of it – are seeing Spain as a broken and decadent state. In this context, the offer of independence as an easy fix-all solution to Catalonia’s catastrophic economic situation has proven quite attractive.
The size of the pro-independence rally on the Diada (Catalonia’s national day on September 11, which commemorates the day in 1714 when the pro-Habsburg Catalan forces were defeated by the Spanish Bourbons during the Spanish War of Succession; a symbol for the loss of Catalan autonomy) this year surprised both the CiU and the opponents of Catalan independence. The organizers estimated that around 1.5 million turned out to march in support of Catalan independence, opponents said the number was below 1 million (but still quite high).
Whether or not Mas supports the independence of Catalonia as a nation-state is not entirely clear, because he has a noted aversion to the use of the word ‘independence’ but it is nonetheless quite clear that Mas’ tends towards full independence, or falling short of that, very extensive autonomy for Catalonia in Spain. The days when the CiU sought to extract advantages (some kind of “devo max” similar to what Alex Salmond’s SNP might be aiming for in Scotland) from Madrid while standing as a bulwark against the radical separatists are gone. Mas and the CiU argues that circumstances have changed because of the economic crisis and the Spanish government’s “recentralist” attitudes (for example, the courts striking down the controversial parts of the 2006 reform of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy).
The economic crisis has exposed flaws and cracks in the country’s 1978 constitution which had been the product of careful compromise between conflicting groups. Peripheral nationalists, primarily Catalan nationalists, have long been clamoring for extensive constitutional reforms. Now, several mainstream Spanish politicians on the left (notably the PSOE’s hapless boss, Alfredo Peréz Rubalcaba) have converted to federalism. On the other hand, any reform of the constitutional model remains unacceptable for the Spanish right. For them, the economic crisis has revealed that regional governments are careless toddlers who cannot be trusted with the purse.
Mas’ core demand is a new “fiscal pact” which would allow Catalonia to raise and manage its own taxes (paying Madrid only for the services provided by the central government in the region), an arrangement which would be akin to that which Euskadi and Navarre currently have (the Concierto Económico). In Euskadi and Navarre, this constitutionally-entrenched concierto has allowed the regional government to keep more of its taxes and invest them in the region (they also do not participate in the Spanish form of equalization payments).
Negotiations between Rajoy and Mas on the fiscal pact foundered in September. The PP is ideologically inclined towards centralization rather than devolution, so it had no appetite for Mas’s schemes – which Rajoy rejected as being unconstitutional. Rajoy agreed to a renegotiation of the autonomous financing system, last negotiated in 2009, but he also vowed to oppose any moves contrary to the constitution or actions which would disturb the country’s political stability. Even if Rajoy has carefully eschewed provocative language, many in his entourage and his party have a knack for such language. Martin Prieto, in the very conservative La Razón newspaper, recently accused Mas of “high treason”.
Mas was surprised by the strength of the Diada rallies, and he chose to latch on to the nationalist train. He announced early elections September 25, and stated that he would hold a referendum within the term of the next legislature on Catalonia’s institutional future. Prior to its dissolution, the Catalan Parliament voted a motion calling for a consultation on Catalonia’s future. Mas said that he would seek to hold a referendum within the legal framework, but he would still hold a referendum even without legal backing. The referendum, he argued, should go forward regardless.
The Spanish constitution is not clear about many things when it comes to regional autonomy, but it does make clear that only the Spanish Parliament has the authority to organize a referendum (Article 149.1) and that sovereignty resides in the Spanish people (Article 1.2). Some feel that Mas could settle for a “devo max” arrangement with Madrid, because he has shied away from using the word independence. However, the way in which he talks about the referendum makes it is clear that his goal would be Catalan statehood. In this election, for example, Mas said that he was seeking a mandate to turn Catalonia into “a state within Europe”. Catalan nationalists have insisted that if all went well, the new Catalan state would automatically become a member-state within the EU. The reality is not as straightforward Most feel that Catalonia would not automatically retain EU membership if it became a “state”.
It is unclear whether Mas supports sovereignty in the traditional sense of the term, or if his scheme is closer to that proposed by Juan José Ibarretxe, the former Basque regional president, in 2003. Ibarretxe’s plan would have created a sort of confederal Spain in which Euskadi would hold a statute of free-association with Spain and would have very wide powers, including representation in EU institutions. He too had sought to hold a referendum on his plan, but the Spanish parliament rejected his demand as unconstitutional and the plan collapsed after he failed to win a popular mandate for it in snap regional elections. Ibarretxe’s plan represented an unusual and novel notion of “post-sovereignty” which sees many sources of sovereignty and authority rather than a single source, as in traditional definitions. By some of his statements, Mas has given hints that his project falls in this category. He noted that “independence” and “sovereignty” are outdated concepts, because of supranational structures such as the EU. Some in the CiU have also stated that their goal would be similar to that of the United States, with the EU being the US federal government and Catalonia being a state within the larger confederation. On the other hand, he has been much clearer than Ibarretxe was in some of his statements and it appears as if he favours independence.
In the short-term, both the CiU and the PP saw a debate over Catalonia’s institutional future as a politically lucrative solution. By placing the referendum and the issues it entails at the core of the campaign, the CiU (and the PP) could distract attention away from the economic crisis. The CiU could awake nationalist sentiments and ensure that voters were not reminded of its unpopular austerity measures. The PP could use the CiU’s nationalist campaigns to mobilize anti-nationalist energy against the CiU, while also ensuring that voters forgot about Mariano Rajoy in Madrid and the PP’s support for the Generalitat’s austerity policies in Barcelona.
The campaign turned into a polarized debate on Catalonia’s future, with the economy and the crisis being relegated to a secondary role. The polarization of the debate favoured the parties with strong and clear positions on the issue, while hurting those parties whose standing was more ambiguous. On the nationalist side of the equation, the CiU’s objective was to win an absolute majority in Parliament which would give it a strong mandate to hold a referendum, even over Madrid’s refusal (there is basically no chance that Rajoy would let a Catalan referendum go ahead). The party’s campaign took a clearly nationalist tone, with Mas’ messianic promise to lead Catalonia to the promised land of statehood within the EU. At his huge rallies, the senyera – the traditional Catalan flag which is the official flag of Catalonia – was replaced by the estelada – the senyera defaced with a star in a blue triangle, and a flag associated with separatism. At the outset, it appeared as if the CiU would be successful. It was helped out, unintentionally, by the Rajoy government. José Ignacio Wert, the PP education minister, said that he wanted to “hispanicize” (españolizar) Catalan children; a provocative statement which fanned the flames of Catalan nationalism.
The CiU is not the only avatar of Catalan nationalist. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which had experienced a huge surge in support in 2003-2004 but who had seen its support go down fairly dramatically since that high point (only 10 seats in 2010), openly supports independence. Under a new leader, Oriol Junqueras (a local mayor and former MEP), and an even more nationalist orientation, the ERC’s platform included a road map towards independence including a referendum on independence in 2014 to be followed by a ‘constituent phase’. On other issues, the ERC’s platform was social democratic and used keywords such as reindustralization, the knowledge economy and the green economy. During the campaign, Junqueras and the ERC avoided direct criticism of Mas.
The Initiative for Catalonia Greens-United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), a permanent coalition of the smaller EUiA (which is the IU’s local branch) and the ecosocialist ICV (a successor of the old PSUC, refounded in the late 1990s as a New Left ecosocialist party), has often been considered as a nationalist party. The party supports “plurinational” federalism and rejects what it calls the PP’s “recentralization”, but it also strongly supports the Catalan people’s “right to decide” of their institutional future – including independence – in a referendum. It does not see independence and federalism as competing projects, because it views them as two models which recognize the right to self-determination. The common enemy is centralism. As such, ICV’s 10 deputies backed the CiU motion calling for the organization of a referendum. Agreement with the CiU, however, stops there. ICV, led by Joan Herrera, campaigned under the slogan “right to decide, yes; social rights too!”. It presented itself as the strongest left-wing opposition to the “right’s” (CiU and PP) austerity policies.
On the left, ERC and ICV faced competition from the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), an old medley of left and far-left nationalist independents. The CUP, which has no party hierarchy or leadership but is rather a broad assortment of local assemblies functioning on the base of participative democracy, has been around since the 1980s but it had never run in elections above the municipal level. In the May 2011 local election, the CUP did very well – taking over 2% of the vote and 104 seats. The CUP strongly supports the independence of the “Catalan Countries” and is far to the left on economic issues, supporting a “planned economy based on solidarity” and nationalization of public utilities, transportation and communication networks. The CUP’s candidate, David Fernández, said that he wanted a “Trojan horse for the lower classes” in Parliament.
At the other end of the spectrum, the PP and the Citizens (C’s) represented the staunch opponents of Mas’ nationalist gamble. The Catalan PP, led by Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, sought to benefit from a polarized campaign fought around the divisive idea of Catalan independence. The Rajoy government’s austerity policies are unpopular and the PP voted in favour of the CiU’s austerity policies at the regional level, so the PP ran a more low-key campaign which focused its attacks on Mas, whom they presented as a ‘coward’ who was dead-set on the divisive idea of separation and was unwilling to deal with urgent social and economic problems, including unemployment. Sánchez-Camacho presented her party as the only national party “which defends without shame that Catalonia is part of Spain”.
The Ciudadanos-Partido de la Ciudadanía (C’s) was founded in 2006 and it obtained only 3 seats in both the 2006 and 2010, with about 3% of the votes nationally. In the same ideological tradition as UPyD, the C’s are a centre-left liberal party viscerally opposed to further decentralization, let alone independence. In the liberal tradition, C’s places emphasis on individual rights and claims that only individuals have rights, not political territories. In the past, the C’s, led by Albert Rivera, had functioned as something of a one-issue for anti-nationalists, placing most emphasis on the government’s linguistic policies (active promotion of Catalan in the media, education, public sector etc) and called for ‘equal’ bilingualism. In this campaign, the C’s broadened their focused and discovered a new, more left-wing side. To differentiate themselves from the PP, with which they share their attachment to the current Spanish constitution and their opposition to Catalan nationalism, they took strong positions on corruption (Mas and Jordi Pujol have been accused of having Swiss bank accounts;the C’s criticized CiU the most while castigating the PSC and PP for their passivity) and launched attacks on banks and austerity measures. For example, the party’s program talked of “rescue the citizens, not the banks” or “healthcare, education and social services are right, not a business”.
Stuck between these two poles is the Socialist Party (PSC), traditionally Catalonia’s dominant non-nationalist party and one of the most powerful and important federations in the Spanish Socialist party (PSOE). In 2010, weakened by seven years in government (the tripartito), the PSC won only 18% and 28 seats – its worst result. Its troubles did not end there. The party has been divided between its federalist faction, which opposes independence but supports federalism; and the more nationalistically-inclined catalanista faction, which is sympathetic to some of the nationalist left’s (ERC and ICV) ideas. Pere Navarro, the mayor of Terrassa and a member of the ‘federalist’ faction, won the internal primary and was the PSC’s candidate. Navarro and the PSC platform defended a vague brand of federalism and opposed Mas’ referendum idea. The PSC’s federalist proposal is fairly vague, but it seems to propose some kind of symmetric federalism with a federal Senate which represents the constituent units of the federation. Notably, the party drew on Germany and Canada as examples (Canada is often used by both sides in Catalonia, with the nationalists drawing on the experience of the Canadian federal government recognizing the legitimacy of Quebec’s referendums on independence). However, with a vague and middle-of-the-road federalist proposal, the PSC tried to focus the campaign on economic and social issues – it has called Mas’ referendum gambit a smokescreen to hide its ‘failures’ on economic policies (austerity, unemployment etc).
Turnout was 69.56%, up over 10 points since 2010 (58.78%) and the highest turnout in Catalan regional elections since the advent of democracy. Voters were motivated and mobilized by the high stakes of the campaign, in which most parties – CiU and PP most notably – had stressed that these were the most important elections ever. The results were:
CiU 30.68% (-7.75%) winning 50 seats (-12)
ERC-Cat Sí 13.68% (+6.68%) winning 21 seats (+11)
PSC 14.43% (-3.95%) winning 20 seats (-8)
PP 12.99% (+0.62%) winning 19 seats (+1)
ICV-EUiA 9.89% (+2.52%) winning 13 seats (+3)
C’s 7.58% (+4.19%) winning 9 seats (+6)
CUP 3.48% (+3.48%) winning 3 seats (+3)
PxC 1.65% (-0.75%) winning 0 seats (nc)
SI 1.28% (-2.01%) winning 0 seats (-4)
Others 2.78% (-1.68%) winning 0 seats (nc)
CiU won the election on paper, but in reality it lost the election. This result is very far from the strong mandate which the CiU had set at its objective, but even when the CiU’s chances of obtaining an absolute majority looked dim in the last days of the campaign, most had predicted that the party would win a strong result – at least similar to or only minimally less than its 2010 result. Mas had sought a strong mandate from voters to push for his referendum, but he received a stark rebuke from voters. The CiU lost 12 seats and its vote share fell by nearly 8 points compared to the 2010 election, leaving the CiU far ahead of the pack but also with a much smaller and weakened minority in Parliament.
What happened? In the final days of the campaign, the CiU and Mas had been facing an onslaught of corruption allegations concerning secret offshore (Swiss) bank accounts held by Mas and Jordi Pujol, Mas’ political mentor. These allegations are linked to the old Palau case and the recent allegations were spearheaded by El Mundo, Spain’s main conservative newspaper. The newspaper cited a police report linking him and other high-ranking figures in his party (the CDC, which is the dominant component of the CiU) to secret offshore bank accounts where they received illegal funding from Catalan entrepreneurs and businessmen. The CDC has claimed that it is the victim of a dirty war led by its opponent, and Mas is suing El Mundo for libel. Did the controversy related to the case of the allegations of a ‘dirty war’ against the Catalan nationalists influence voters in the final days?
Did voters reject Mas’ nationalist/separatist schemes and his referendum agenda? While the CiU did badly, the broader nationalist constellation (CiU, ERC, ICV, CUP) nonetheless won the elections and together they still retain over three-fifths of the seats (87 seats, up 1 from 2010). The election can hardly be described as a rebuke of the broader Catalan nationalist agenda.
In the obligatory “where did we cock up?” article (see here), pollsters lay the blame on the unexpectedly huge increase in turnout (which favoured the anti-nationalists) and the buzz related to the offshore accounts scandal/anti-CiU ‘dirty war’.
The CiU suffered its heaviest loses in the greater Barcelona area – the city’s working-class and historically Socialist hinterland. Turnout was particularly strong in the area (over 10 points higher than in 2010), and CiU suffered some very heavy loses in the area (where it has historically been weak, outside a few cities) – between 10 and 14 points lower than in 2010. In L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, the second largest city in Catalonia, the CiU’s vote share fell by over ten points from 24.7% to only 14.3% while the PSC lost 5 points (from 29.6% to 24.8%). In Badalona, the CiU lost almost 12 points (31% to 19%) while the PSC lost about 3, down to 19.5% (regaining first place, but with an all-time low result). The PSC was able to hold up better in Terrassa, where Pere Navarro has been the mayor since 2002. The PSC vote increased by 3 points (to 23.5%) while the CiU lost nearly 13 points (down to 24.8%).
In the comarca of Baix Llobregat (Barcelona’s western working-class suburbs), the CiU vote fell 12 points to a mere 19.8%, collapsing to its lowest point since 1980 while the PSC lost about 3 points, falling to 20.1% (also an all-time low for the party, which had won 48% there in 1999…). Turnout increased by 11 points.
In all of these cases, the beneficiaries of the CiU (and, to a lesser extent, the PSC)’s collapse were the smaller parties – ERC, ICV and C’s – while the PP’s support remained stable at fairly high levels. The ERC gained, on average, a bit more than 5 points and was victorious in Sant Vicenç dels Horts (with 23.5%), the town where Oriol Junqueras is the mayor. The ICV, traditionally strong in Barcelona’s proletarian hinterland on the traces of the old PSUC, gaining about 2-4 points and winning 13% in Baix Llobregat, 12.3% in Barcelonès comarca and 11.6% in the Vallès Occidental. Undoubtedly, however, the most impressive gains were made by the vehemently anti-nationalist C’s, whose support increased from 4.9% to 10.8% in Baix Llobregat and from 4.2% to 9.8% in the Vallès Occidental. The C’s, likely feeding off the PSC’s decline (in part) and reaping the electoral benefits of their new left-wing political orientation, won strong support in Barcelona’s proletarian suburbs: 13.6% in Viladecans, 11.6% in Cornellà de Llobregat, 11.4% in Santa Coloma de Gramenet, 10.6% in L’Hospitalet and 10.1% in Badalona etc.
Outside of the greater Barcelona conurbation, the CiU’s loses are smaller. While it did lose a fairly substantial amount of support around the city of Tarragona, in the heavily nationalist rural areas of Lleida and Girona (the CiU vote fell by 3.9 and 2.1 points respectively in these provinces, against -7.6 in Tarragona and -8.7 in Barcelona). In some small and solidly nationalist comarcas, the CiU vote even increased by a tad. Throughout these rural and Catalonophone nationalist comarcas, the CiU and ERC took first and second while the PSC and PP placed distant thirds or fourths with single-digit results.
The ERC (and also ICV)’s gains in Barcelona’s working-class hinterland make it hard to attribute the CiU’s collapse to a broader collapse of the nationalist brand in regions which have been the most reticent towards Catalan nationalism in the past. The turnout surge in these places certainly benefited the anti-nationalists, but rather than a substantial collapse in the broader nationalist vote there was instead a strong mobilization and motivation of the anti-nationalist vote. The CiU’s collapse can be attributed to either unease with Mas’ referendum plan or discontent with the Generalitat’s austerity policies (these lower-income towns have been hit the hardest by the austerity policies) – though the latter option appears more likely.
The ERC was the biggest winner of the night. They won 21 seats, which far surpassed even their wildest expectations, and stole the symbolic second place from the PSC (but only due to malapportionment which favours the smallest provinces). The party had been fairly optimistic of its chances to regain the ground it had lost in 2010, which had marked the lowest ebb for the party since the 1980s; despite fears that Mas’ nationalist campaign could hurt them.
By playing up nationalist rhetoric, Mas had certainly hoped to capitalize on the nationalist mobilization which followed the Diada, in an attempt to win an absolute majority to pursue his own agenda (despite his weak economic record and the unpopularity of his austerity policies). It almost worked, but the ERC, by expanding its campaign to talk about social issues, was able to reach out to nationalist voters who flirted with Mas in the first days of the campaign but who remained uneasy with the Generalitat’s austerity policies. In the final stretch, the possible corruption cases surrounding the CiU likely also took their toll on the CiU and encouraged a large transfer of votes from the CiU to the ERC.
Oriol Junqueras, the new leader of the ERC, was able to inject new energy and hope in a party organization which had been demoralized by a series of electoral humiliations in 2010-2011 and internal squabbles between its hapless leadership. The ERC’s result this year is similar to what it had won in 2006 and a bit below its historic 2003 result, but nonetheless an excellent performance.
The PSC’s result cannot be described as anything other than catastrophic. In 2010, with only 18% and 28 seats, it had already won its worst result ever. This year, it managed to do even more pitifully than in 2010, with barely 14% and 20 seats. True enough, the election could have been even more disastrous for the PSC, which had polled as low at 16 or so seats during the course of this campaign. Strong turnout in its old strongholds and the successful motivation and mobilization of the anti-nationalist electorate probably allowed it to save face with the best possible performance, though it remains a catastrophe. In a polarized campaign which profited to the ‘extremes’ of both the nationalist and anti-nationalist coalitions, the PSC, with a vague and unappealing ‘federalist’ proposal, was squished in the middle and its voice muted by the confrontation between the nationalists and their most vocal opponents (PP, C’s). A vague and unappealing platform, a national party which is going down the drain, a party wracked by very public internal divisions as of late and a bad campaign led by a man with little charisma: all factors which sealed the PSC’s fate.
The PSC’s annihilation in its old strongholds – Barcelona’s working-class suburbs (a region with a large population of migrants from other regions of Spain or their descendants) – is quite something. In places such as L’Hospitalet, Badalona, Terrassa, or Sabadell, the PSC used to regularly win over 40-50% of the vote in most elections. Now, the PSC has now collapsed to the low 20s (or even lower in certain cases) in these towns. It placed second in Barcelona province but placed a distant third in Girona and fourth in Tarragona. In the city of Barcelona – which they governed for over 30 years until 2011 – the PSC placed fourth with 12.2%.
The PP added an extra seat to the 18 they held after the 2010 election, and although this is a good result for Alicia Sánchez-Camacho’s party, it falls below their expectations. The PP had hoped to capitalize on the polarization of the electorate in the wake of Mas’ new nationalist agenda, with the stated aim of becoming the second largest party in Parliament (to form the largest opposition party). Although the PP’s result is the party’s best result in a type of election which is usually the most difficult for the PP (it polls much better, up to 20%, in general elections), it had been hoping for a clearer success. The party was likely dragged down by the unpopularity of Mariano Rajoy’s austerity policies in Madrid. The C’s, with their similarly strong anti-nationalist message plus its leftist anti-austerity stance, profited the most from the polarization of the electorate.
The PP were nonetheless very pleased by Artur Mas’ major setback, who they accuse of having paralyzed and divided Catalonia with his nationalist agenda.
ICV-EUiA, like the PP, did quite well – taking 13 seats and nearly 9% of the vote, its best result since 1995 – but again, like the PP, it found its result slightly disappointing. Presenting itself as the strongest voice on the left against Mas’ economic policies, as the party which participated in every protest against cuts in social services or education, Joan Herrera’s party had hoped to capitalize on social discontent against Mas’ austerity policies. To a certain extent they did so, regaining votes from the PSC or other parties in Barcelona’s working-class suburb – the traditional base of the post-communist left in Catalonia. However, they had likely hoped for a slightly stronger performance.
The C’s, however, can hardly be disappointed by their tremendous performance. As noted above, the party, which in the past had focus its virulently anti-nationalist campaigns on narrow issues such as the government’s linguistic policies and the “positive discrimination” in favour of the Catalan language, expanded its message to talk about corruption (which the main parties – CiU, PSC and PP – were reluctant to mention) or the effects of the austerity policies implemented by the Generalitat and la Moncloa. Albert Rivera’s unambiguous anti-nationalist rhetoric, combined with his criticism of the banking system or the austerity policies, allowed him to make major inroads in the PSC’s old turf in suburban Barcelona. The C’s won 8.5% in the province of Barcelona (8 seats), up from 3.8% in 2010. However, the party, which in the past had been confined to the Barcelona metro area, expanded its support to Tarragona province, where it won one seat and 7.3% of the vote (up from 2.7%). In the traditionally anti-nationalist Tarragonès comarca, it won 11.6% of the vote, even reaching over 15% in Vila-seca.
The very left-wing and nationalist CUP, in its first regional electoral participation, broke the 3% barrier in seat-rich Barcelona province, which gave it 3 seats. With an unusual low-scale and grassroots-based campaign, it built on its fairly substantial base in some local councils and benefited from social discontent on the nationalist left.
Where does this result leave Catalonia? Artur Mas’ plan had been for him to win an absolute majority on the back of the post-Diada nationalist mobilization, and used his strong mandate from the Catalan electorate as a bargaining card against Rajoy to push for his referendum, on his own terms. Even as the CiU’s chances of conquering an absolute majority started dropping, they had hoped – and predicted – a fairly strong minority mandate which would still Mas with sufficient legitimacy to push his referendum on his terms. The whole thing backfired badly against him, leaving Mas with a smaller minority than in 2010 and a fairly uncertain mandate from voters. While voters returned a majority of deputies favourable to the “right to decide” (derecho a decidir), nationalist voters preferred “the original” (ERC) to “the copy” (CiU).
The CiU’s result was so bad for the party that there was some speculation that Mas could be compelled to step down. The PP and C’s both claimed that Mas had lost his legitimacy with the election results, Albert Rivera (the C’s leader) even called him to step down. Those rumours passed, and Mas will remain in power, but what seems to be clear is that Mas’ very disappointing showing on 25-N has reopened internal divisions in the CiU coalition between Mas/Pujol’s more nationalist CDC and Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida’s more pragmatic and right-leaning UDC. Duran’s smaller UDC had been quite uneasy with Mas’ bombastic nationalist rhetoric, when they have always favoured a ‘confederal’ Spain and have traditionally been very much against any rapprochement with the ERC (they would rather prefer to work with the PP). Duran was fairly silent during the campaign, but since 25-N he has publicly broken ranks with his senior partners in the CiU by expressing his concerns over Mas’ nationalist agenda and his desire to see better relations re-established with the PP.
Between his election in 2010 and this summer, Mas had enjoyed fairly cordial working relations with the PP. The two parties agreed to disagree on institutional issues, but the two parties share much common ground when it comes to economic policy. The PP voted in favour of the CiU’s austerity policies in Barcelona. However, the cordial relationship between the CiU and PP rapidly collapsed after Mas started taking a confrontational position against Madrid and pushing for his referendum. The PP focused most of its artillery fire on the CiU and Mas during the campaign, branding him as a divisive and polarizing “coward” who did not have the courage to take on ‘urgent’ issues (the economy, jobs) and preferred to take cover with his nationalist agenda. Following the elections, the PP expressed satisfaction at Mas’ setback. The CiU ruled out collaborating with the PP.
Will Mas’ plan go the way of the Ibarretxe election following Juan José Ibarretxe and the PNV’s failure to win a strong popular mandate to push for the Ibarretxe plan in the 2005 Basque elections? The situation is slightly different. Following the 2005 Basque elections, it was clear that the Basque nationalists had lost ground and that they had not received any mandate from the voters to push for the Ibarretxe plan, meaning that the elections dealt Ibarretxe’s ambitious plan a mortal blow. This year, the Catalan elections did not provide Mas and the CiU with a popular mandate for their agenda, but it would be wrong to claim that voters rejected the entire premises of the nationalist agenda (even if there was no substantial increase in nationalist support). The ERC, which ran on a platform calling for a referendum on Catalan separation as early as 2013, did very well.
Mas indicated that the ERC was his preferred coalition partner, even offering them to participate in his cabinet. Oriol Junqueras finally turned down Mas’ offer, but he did promise strong support for Mas (una solidez gigantesca to use his terms), including support for his government’s budgets. The basis for this tacit deal between Mas and the ERC is their common agreement on institutional issues. Mas’ post-electoral statements about the future of his referendum were a bit all over the place, but he said that the Parliament retained a strong majority of deputies in favour of the derecho a decidir (87/135 including ICV) and that the referendum remained on the table. It is a bit unclear what the ERC demanded in exchange for this legislative support, though it seems to be on some budgetary issues and on an agreement to keep pushing for a referendum.
With his government likely to be dependent on support from the left-leaning and strongly nationalist ERC, will Mas be pushed by the ERC to maintain confrontational and nationalist positions, including to keep pushing for a referendum? If he does continue pushing for a referendum but then finds himself blocked (as is certain to happen) by Madrid, will he do like Ibarretxe had done and quietly drop his plans, or will he push forward to organize an “illegal” referendum, not legitimized or recognized by Madrid? The results of these elections only provide more headaches for both Rajoy and Mas. Both may have reason to be satisfied by the results of 25-N, but in the long run the results do not satisfy either of their agendas.
Next: Canadian by-elections (Nov 26) and the disintegration of the French right (Nov 18 onward).