Making sense of the uncertainty following Catalonia’s declaration of independence

Catalonia faces an uncertain future following the events of the last month, but the regional elections now scheduled for 21 December are likely to be a key moment in determining its trajectory. Mariana S. Mendes assesses how the crisis developed following the 1 October referendum, arguing that by calling early elections, the Spanish government has attempted to give the pro-independence bloc little opportunity to build momentum behind their resistance efforts, but that if pro-independence parties secure a majority the crisis could escalate again.

A surreal month in Spain’s political life ended the way the Catalan and the Spanish governments had promised to start it – with a unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October, followed by the suppression of Catalonia’s autonomy. Uncompromising positions took the lead and neither the authorities in Madrid nor in Barcelona showed the necessary will or statesmanship to avoid the greatest political crisis Spain has faced since the end of Franco’s era.

That it took the pro-independence bloc 27 days to proclaim independence rather than the 48 hours promised following the 1 October referendum shows, however, that attempts were made at avoiding such a drastic measure. Potentially important factors in this were dissenting voices within the ruling coalition, firms withdrawing from Catalonia, and the lack of international support.

The ambiguous announcement of a ‘suspended declaration of independence’ on 10 October – to make room for dialogue with Madrid – highlighted the conundrum that the head of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, had to confront. On the one hand, pro-independence hardliners threatened to withdraw their support and break up the pro-independence parliamentary majority if independence was not declared. On the other hand, pro-independence pragmatists were alarmed by the potentially high costs of such a move – visible in the more than one thousand firms that moved their headquarters out of Catalonia – and preferred to take a more cautious approach.

To be sure, no one inside the ruling pro-independence coalition expected the Spanish government to react with complacency. What many certainly hoped for was that Madrid’s response would help move Catalonia a step further to independence. If the Spanish authorities reacted with a heavy hand, the case for separation would be further strengthened and so would support for independence – which still requires a convincing majority within Catalonia itself. If instead Madrid had accepted Puigdemont’s call for dialogue, he would be given some leeway to negotiate possible concessions: potentially the acceptance of constitutional changes allowing for a legal referendum, or, as a second best option, a reform of the Statute of Autonomy. At a minimum, he would have sought to avoid the suppression of Catalonia’s autonomy and what is most likely a long prison sentence for him.

But Madrid’s authorities did not need to tie themselves to either model. Instead, they followed the ‘carrot and stick’ approach of Puigdemont. Whereas the latter’s ‘carrot’ was a proposal for dialogue – while keeping the potential stick of a blunt declaration of independence on hand – Madrid’s ‘carrots’ were a series of requests that Puigdemont would have to abide by if they were not to apply article 155 of the Spanish Constitution – the ‘nuclear option’ of suspending Catalonia’s autonomy and deposing the regional government.

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As Spain heads for a second election in six months, its parties have failed to correctly interpret the result of the first

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Spain will have a fresh general election on June 26 after government formation negotiations following December’s hung parliament failed. Alberto López-Basaguren discusses how things got to this stage, arguing that the parties have failed to correctly interpret the implications of the December result. The new election is not in their own or the public interest and the parties could, and should, have avoided it.

On May 3 King Felipe VI approved the dissolution of the Spanish parliament, calling a fresh election for June 26. In doing so he complied with Section 99(5) of the Constitution, given the inability of the Lower House to elect a Prime Minister within two months of the first investiture vote.

The election results of December 20 situated the political forces at the entrance to a maze into which, almost without exception, they have insisted on going further and further, so far indeed that they have been unable to find the exit. We have had months of uninterrupted electoral campaigning, as if for the parties there existed no other prospect than new elections.

Only the conservative Popular Party (PP), and the social democratic Socialist Party (PSOE), could form the backbone of a government majority. The strategy of both has basically been the same: the appointment of a PM being the objective, at any price, come what may afterwards, in the hope that the conditions making this possible would fall like ripe fruit. Although each of them had in mind a different fruit.

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Hung parliament will make it difficult to push forward the political reform Spain needs

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Spain’s general election on 20 December resulted in a hung parliament and great uncertainty about the identity of the next government. Alberto López-Basaguren discusses the election result, arguing that it has been arrived at because of the deterioration of the democratic system and the failure to solve the crisis surrounding the system of devolution. Neither problem will be easily addressed in such a fragmented parliament.

The elections to the Spanish parliament held on Sunday 20 December have resulted in a lower house with political fragmentation unprecedented in Spain. This new situation has an initial consequence: the difficulty involved in achieving a working government majority, which will almost certainly result in a very weak government and, possibly, early elections. But there is another very significant risk on the horizon: the inability of so fragmented a parliament, with such a weak leadership and such difficult alliances, to address the democratic regeneration – and the constitutional reform – which the profound political crisis in which Spain is immersed appears so urgently to demand. The capacity or incapacity to address these challenges will, very probably, determine the political future of Spain.

The D’Hondt electoral system with the provinces as constituencies (to which are allocated a minimum of two MPs, with some provinces having far larger populations than others), has led to a parliamentary map dominated by two major parties, which between them have always occupied two thirds of the 350-seat lower house. They have been accompanied by various other parties with a low number of seats. Principally, nationalist/regionalist parties (Basque, Catalan, Galician, Aragonese, Valencian, Navarran, Canarian etc.) which, with territorial concentration of their voters, obtain seats with a very low overall percentage of the vote; and, occasionally, parties with a presence throughout Spain, penalised by the electoral system, which despite a relatively high percentage of votes achieve very low representation. A parliamentary configuration that, on the one hand, handed control of the system to the two major parties, whose mutual agreement was a prerequisite to any substantial (constitutional) reform, and, on the other, allowed the party which won the elections to govern calmly, even when it did not have a parliamentary majority, in which case it sought the support of some ‘small’ party. A bipartisan system that guaranteed stability.

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