Catalan independence parties won the regional parliamentary vote, defeating the central government’s effort to weaken the movement, but the parties will have a difficult time forming a government, explains Prof. Sebastiaan Faber of Oberlin College
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert joining you from Quito, Ecuador. The Spanish region of Catalonia went to vote again on Thursday. This time, to elect a new Parliament. Spain’s central government, under the leadership of Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, forced the election when he disbanded the Catalan Parliament last November and arrested numerous independence leaders, charging them with rebellion. Leaders had declared Catalonia’s independence from Spain following a referendum that took place on October 1st. Upon hearing about the results, Prime Minister Rajoy held a press conference where he had the following to say.
Mariano Rajoy: [Translated from Spanish] It is also evident that the division generated by radicalism in Catalan society is very large. It’s a division that will take time to resolve and that is why it should be the first priority of all the political players. The necessary reconciliation must come hand-in-hand with the law and with respect for the rights of everyone.
GREGORY WILPERT: Joining me to analyze the result of this most recent Catalan election is Sebastian Faber. Sebastian is Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College and author of the forthcoming book, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. Welcome to The Real News Network, Sebastian.
SEBASTIAN FABER: Sure, my pleasure.
GREGORY WILPERT: According to official results, with 99% of the ballots counted, the pro-independence parties won an absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament. What is your initial reaction to this result?
SEBASTIAN FABER: I think it’s a remarkable result for two different reasons. The first one is that the circumstances in which this election was held were quite unusual. They were called after the central government in Spain revoked Catalonia’s self-government and fired the President and dissolved the Parliament. In a context where, as you said, many of the leaders of the pro-independence movement are either in jail, or in exile, or indicted. It was remarkable that under those circumstances the pro-independence party could still pull off an absolute majority in Parliament. The second reason why it’s remarkable is because in effect, when at the end of October the Catalan Parliament declared independence. In a way, its bluff was called or the bluff of the pro-independence party’s was called, because nothing happens.
Catalonia did not become independent and there appeared to be no real plan in place to institute the new republic. Yet, despite the fact that the pro-independence leaders are being jailed, investigated, and exiled, despite the fact that the bluff was called, they still managed to get about 100,000 more voters on their side than in 2015. I think that shows on the one hand how strongly about half of Catalonia feels about the idea of independence and about especially the idea of self-government. It also shows how little legitimacy the Spanish state has in Catalonia and how ineffective its sort of zero-tolerance harsh intervention has been. Another side effect of all this is that the other right-wing party, the young right-wing party, Ciudadanos, citizens, has come out actually as the largest party in Catalonia.
It won the election, in the sense that it got most votes. Got about 25% of the votes. Which in itself, it’s also a remarkable result. At the same time that the ruling party in Spain, the party of the Prime Minister, the Partido Popular, or PP, was decimated. It was already small and it last on top of that two-thirds of their vote, so now they end up with a measly three seats in 135 seat Parliament. 4% and a quarter about of the vote. Yet, this is the party that thanks to the revocation of self-government, currently actually governs in Catalonia. Catalonia’s still, until the formation of a new government, is governed by a party that has about 4% of the vote.
GREGORY WILPERT: Oh Sebastian, so what would you say? Did Prime Minister Rajoy miscalculate really badly enforcing this new elections in Catalonia and what can Rajoy now do, who seems to have handled this situation rather badly? I mean, he said that in this quote that we … In the soundbite we just heard, that he wants to engage in reconciliation. Is there any substance to that? Is that something that’s going to happen and in general what was this miscalculation all about?
SEBASTIAN FABER: I think he did miscalculate. I think that the main goal, and explicitly stated goal of the snap elections, right? Of firing, or dissolving the Parliament and calling for elections in December. I know, a strange date right before Christmas in the middle of the week. Normally elections are held on a Sunday. The day before the big soccer match between Barcelona and Madrid. It’s all of these very unusual circumstances. I think he miscalculated. The goal was, as he actually admitted, to reset things in Catalonia. In effect, it was understood, to give the Catalans the chance to make a better choice at the ballot box. That is to say, he was hoping that they would vote against the independence parties and in favor of those parties that are in favor of remaining in Spain.
In that sense, he miscalculated because the independence parties still got a national majority in the Parliament. Reconciliation … it’s hard to know what Rajoy means with that word. It seems to me he means that in his view, Catalonia is split in half, and he’s right in that. The election results yesterday showed that about half of the Catalans are in favor of independence, or see the need and the benefits of an independent republic, and about half are skeptical about that, or strongly opposed to that. I think when he talked about reconciliation he means that the Catalan’s should reconcile with each other. I don’t think he means to say that he as Prime Minister of Spain should reconcile himself with the idea that half of what is one of the most prosperous regions in Spain, wants to leave Spain.
I don’t think this is a gesture on his side of any kind of more of a greater openness toward negotiation. The exiled President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, has said last night that he’s willing to meet with Rajoy outside of Spain’s borders — because as soon as he steps foot in Spain he’ll be arrested — in Brussels, or anywhere else in Europe to talk, and Rajoy’s already said that he is not willing to do that. I think reconciliation in Rajoy’s view does not mean sitting down to negotiate an actual political solution to what continues to be clearly a real territorial crisis in Spain.
GREGORY WILPERT: I just want to return again to the question of the parties and their relative sizes now in the Parliament. You mentioned that Ciudadanos party is a big winner in this election and the big loser is basically the Partido Popular with such few seats. Why is it that the Prime Minister, Rajoy’s party, the Partido Popular, ironically as it’s called, has become so unpopular?
SEBASTIAN FABER: I think there’s a couple of reasons. I think it’s the way in which it took the lead in revoking Catalan’s self-government, is a big factor. Self-government is broadly widely supported as an idea, even among conservative or less left-wing people in Catalonia. Another one is that his … The leader of his party in Catalonia, the guy heading up the campaign, is a particularly unlikeable and radical right-wing politician, so he was not the most fit to soften the electorate or to put a nicer face to the Partido Popular in Catalonia.
I think the third reason is that the President of Ciudadanos, or Citizens in English, really gives conservative people in Catalonia a much more attractive, younger, slicker, less-corrupt option to vote for. I think the fact that Ciudadanos managed to make a more attractive offer to conservative Catalans through its appeal to a Spanish nationalism, through a strong opposition to Catalan independence movement, and through a younger, more likable candidate, Ines Arrimadas, who was the one who led the party in Catalonia and made it possible for the party to win a quarter of the vote, I think all those three factors explain the demise of the Partido Popular in Catalonia.
Something similar is happening in Basque country, so I think it’s telling that the party that most strongly stands for sort of staunch conservatism in Spain and the strong investment in Spanish national unity, is becoming weakest in two of the regions that have strongest national identities and that are also most economically advanced.
GREGORY WILPERT: Now, what do you think will the independence movement do next? You mentioned that Carles Puigdemont has offered to engage in talks with Prime Minister Rajoy outside of Spain, since he’s in exile and doesn’t want to be arrested. That probably won’t happen, so what do you think will happen? What will be the next move on the part of the independence people?
SEBASTIAN FABER: I think the independence parties, which are three, two large ones and one very small one, have two complicated tasks. One is legal, because the leader of the traditional Catalan conservative party, Puigdemont, the President, is in exile in Brussels and will be arrested as soon as he steps foot into Spain. The leader of the other large Catalan independence party, the left republican party is in jail and doesn’t look like he’ll be released anytime soon. It’s a preventative jail sentence in the sense that he is in jail until he comes up for trial. The first challenge is legal. How are you going to have these people become part of a government when they’re either in jail or will be arrested when they step foot in Spain?
The second big challenge is to actually agree to form a government. These three parties, Puigdemont’s party, the left republicans, and the small radical left CUP party, don’t see eye-to-eye really on many details of when it comes to independence or when it comes to say, social policies, or economic policies. For them to sit, to get together and negotiate an agreement on the basis of which they can actually govern, will be pretty hard already. I think the legal background will make it even harder.
GREGORY WILPERT: There’s one party that we haven’t discussed yet, which is the Podemos offshoot in Catalonia. What position have they taken? I mean, they haven’t taken a solidly pro-independence, but also they have supported the idea of a referendum. They lost votes, or lost seats actually, in this last election. What’s their position and what happened there?
SEBASTIAN FABER: You’re right, they lost three seats. They went from 11 to eight seats, which shows that they’re message did not work electorally, or shows that their message was squeezed out by the more stronger, either pro or against independence parties. Which is … I was surprised by that, because the leader of Catalonia, En Comú Podem, which is Catalonian for “together we can,” is well liked. He’s charismatic. They had a good program. They ran an okay campaign and yet they lost votes. I think what it shows is that it’s not enough to support the right to self-determination and it’s not enough to call for a legal referendum.
At this point, the polarization has advanced to such an extent that that is actually read by the majority of the electorate as a kind of neither fish nor fowl attitude, or noncommittal attitude, seen less as sensible and properly left-wing than as wishy-washy. I think it also did not help that some of the leadership of the most in Madrid has a tendency sometimes to inadvertently reflect a kind of centralist attitude toward Catalonia that to which anybody in Catalonia also on the left is extremely sensitive and very quick to react against. I think those two factors made it complicated for the Podemos offshoot in Catalonia to perform better in the elections.
I do think that this result will have to … Well, will force Podemos to rethink its strategy and to come up with a better national project, or a better linkage between these genuine nationalist sentiments and what continues to be really a very progressive alternative port for Spain. The same is true, by the way, for the European Union. I think we can read the Catalonian elections within the Catalan context, within the Spanish context, and within the European context, and it was telling, I think, the European Union which could’ve come out with a reaction last night. Decided not to and said, “No, no. We’ll wait until after Christmas and the New Year to say what we think about this.”
I think the continued independence, the continued string of the independence movement in Catalonia poses a very difficult problem for the European Union, which adds to its general … Continues to be the economic financial challenge, and how to solve the problem of the European economy, and income inequality. In a way, these independence movements are our reaction to the Europeans, Europe’s failure to come up with the proper appealing political project. I think the European Union will also have to maybe change its course, or come up with a more sophisticated way of reading what’s going on in Spain, and what might in the near future be going on in other places in Europe with regions trying to succeed.
GREGORY WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’ll continue to follow this situation as it develops and I was joined by Sebastian Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College. Thanks again Sebastian for having joined us today.
SEBASTIAN FABER: My pleasure.
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