Catalonia Independence Crisis Intensifies Spain’s Political Divide
Political parties in Spain are struggling to navigate an increasingly polarized political landscape, says Professor Sebastiaan Faber of Oberlin College
G. WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Catalan legislators elected Roger Torrent, the leader of the separatist movement, as its new parliamentary speaker during their first session on Wednesday. Later this month, the parliament is scheduled to elect a new president, who will probably also be a leader of the Catalan independence movement, perhaps even in Carles Puigdemont, the leader who is currently in exile in Belgium. Meanwhile, last Monday, Spain’s conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, threatened to reintroduce direct rule from Madrid over Catalonia should separatists reelect Carles Puigdemont. In other words, little seems to have changed since Catalans held a referendum on independence last October and Spain’s central government forced a new regional election on Catalonia on December 21st.
Now joining me to analyze the latest developments in the Catalan independence crisis is Sebastiaan Faber. Sebastiaan is professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College and author of the just-released book <i>Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War.</i> Welcome back to The Real News, Sebastiaan.
S. FABER: Nice to be back.
G. WILPERT: First, given that the pro-independence parties in Catalonia managed to maintain their parliamentary majority in the snap elections last December, has anything really changed in Catalonia since this whole drama began last October 1st, in terms of the balance between forces between separatists in Barcelona and the central government in Madrid?
S. FABER: No, not much has changed. You’re right that it seems that things are repeating themselves. The newly elected speaker of parliament today, in his maiden speech, issued a call for and expressed a desire for a return to normality, which for him means primarily a return to self-rule. Catalonia is still under direct rule, and like you said, the central government in Madrid has threatened to maintain direct rule under Catalonia as long as they don’t think that things are properly organized in Catalonia, by which they mean as long as the threat of a unilateral breakaway of Catalonia from the rest of Spain has not been lifted.
The parties that hold the parliamentary majority now, the pro-independence parties, have agreed with each other that they will support as a presidential candidate, as the candidate to the presidency of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, who like you just said is in exile in Belgium, at the same time that the legal counsel of the Catalan parliament has said that they don’t think it’s legally feasible for somebody to assume the presidency of Catalonia while not even physically there. The problem is that as soon as Puigdemont sets foot in Catalonia, he will be arrested, because there is a case going on against him at the Supreme Court in Madrid.
There is a way in which the normal political chess game that you always have after parliamentary elections, which is pretty complicated to begin with, has been made even more complicated, because the rules are constantly being changed. The rules are being restricted. For example, there’s really two ways that is going on now in Spain. One is by the central government, which has invoked this Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to impose direct rule. So Catalonia is currently not governing itself, while the constitution says that it should have that right.
The other big rule change, or the other big force restricting what’s possible and not possible in Spain, is the judicial branch. Because the central government has from the beginning purposely judicialized the conflict there in Catalonia, currently there’s a whole separate machine in motion, which is the courts and especially the Supreme Court, which currently keeps three elected deputies of the Catalan parliament in preventative prison, and which also has forced the former president of Catalonia, Puigdemont, who would like to be president again, to stay outside of Spain. So the normal political game has been really complicated, restricted, by this threat of judicial pressure and the threat of direct rule.
The judicial pressure is not just, by the way, ways in which the law now or the courts are prohibiting particular things from happening, but they are also a real direct threat to individual politicians and deputies, who run the risk of ending up in prison, or having to pay big fines, or getting disbarred from politics altogether. There’s all kinds of ways in which all the actors in this complicated game are further being I call it restricted and handicapped by all these other factors in play.
G. WILPERT: Right. It seems, in other words, there’s a fair amount of increase in repression, basically, against essentially the independence leaders and movement. On the other hand, Prime Minister Rajoy himself seems to be also somewhat weakened now, considering that his own party, the Partido Popular, won only four seats in the Catalan parliament, down from a previous 11 seats, out of a total of 135. How does it look for Rajoy himself, considering that he’s also in a very much weakened position himself? Will he now have to suffer the consequences of how he has handled or mishandled the Catalan independence movement?
S. FABER: Yeah, his position has for certain weakened, both within his own party, and his party’s position within Catalonia, within Spain. The big winner of the weakening of the Partido Popular, which is Rajoy’s party, has been a new party on the right, Ciudadanos, Citizens, which went national only a year or two ago, which had been founded and has been longer in existence in Catalonia itself.
The way that politics currently works in Spain is interesting. For those parties who only have to operate within Catalonia, the real Catalan parties, among them the pro-independence parties, the game is very simple. They only have to appeal to a Catalan electorate. For parties who mostly operate in the rest of Spain, especially on the right, the game is also pretty simple, but for the parties that have to straddle both the Catalan electorate and the electorate in the rest of Spain, this is a really complicated game, almost a zero-sum game, where any position that might do well within Catalonia automatically will do not so well or pretty badly in the rest of Spain.
The only party that has really benefited by this, that has been able to play both sides successfully, has been this new Citizens party, because within Catalonia they’ve always very strongly against independence, and they’ve managed to galvanize about half, a little bit less than half of Catalan society, which is really skeptical about independence. By doing that, they have also managed to actually rob, or steal, or collect votes away from the Partido Popular in the rest of Spain, not only because the Partido Popular has managed the Catalan conflict in a less than tactical way, but also because the Partido Popular has consistently been a subject of large corruption scandals, which now, at the same time that we see the Catalan crisis developing further, are also appearing on the front pages. There is a way in which the Partido Popular is paying the price for its handling of the Catalan crisis but also for its decades and decades of deep corruption.
G. WILPERT: I want to get into that in a minute, but since you were just talking about the Ciudadanos party, I’m just wondering what’s happened to the other new party. Just as in so many other places around the world, in Spain there’s been a process of political polarization, with the emergence as you said on the right, the Ciudadanos or Citizens party, but on the left, the Podemos or We Can party. Both have played important roles in displacing the previously two prominent political parties, the conservative Partido Popular and the Socialist Workers’ Party of Spain. In this independence conflict, as you said, the Ciudadanos seems to have won significantly, whereas on the other hand, the Podemos has not been able to accomplish a similar leap, so to speak, in increasing its vote. What happened there? You said something about how they have not been able to play this, how did you say … They’ve been in a more contradictory situation. Can you elaborate a little bit more on that?
S. FABER: Yeah. I think that there’s two major causes for Podemos’s decline. The decline is real in the polls. It’s also tangible among its base. There is a loss of illusion. There is a loss of belief, and there is increasing frustration among the different groups of voters and different groups of citizens that were drawn to Podemos in the beginning.
I think the big external factor is that a crisis like the Catalan crisis is really hard to navigate for a party like Podemos. Podemos wants to see itself as a party for all of Spain, that is for the center and for the peripheries, for the Catalans and the Basques and the Galicians as much as for the rest of Spain, but its discourse, its message that Spain is a multinational nation, and that the other nations within Spain should in principle have the right to self-determination, is not playing well at all in the rest of Spain — while that same message in favor of self-determination, which should play okay in those parts of Spain that aspire to self-determination, sound in this particular context wishy-washy and half-assed compared to the much stronger pro-independence message of the pro-independence parties. In that sense, Podemos is really caught in the middle, and in a polarizing political landscape, sees that middle erode time and time again.
I think internally, they’ve also not had the easiest of times. There have been strong internal disagreements and struggles over power that have been fought out fairly publicly and that have not really benefited the party’s image as a well-functioning formation that is ready to take over government in Spain or that would have any real feasible solutions to Spain’s big problems.
Spain’s big problems are really three, and there’s a way in which all the fight, the whole conflict about Catalonia helps distract from those three problems. One is still the economic crisis, which is a European and global crisis, but in Spain is particularly severe, with still high unemployment, and a lot of precariousness, and high income inequality, and drops in services, and all that.
The second big crisis in Spain is the territorial crisis. Spain is a nation of nations, and the constitution that is currently enforced doesn’t provide a solution that is really workable at this point in Spain. That’s a real big problem.
The third big crisis is the crisis of political legitimacy, where the major big two parties have been mired in corruption for a long time, at the same time that the alternative parties that have now come up still haven’t quite been able to convince the electorate yet of the fact that they are a real alternative. Podemos is struggling pretty hard now. In a way, they’re lucky that there’s no big election coming up in Spain. The next big one is regional and city municipal elections next year. Podemos is in a real low.
G. WILPERT: What do you expect now to happen, in terms of the conflict itself around independence? Will it continue to intensify, or will cooler heads prevail and negotiations perhaps finally happen?
S. FABER: I think in principle there is plenty of will of everybody involved to try to make things work. I think everybody realizes … In Catalonia, everybody realizes that self-rule should be restored quickly and that this situation whereby Madrid and a governing party in Madrid that has barely any electoral support in Catalonia itself rules over Catalonia. That’s really not sustainable.
At the same time, these rule changes that I described earlier, these limits put on the situation by the courts and by the continued threat of central intervention from Madrid, create really difficult practical problems. In principle, the results of the elections in December indicate that many, many people in Catalonia want the previous president, Puigdemont, to return, and for his return to be accompanied by a restoration of self-rule and of political normality, but he cannot return, because he has been indicted by the Supreme Court. There is all kinds of ways in which the return to normality is in fact impossible and doesn’t seem to be … by factors that aren’t going to go away. The Supreme Court is not going to suddenly decide to let Puigdemont come back into Spain and assume the presidency. Within the next two weeks, all kinds of really complicated political, practical problems will have to be resolved that I think will likely result, finally, in another person than Puigdemont taking on the presidency, because I don’t see the courts budging at all.
G. WILPERT: Okay. We’ll continue to follow this. I was speaking to Sebastiaan Faber, professor of Hispanic studies at Oberlin College. Thanks again for having joined us today, Sebastiaan.
S. FABER: My pleasure. Take care.
G. WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.