Catalonia – and Spain’s – uncharted territory

Catalonia – and Spain’s – uncharted territory

Relations between Catalonia and the rest of Spain have changed forever, whatever the result of today’s unprecedented elections.

The make-up of the Catalan parliament will have been decided by a huge voter turnout – a triumph of democracy.

Tonight’s exit poll gives an absolute majority to separatist coalition Junts Pel Sí, with the help of far-left, anti-EU, anti-NATO party CUP, who are this election’s kingmakers. It is an election with the most obvious of outcomes, though caution remains, as even the two parties together may not gain 50% of the votes.

A nation waiting in nail-biting anticipation of how Madrid will react the morning after the night before. With over 60% of Catalans having voted, separatists will vaunt their firm mandate. How ambitious will they be with their demands? The tone of debate will be fiery to say the least.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy will play the constitutional card in an election which he has scorned for having become a de facto yes or no vote.

His conservative party will have roughly the same number of seats as Sí Que Es Pot, a coalition of leftist parties which in their political youth would have hoped to have made far more of an impact. Both will be disappointed.

The extent of victory for separatists will damage the prime minister’s credibility after refusing any movement on Spain’s current constitutional arrangements. Will Rajoy change his tune – faced with this electoral explosion?

While financial markets and bond yields will likely wobble as they have done already, Catalan independence is still a while away. While the plan is to start the task of building national structures within Catalonia as part of an 18-month roadmap to complete secession, there are lots of hopes but no guarantees. Junts Pel Sí will plough on ahead with or without the permission of Madrid.

The future of Catalonia outside of Spain is just as uncertain as it is inside.

It has been an energetic campaign which has threatened, energised, and empassioned with hours of debate and a quarter of voters still undecided a week before the vote.

The significance of tonight’s result will only be decided in December when Spain votes nationally for their next government. Polls suggest no one party will win a majority. Spain is now just as likely to have a right-wing government which will rebuke separatists as it is having a left-wing government which will negotiate a new deal for Catalonia.

To hold secessionist politicians to account will be Ciutadans, which firmly rejects Catalan independence. It has been a huge rise in fortunes for a party with humble beginnings. Ciutadans has captured the imagination of anti-independence Catalans in a way that traditional socialist parties have failed. They will remind Junts Pel Sí that there is a sizeable anti-independence movement in Catalonia which have to be listened to.

This last week of frantic campaigning was riddled with an embarrassing number of blunders courtesy of those who have tried to undermine the viability of an independent Catalonia.

It started with a radio interview with Mariano Rajoy, who couldn’t be sure if Catalans would lose Spanish citizenship in the event of secession. Footage from the exchange showed a startled, exposed prime minister who stumbled through a response to an article in the Spanish Constitution which states that nobody of Spanish origin can be deprived of their nationality.

Spain’s magna carta drawn up in 1978 has been the subject of much criticism. It is the roadblock for separatists, preventing the realisation of their ambitions.

An attempt by Spanish banks to persuade pro-independence campaigns to change their mind by appealing to their wallets was seen by skeptics as nothing more than lucky timing. A group of leading banks warned of the risks of an independent Catalonia – some of the same banks that a few years ago refused to enter the debate.

Calming words for Catalans came from the head of the Bank of Spain, who clarified threats of capital controls in an independent Catalonia as being “highly unlikely”.

Artur Mas addressed a crowd on Wednesday, saying: “This time, the weapons of destruction employed by Madrid will not triumph in Catalonia.”

He continued: “They will not destroy our dignity. They will not destroy our project. They will not destroy our dream. They will not destroy our excitement. They will not destroy Catalonia’s freedom.”

With so much unknown, tomorrow will be just as important – if not more – than today.

The towering figures of Europe and Madrid have yet to speak.

Greece’s election to end all elections – for now

Greece’s election to end all elections – for now

A hastily arranged three-week election campaign in a country now apathetic towards its political class for the unbearable burden of reforms and austerity. This Greek election is being seen as nothing more than a mirage for the country’s creditors who are running the show. What the country needs now is a period of political stability.

A late swing towards Syriza in the polls is being reported today, after barely any space between the leftist party and its conservative rival, New Democracy. What’s more, they can do nothing more to convince the Greek people, as campaigning drew to an end with roaring rallies in squares in the Greek capital, Athens.

A new mandate for Syriza would mean a measure of credibility after signing off the country’s finances to international creditors this summer, staving off a Grexit apocalypse, which seems to be far from the horizon. They are at the behest of the Eurozone machine and Germany, who expect any new government to fully comply with pressing reforms. Warnings from the European Commission were just as unyielding.

It is probable that coalition talks will have to begin as the mist clears on Monday morning and results become clear – neither party is expected to win a majority. Expect no coalition between Syriza and New Democracy – their economic policies differ greatly, and Syriza points the finger at ND for being partly responsible for the country’s economic problems, being part of the ‘old guard’. New Democracy believe Tsipras and his fractured party don’t have the will to implement reforms and that only they can be trusted to grow Greece’s economy. For its part, output is expected to contract by two per-cent despite unexpected growth of 0.8% in the second quarter of the year.

The new leader in government will be the seventh prime minister since the Greek debt crisis begin in 2009, in an electoral process which has occurred five times over in six years. It is no wonder that Greeks are experiencing a severe bout of election fatigue.

Syriza is still a relatively new party, elected untested just eight months ago. It would be unfair for them to assume the blame for years and years of economic mismanagement beforehand. Tsipras put it quite humorously – it’s like someone who drank three bottles of whisky and a shot of vodka then claiming it was the vodka that had given him a hangover. It depends how well you handle your drink for this metaphor to work, of course.

One of Syriza’s key pledges is a cleaning-up exercise – a definitive end to self-serving politicians who corrupted the system, leading to the financial crisis that the same politicians claimed they were managing. It is a populist, leftist message which is not unique in Europe.

Tsipras appeared at the rally alongside Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, pointing again to the huge European significance of Greece’s national vote. Elections in Portugal and Spain – Southern European states that were forced to seek financial assistance from Europe – have the economy at the heart of their campaign.

Spain's anti-austerity, anti-corruption party leader Pablo Iglesias at Syriza rally event in Athens
Spain’s anti-austerity, anti-corruption party leader Pablo Iglesias at Syriza rally event in Athens

Tsipras said: “The message of our victory will be sent to Pablo in Spain, Gerry Adams in Ireland and to a progressive prime minister in Portugal.”

Portugal exited its bailout last year with its economy steadying and growing after three years of recession. The vote there on 4th October mirrors Greece as far as the likelihood of a coalition is concerned. Neither the centre-right ruling coalition nor the centre-left opposition Socialists can claim a full majority.

In Spain, leaders can boast one of the largest eurozone growth figures for this year, as polls there are yet to hand a majority to either the ruling conservatives or opposition Socialists.

It is a sort of political paralysis as anti-establishment parties continue to fracture traditional bipartite systems.

The European left will likely use a Syriza victory to show the pernicious effect of austerity on the social fabric of a country, which will be lumbered with yet more cuts. Those out of work reached 25.2% in July in what many call a “lost generation”.

Unemployment in Portugal is roughly in line with the European average at 11%, while in Spain, it is stubbornly at 22%. In both countries, it remains the young who are the most precarious.

Any coalition government will oversee the management of Greece’s bailout, ensuring a smooth path ahead for the country’s financial system after capital controls – still in place – were imposed earlier this year when the banking system went virtually bust.

Surprisingly, market traders have scarcely been kept awake at night by the Greek vote after Tsipras’ climb-down this summer. It is accepted that any incoming leader will have no choice but to swallow the bailout pill.

Before word of elections, talk in the summer of debt restructuring or debt reduction was rife in Europe. Germany said it was out of the question, while other economists argued it was the only way to stop Greece being straddled with debts for decades to come. Will there be any movement on this when negotiations begin in earnest?

For the country’s new leader, the interminable flow of migrants to Greece’s coastline may prove to be one of the most pressing problems. Greece borders several Balkan countries which are but the latest route for thousands of people on the move.

Sunday’s election is yet another chapter in the ongoing problems for Europe, solutions for which are elusive and painful.

For more: BBC News – Key Greece election on a knife edge

Some thoughts on the Catalan question

Some thoughts on the Catalan question

Ten days remain before Catalonia decides fundamentally the direction of travel for the region – unity with the rest of Spain, or more probably, a path leading towards further confrontation with the Madrid government and the creation of a new state.

Here are some thoughts on how the campaign and debate are developing:

  • Madrid is ramping up the rhetoric on an international scale to demonstrate how isolated an independent Catalonia could be. Comments from the leaders of Germany, Britain, and latterly US President Barack Obama that have unanimously called for unity in Spain, and to obey the rule of law, have been used endlessly to ring alarm bells. Do these ‘voices’ have any currency in a campaign which has been dominated by a vibrant debate from within Spain?
  • Investor concern is rising in Spain with the constant war of words between Madrid and Barcelona. Important to note it is as much to do with the December national elections, which has the ruling PP party and Socialist PSOE opposition on a knife-edge in polls. A majority for any party is not on the cards for the moment, hence the uncertainty.
  • The momentum seems to be gathering with pro-independence Junts Pel Sí nearing a majority  – maybe even without the help of other parties to get over the line. Polls in the coming days will judge further this consolidation.
  • Junts Pel Sí assured anti-independence candidates of the economic viability of an independent Catalonia. However on Friday, some of Spain’s biggest banks, including Caixabank, Santander, BBVA and Sabadell, questioned their presence in Catalonia in the event of independence. They warned of financial risks in the event of victory for Junts Pel Sí. The economic influence is undoubtedly significant, but hardly new.
  • Television debates prove to be very different affairs to their British or American equivalents. A more measured discussion which overtly avoids sound bites or grand gestures, one in which candidates themselves dictate the direction of the debate. It is comparatively less superficial and lacking in hype, though with so many candidates, hours of discussion can be difficult to get into. One commentator called last night’s televised debate “impossible”. I highly doubt for the most part that they sway any voting intention.
  • Sometimes accused of being unintentionally pro-independence, Catalan state broadcaster TV3 has been ordered by a Spanish election board to give coverage to anti-independence parties on Sunday, given the extensive coverage of the region’s national day which was dominated by pro-independence demonstrations organised at the grassroots. Social media has rallied against this ruling with a television boycott.
The divide in coverage for pro- and anti-independence parties
The divide in coverage for pro- and anti-independence parties
  • With the Catalan language dominant in the region’s media, is this in any way preventing a wider debate with non-Catalan speakers, even if the language is intelligible for most? President Mas pledged to protect the rights of Spanish speakers, as his coalition bloc has lately been fielding for more support among non-Catalan speakers. An interesting thought.
  • One year on since the Scottish independence vote produced a ‘no’ decision with 55% against the break-up of the UK, there have been reports that the Scottish National Party are considering a second referendum on independence in its 2016 election manifesto. This in light of the party’s massive mandate delivered in May’s general election, which virtually wiped out Labour in Scotland. A risky move on either side of the debate, as one study shows a 51:49 split, the slim majority against independence. Events in Scotland were keenly followed in Catalonia. Will the Catalan election reignite the debate with their Scottish counterparts?
  • The debate balances on the real – the current – and the hypothetical – the future. The anti-independence Ciudadanos candidate said that realistic solutions are needed, not science fiction. It is the inevitable difficulty for the pro-independence that they are arguing about an as-yet non-existent state, which brings either hope or disaster. It is the voter’s decision to judge possibility and probability where answers are often rhetorics or conjecture.
  • The question over the status of an independent Catalonia in or out of the European Union is one which will not go away. You could accuse Junts Pel Sí of complacency in as much as you could accuse their opponents of scaremongering. An important thing in all this – there is no precedent in the European Union history books,  and thus far no voices from the European Union that have yet said that Catalonia would remain in the EU. The fact that the issue is so widely debated points to no one clear conclusion.
  • The European Commission affirmed it wouldn’t influence the Catalan elections and would be prepared to negotiate with democratically-elected parties.
  • Ciudadanos is campaigning on the unity of local issues – health, education, corruption, unemployment – that affect all Catalans. They are lone voices in a debate dominated by the existential in/out question. What role will everyday issues play in people’s minds?

More than a quarter of voters remain undecided. How long this significant chunk of the electorate has left to make such an historically significant decision is running out, as the intensity and brutality of the campaign increases.

An historic vote on independence in Catalan regional elections

An historic vote on independence in Catalan regional elections

Many hundreds of thousands of Catalans will crowd the streets of Barcelona today, marking the region’s annual national day, La Diada. A moment of pride for Catalans, showcasing their difference and cultural richness.

A sea of mosaic colours running for more than five kilometres in the Catalan capital will tell the world that, for many in this region, Catalonia should become a new, better country – that independence is the only option and a once-of-a-lifetime opportunity.

Crucially, today marks the start of campaigning for regional parliament elections on the 27th September, which has become a de facto referendum on independence. 135 seats are up for grabs, with the latest polling confirming the trend of a very narrow victory for pro-independence parties.

The Free Way to the Catalan Republic, a mosaic symbolising the start of building a new country
The Free Way to the Catalan Republic, a mosaic symbolising the start of building a new country

Parties from left and right, in support of independence are campaigning under a single umbrella called Junts Pel Sí, Together for Yes, formed in July. It groups together the ruling conservative CDC party, the left-wing ERC and several civil society organisations, responsible for the large-scale, pro-independence demonstrations that have made international news in recent years. Projections show that the coalition would win between 60 and 62 seats, but an absolute majority could only be achieved with the help of pro-independence and anti-capitalist party, CUP.

14415896163036The outcome of one poll shows the narrow political divisions in Catalonia in a hard-fought election campaign

The campaign is as much economic as political. Despite party differences, pro-independence campaigners say they are fed up with an unfair budget settlement from Madrid, which has meant harsh cuts to health and education that the Catalan government says it has been forced to make. Although levels of unemployment in the region are better than the rest of Spain, it remains a key worry for Catalans. In an independent Catalonia, President Artur Mas said he wouldn’t have to make a single euro in cuts.

Pro-independence campaign group Junts Pel Sí's election slogan, el vot de la teva vida - the vote of your life.
Pro-independence campaign group Junts Pel Sí’s election slogan, el vot de la teva vida – the vote of your life.

Judging the mood in Catalonia without referencing the elections directly, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Tuesday that political uncertainty is the biggest problem for the Spanish economy. Indeed, in the past few days, risk in the Spanish economy has risen with the favourable fortunes of pro-independence politics in the polls.

Economic credibility in such a politically charged campaign is a key bargain chip amid a lot of bluster and scaremongering. Mas argued for the economic viability of an independent Catalonia, even if it were outside the EU – a significant sticking point.

At the same time, the Catalan President said Spain would survive without Catalonia, deeming it a “win-win” result. Spain would remain Catalonia’s largest trading partner in the event of indepedence.

Dialogue between Barcelona and Madrid broke down before it even started, as Rajoy cannot countenance any debate surrounding the break-up of Spain. His key pledge ahead of national elections in December is one of stability, amid a marked upturn in growth for the Spanish economy.

A majority of Catalans agree that, even if they aren’t in support of independence, a vote should nonetheless take place. It is a matter of democracy, pro-independence supporters say, which is being undermined by Madrid. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel García-Margallo told the BBC: “This so-called independent Catalonia will have no chance at recognition.”

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Junts pel Sí, Together for Yes, bringing a unified pro-indepdence campaign to regional elections.

Estimates from Junts pel Sí suggest that Catalonia would be the 12th largest European economy, and the creation of a new state would cost just over 39 billion euros. A key part of their electoral program is the structural plan for an independent Catalonia, including new bodies such as a tax authority, and a central bank, which have yet to be costed. It’s also unknown for the moment whether the state would have its own armed forces. On defence, Mas has no doubt that Catalonia must remain part of NATO.

In addition, debt settlement with Madrid would mean a new state initially burdened with large debts, offset by a new fiscal arrangement which would bring in 11 billion euros.

Speaking last week on a trip to Madrid, British Prime Minister David Cameron very much hoped Spain would remain united, and warned in no uncertain terms that Catalonia would have to apply for EU membership if it seceded from Spain.

The spectre of a Catalan EU exit was also raised by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said last week: “We share the view that there are EU treaties by which we are all bound and these EU treaties guarantee the national integrity and sovereignty of every country.”

An unprecedented move such as this in European Union history means any outcome is all the more unpredictable.

Standing in the way of pro-independence parties are the new political forces on the block. Ciutadans, which opposes Catalan nationalism, is expected to be the second biggest party after the pro-independence coalition, with around 21 seats.

Its leader, Albert Rivera, has called the 27th September “the most important day in the history of Catalonia”. Ciutadans is making huge efforts to mobilise Catalans to reject this election as being a proxy independence vote. Rivera is worried about one likely scenario which could mean victory for pro-independence Junts Pel Sí, with just 40% of the share of the vote. Mas says it is the number of seats, not the numbers game, which matters more, given 28.7% of those in a poll released yesterday still haven’t decided.

Podemos, the far-left, anti-austerity party which has already shaken up the dominance of traditional left and right parties in Spain, is campaigning with other leftist forces in a coalition called “Catalonia Yes We Can”. They are desperately mobilising those who wouldn’t usually vote, as well as criticising Mas and his party over allegations of corruption. It was a strategy which paid off in local elections in May, allowing Ada Colau to be installed as mayor of Barcelona. The coalition would be the third largest party with 15 seats, according to poll estimates.

Mas hopes a solid win for pro-independence parties will pave the way for an 18-month roadmap to secession. Polls on secession are as close as it gets – 44% support independence, 46% reject it, with the usual caveat that, after all, this is just one poll.

The region held an informal consultation last November, asking voters whether they wanted Catalonia to be a state and whether they wanted that state to be independent. 80% of voters voted ‘yes’ to both. Another sign of the potent disaffection with Spain, it was held in fierce opposition to politicians in Madrid, who called it a sham.

Just a few months away from general elections, likely to be held on the 20th December, all parties are on the political warpath to present their case on an issue that threatens the shape of Spain.

The socialist party PSC, the regional offshoot of the opposition party, PSOE, has said that the current system of autonomy within Spain is outdated, and reforms would be needed to keep Catalonia in Spain, specifically the tearing up of the country’s Constitution, which presently forbids questioning the unity of Spain, to create a new deal through dialogue and negotiation.

Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez has said that in as much as Mariano Rajoy has confronted Catalans with the rest of Spain, Artur Mas is equally as divisive in pitting Catalans against other Catalans. The problem for both Spain and Catalonia, for him, is one of leadership. He wishes to see both men out of office in his idea for a new, federal Spain.

Today, Catalans will have their own say on the political future of the region on the streets, democratically, colourfully and enthusiastically. On the 27th September, Catalonia and Spain alike face an uncertain future.

Whatever the result – in a vote which will attract an incredibly high turnout – it is without doubt that the status quo will be no longer. Anti-independence parties say Catalonia would head for disaster in the event of a ‘yes’ win, with no possibility of dialogue. In that eventuality, pro-independence parties will use their mandate to lay the first stones in building a Catalan state, and at the same time, preside over the break-up of Spain.

It is a point of no return.

MORE. January 2015: All or nothing: An early Catalan vote which brings secession expectations