Catalonia’s independence plans at a crossroads

Catalonia’s independence plans at a crossroads

As the world commemorated the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the singularly most important event of the 21st century so far, many hundreds of thousands of people packed streets and squares in Catalonia to celebrate their national day.

The excitement surrounding last year – that Catalonia was on the cusp of independence and tangible change – contrasted with a much more uncertain feeling this time round. With the backdrop of nine months of political paralysis in Madrid, talk of independence is still very much around, but far from being shouted about the tone is noticeably more muted with numbers attending events across the region down from 2015.

Few would have imagined a year ago the possibility of a third round of national elections should political parties fail to come to an agreement by the end of October, a prospect that three quarters of Spaniards are against, according to a new poll released today. The political blockade is by far the biggest obstacle for leaders in Catalonia – they simply don’t know who will be across the table in Madrid to negotiate a break-up from Spain.

576_1473601023whatsapp_image_2016-09-11_at_15-33-13
One demonstrator holding up a placard symbolising a heartbeat “ready” for independence

Madrid is predictably standing firm, so much so incumbent Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said on Saturday that an economic crisis or even a terrorist attack was preferable to the irreversible break-up of Spain.

Similar fractures in the ruling Catalan coalition are slowing down the secessionist process. The pro-independence Junts Pel Sí coalition, formed of centre-right to left wing parties, and the CUP, an anti-EU and anti-euro party, could lose its majority if elections were held according to polls. It reflects the thoughts of some analysts that the independence movement is losing steam, ultimately delaying the declaration of independence pencilled in for sometime next year.

576_1473601111whatsapp_image_2016-09-11_at_15-37-01
Demonstrators gathering in front of the Arc de Triomf in Barcelona

Anti-independence parties have criticised the national day, or Diada, for being hijacked by supporters of independence, not a day for all Catalans to enjoy regardless of politics.

You only have to listen to Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau to understand the complexity of the issue of independence. Somewhat ambiguously she voted “yes” to independence in a de-facto referendum in 2014, but Colau says she is not in favour of independence. She joined Catalans on the streets for the first time this year, together with members of Podemos, a party which is pro-referendum but at the same time, anti-independence.

puigdemont-diada-ofrenda
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont attending the Diada ceremony this morning

The prospect of yet another round of elections, which Catalan president Carles Puigdemont hopes to call before this time next year, looks set to be a sort of end game. He said the vote will be “a transition period between post-autonomy and pre-independence”.

Puigdemont has said he will make use of a confidence vote in the Catalan parliament on 28th September to put a referendum on the table to Madrid.

Heralded as a once in a lifetime opportunity a year ago, independence in Catalonia looks to still be in its infancy. The momentum is still there, but with the roadblocks of coalition disagreement and no certainty as to who will be running Spain, there are many factors that can still derail the delicate independence process, compounded by a feeling of impatience that political leaders need to deliver results more quickly.

 

‘Political tourism’ storm in Spain

‘Political tourism’ storm in Spain

It’s the start of a storm in Spain – about so-called ‘political tourism’.

Members of Spain’s leftist party, Podemos, the Basque terrorist group, ETA, and a Catalan anti-capitalist party, CUP, headed for Venezuela in a private plane laid on by President Nicolás Maduro – leader of a nationalist government which many now regard as a regime.

Now Spain’s politicians are demanding explanations.

Exclusive images from Spanish TV channel Antena 3 last night showed figures from all three groups on the tarmac at Madrid’s airport in December 2014 headed for Caracas on a presidential plane laid on especially by Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

What were these groups doing being flown privately by this divisive political figure – and how close are they to him?

Antena3PodemosVenezuela
Politicians among the passengers headed for Caracas conference. Source: Antena 3 Noticias

Among those on board was Anna Gabriel, the spokesperson and politician for the CUP, a Catalan anti-capitalist, anti-EU and anti-NATO party which is propping up a pro-independence Catalan government.

All she had to say to reporters was that she was up to “very interesting things” in Venezuela.

Very interesting things included discussing neo-Fascism, the destructive effects of capitalism, the right to decide about the break-up of Spain, and ETA.

Another aboard was Iñaki Gil de San Vicente, the father-in-law of the number one man in ETA, the Basque terrorist group responsible for killing 829 people in its struggle for separatism. He’s also the father of a Basque terrorist arrested in France.

And from Spain’s third biggest political force, Podemos, was María José Aguilar, member of the party in Spain’s central Castilla la Mancha region. The party wished to distance Aguilar’s journey from the party, saying that she went to attend the conference for its intellectual, artistic discussions instead.

15 Spanish nationals were aboard the plane in total, with over 30 people from 13 nationalities flying altogether.

The Spanish Interior Minister questioned the circumstances surrounding the private plane – and the consequences the scandal could have on Spanish politics. Jorge Fernández Díaz called it “unprecedented” and said it wasn’t the “normal thing” for a leader of a country to lay on a plane.

1_b846699728
Some of the insults received at Antena 3 Noticias on Twitter. Source: Antena 3 Noticias

The images have caused uproar on social media, with some users condemning Antena 3 for the poor taste of its journalism. The scoop was also splashed over nearly all of the front pages of Spain’s daily newspapers.

Spain’s newest political party Podemos – which had one of its members on board – has previously allied itself with chavismo – a left-wing ideology which takes its name from the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. It was an answer to capitalism, all about dealing with rising inequality in Latin America by promoting nationalisation, social welfare and patriotism.

Podemos even received funding from the Venezuelan government and senior figures have worked for the leadership, all while praising its democracy as one of the world’s best.

30
One Spanish TV channel claims Podemos received 3.7 million euros from the Venezuelan government for 10 years. Source: La Sexta

Venezuela is in the midst of a deep economic crisis. The drop in oil prices means debt repayment is becoming near on impossible and the country has finally declared an economic emergency.

Inflation has been rocketing for several years already, making the bolívar currency virtually worthless, while the economy has been shrinking since the beginning of 2014. It’s these alarming figures the Venezuelan government is seeking to hide from its own people.

Food shortages are all too common. Imports for staples such as eggs, flour and milk have become too expensive for the government, leaving supermarket shelves empty.

0011852469
Food shortages in Venezuela: Source: Infobae

According to the latest Press Freedom Index from 2015, its media ranked 137 out of 180 countries, compared to Spain (33rd). Journalists have been harassed and the press has been polarised and limited.

It says: “Many local and foreign journalists were the targets of threats, insults, physical attacks, theft, destruction of equipment and arrests during a succession of protests.”

With national elections in Spain in December still far from producing a new government, any tremors of instability there are  enough to whip up a political storm.

 

 

A tight race ahead in Spain’s historic election

A tight race ahead in Spain’s historic election

A glance at opinion polls in Spanish newspapers for the past few months would convince you that nobody really has any clue what will happen the day after Spaniards go to the polls to elect their new prime minister in just under three week’s time on 20th December.

It is without doubt the start of a new political era in Spain – a four-horse race ending the to-ing and fro-ing between the two traditional socialist and conservative parties, PSOE and PP. But anything more than a sketchy outline and you’re playing the fickle game of political predictions.

Metroscopia-ElPais_Diciembre2015
Political deadlock in the polls between Spain’s ruling conservatives, the Socialist opposition and centre-right newcomer Ciudadanos

The new centre-right Ciudadanos and leftist Podemos parties have everything to gain in December’s vote as they fight for their first seats in parliament’s lower house after great successes in European and local elections. Are they really the new mainstream left and right of politics – or just a protest vote content with pointing the finger at previous governments?

Earlier tonight, the leaders of three of the parties battled it out in an online debate hosted by Spain’s leading newspaper El País.

That’s right – three leaders, not four. Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has made no secret of the fact he dislikes debates, especially against the two new political kids on the block.

He says to Spaniards that he doesn’t need to debate with his younger and far less experienced rivals. It’s a tactic to set himself out of the crowd that may just work out.

So, the debate empty chaired Rajoy. Instead, he appeared on Spanish news with a one-on-one political grilling. But the debate continued despite this elephant in the room.

entrevista-mariano-rajoy-piqueras_MDSIMA20151125_0319_21
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the absent leader in tonight’s debate

What Spaniards will be doing in the next few weeks is testing the credibility of their political leader hopefuls, as they do the rounds on television shows and appear at noisy campaign rallies.

How far will these untried and untested new parties stand up to scrutiny and be able to govern a nation of over 40 million, managing its economic recovery and the existential debate of Spain given the calls for independence in Catalonia?

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has played a clever game in campaigning on Spain’s unity and his government’s work in steadying the ship of the economy.

He’s hoping that will stand up to his political rivals who talk of proposals and solutions without ever having been in power.

At the same time, the spectre of corruption scandals and a poor record in solving Spain’s massive unemployment problem – at 22 per cent – will be unavoidable.

What was apparent from tonight’s debate was the unanimity in building a “new politics”. What was also clear is that there are many different proposals.

French ballot box

It went right down to Spain’s response to ISIS. Both PSOE and Ciudadanos insisted Spain couldn’t be left out of the Western alliance to bomb Islamic State. Podemos’ policy, meanwhile, stuck out like a sore thumb. Iglesias asked – what did bombs solve in Iraq or Libya? He insisted the group’s arms and finances had to be hit instead.

What is certain is that Spain is likely to be in political deadlock come the end of the year. No one party at the moment has a majority and a coalition agreement of some kind will probably need to be found.

But any pact has already been ruled out by Ciudadanos, whose leader Albert Rivera says he won’t prop up any party, instead holding them account in an opposition role.

Rivera is campaigning on a break with what the “traditional” parties have done to Spain.

They want to create a “new era”, a “new project” for the country. It’s a move which has caused their share of the vote to rocket, as the hopes of Podemos have dipped, peaking far too soon.

The climate of uncertainty about the future of Spain on a map- read the independence movement in Catalonia – raises the debate around Spain’s constitution, drawn up in 1978 and which has been left untouched since the transition to democracy following the death of Franco.

constitution-day-in-spain-21435549
Spain’s 1978 Constitution, written three years after the death of Franco

Parties agreed about reforming it, but differences lie in where to draw the line on independence. The leaders talked of reform, dialogue, political regeneration, a new Spain. It makes for so many soundbites.

A poll published on Sunday showed a three-way tie between the ruling PP party, the Socialist opposition and newcomer Ciudadanos, the squiggly lines converging to a single point – 22 per cent – redrawing the political map.

It’s just another clue that many in Spain still don’t know who to turn to, but what we do know is that they have turned away from the traditional parties – in their droves.

Will 20th December 2015 be remembered for the end of “old” politics and the start of a new page for Spain, or more of the same – for good or for bad?

A country with many economic, social and political challenges, it is a moment of history in the making.

More: A look at the demographics behind Spanish opinion polls – El Español (in Spanish)

 

 

The Catalan independence cataclysm

The Catalan independence cataclysm

Forget for a moment the huge hype and expectation surrounding today. Hearing the calls from the Catalan parliament for a declaration of independence, the first steps towards a new European state and then a constitutional block from Madrid, you’d think it nothing out of the ordinary for a secessionist movement with more momentum than ever before.

The language was just as uncompromising and provocative, talking of the “democratic disconnection” of Catalonia from the rest of Spain.

The Catalan parliament’s approval of a move towards independence within 18 months was met with the waving of Catalan senyera flags, some deputies on their feet in applause, a minority sober in defeat instead waving the national Spanish flag. Yet proceedings were noticeably much more muted than in the past.

Today’s constitutional earthquake will send tremors all the way to Madrid as Barcelona hastily embarks on setting up state institutions such as an independent social security system and tax authority within just thirty days.

But have things really changed in Catalonia as to the likelihood of independence?

What will follow is the next episode in the strained relationship between this region and the Madrid government, who will slap down the rules of the Constitution, with the courts preparing a case against leaders in Barcelona.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appeared in front of cameras minutes after the vote repeating that “the government will not allow this to continue” and saying he will use all legal and political means at his disposal to put a stop to the process.

The inconstitutional snub was echoed by Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, who will meet Rajoy on Tuesday to discuss their counter-attack.

Sánchez said: “The majority of Catalans don’t want secession. Breaking the law is denying democracy.”

Regardless, the document says it will ignore any such threats from instutitions of the Spanish state, including the constitutional court.

The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas
The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas

The extraordinary events in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona also addressed the elephant in the room – the future of president Artur Mas, whose political future looks to be hanging in the balance.

The CUP, the coalition partner of Junts Pel Sí, the pro-independence coalition who won a majority in September’s elections oppose Mr Mas serving a third term as President.

Negotiations with the leftist,  anti-establishment, anti-EU party haven’t got very far since the elections, but Mas is trying his best to win them over with policy sweeteners in what critics call a vanity project.

They are calling for another leader to be appointed, perhaps Junts Pel Sí leader Raul Romeva. But if an agreement isn’t found, yet more elections will have to be called for March next year.

Mas has embodied the defiant push for Catalan independence, buoyed by a pro-independence win in the September elections on a seat basis, but falling short of a majority he would have needed in a proper referendum – pro-independence parties won 47.8 per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, beginning his address to the Parlament, he said the ballot boxes had spoken, legitimising the majority vote that was to come.

Critics of Mas say he has isolated himself from Catalan public opinion, which evidently remains deeply divided on the issue of secession. Business leaders too say that with his majority only assured by the CUP party, he has handed the independence movement to leftist radicals.

Anti-independence party Ciudadanos, the second-largest party in the Catalan parliament that looks set to rock the boat in Spain’s general election on 20th December, ironically said that ongoing cases of corruption – of which Mr Mas is part – have nothing to do with the process.

They warned today’s events were the greatest threat to Spain’s democracy for the past thirty years.

The last election is only as important as the next. With the make-up of Spain’s next government unclear and with coalition agreements expected to extend well into January, parties of all colours are exploiting the Catalan situation to gain votes.

Aside from Spain’s economic recovery, the unity of Spain is a key election trump card, especially for Rajoy. He wants to be seen as the leader who stands for stability and managing the breakaway Catalan region.

The constitutional fallout from the defiance on show could mean tough financial sanctions – even on individual leaders, which could potentially mean prison sentences.

It could also sour any potential negotiations between leaders in Catalonia and the next Spanish government.

Pro-independence politicians remain more defiant and determined than ever. For Madrid, it’s another case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

This struggle of democracy against democracy is a long way from ending.

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.

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.