All or nothing: An early Catalan vote which brings secession expectations

All or nothing: An early Catalan vote which brings secession expectations

They shook hands and smiled for today’s newspaper front covers, but it has been of little surprise that for months Catalan president Artur Mas and coalition partner Oriol Junqueras have been in public disagreement to bring forward local elections in Catalonia, which are likely to reignite the momentum for independence in the region. It is being seen by many as an independence referendum by another name. Junqueras in fact said that they are elections to make a new country.

Speaking to Catalan public television tonight, Artur Mas said that yesterday’s negotiation brings a degree of stability and unity to his politics this year. He said: “With the circumstances of the last few weeks, we were headed for political suicide.”

Comments from Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy outright described the negotiation as a sign of failure. Mas rebuked: “The failure is his intransigence. The failure is stopping the Catalan public from being able to decide. He continued: “Who fails – the one who goes to the ballot box because he isn’t allowed to do anything more or the one who doesn’t allow him to?”

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Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared early elections in Catalonia a “failure”. Credit:Elpuntavui

The disagreement centred on whether the coalition government in Catalonia – made up of Mas’ CiU and Junqueras’ ERC parties, would run together or separately. The latter was accepted, though the two will offer one single “road map” for independence in the campaign. Not having the shared election list, which means that the parties will run not on a joint list but against each other, is a blow to Artur Mas, but he maintained that it would not affect the unity of pro-independence parties.

Voting in the region in last year’s European Union elections brought a great upsurge for Oriol Junqueras’ ERC party, with 24% of the vote, while Mas’ CiU came a close second with 21%. There will be some concern that President Mas may lose votes to coalition partner Oriol Junqueras, given the popularity of his hard-line independentist ERC party, which has maintained pressure on Mas since November’s consultation. This came to a head at the end of 2014 as Junqueras gave the President a 15-day ultimatum to call elections, which would have otherwise taken place in 2016. They are the third since 2010.

President Artur Mas may well face his electorate in September having been charged by Spain’s attorney general. He is currently the subject of a legal case charged with disobedience, perverting the course of justice, misuse of public funds and abuse of power following November’s vote, which is currently being studied by Spain’s constitutional court. When asked about this possibility, Mas said: “I prefer not to imagine it, but if it happens, I’ll confront it. Having a legal case against you for having completed my electoral pledge and for having achieved my parliamentary mandate is for me an honour.”

Dates make for great symbolism in this year of several elections, including local polling across Spain in May. In Catalonia, voters will go to the polls on 27th September, a date significant for being a year since Catalonia’s non-binding consultation on independence was formally agreed. It received strong opposition by Spain’s government in Madrid. On the November day of the vote, more than two million people turned out, of which 80% voted “yes, yes” to questions of Catalonia being a state, and an independent one at that. Campaigning for the 27th September ballot will begin on Catalonia’s national day – La Diada, on the 11th September, which has for many years brought millions onto the streets in symbolic gestures of support for independence.

What’s more, it will be little more than a month before Spain votes nationally in a general election, amid great uncertainty for the moment as to who will become the country’s next leader. Podemos are looking to capitalise on their rise nationally by breaking into local parts of the country. Several polls have already placed them top, meaning that leader Pablo Iglesias is in the running for being the country’s next Prime Minister. With many political corruption cases ongoing and a far from certain economy recovery, many Spaniards have abandoned the mainstream parties to support Podemos, which only a year ago was little more than a political movement.

The outcome of this national election will likely dictate where Catalonia can go next. A win by incumbent Mariano Rajoy will bring little change: he has no time for negotiation with Artur Mas. Rajoy will be going into the election on the selling points of stability and unity for Spain. Rajoy said of the agreement: “It makes absolutely no sense.” Meanwhile, for the socialist party PSOE, its leader Pedro Sanchez has said that he wishes to make Spain more federal, allowing regions like Catalonia greater autonomy. Finally, Podemos’ leader has said that while he supports Catalans going to vote for its independence, he straddled the fence by saying that he would prefer Catalonia to remain within Spain.

Catalans go into 2015 facing three separate elections, as a nine-month election campaign seems to have already begun. With polls continually in flux nationally but a hard-line independence politics developing in Catalonia, there will be plenty for Spaniards and Catalans to think about and hope to influence when turning up to the ballot boxes.

A year of uncertainty and political dynamism: Spain going forward into 2015

A year of uncertainty and political dynamism: Spain going forward into 2015

I set myself the challenge of writing a concise analysis of Spain’s year in 2014, with a look at how the country’s next year will shape up. It will be a year of elections and plenty of political excitement, set against a Europe which is still far from mended.

Any comments, please do tweet me @andrewiconnell. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


They come and go so often that Spaniards of today are no longer surprised by their political class. One word that is synonymous with Spanish politics today is corruption, and it appears in the TV news and newspapers every single day. This distrust in politicians and their true motives may surprise but goes no way to placate the Spanish population.

As 2014 closed, there were more than 2000 corruption cases in Spain, ranging from national to regional levels of government, and equally in the royal family. Spain’s monarchy had little trouble in dealing with the transition of power from Juan Carlos, the towering figure of Spain’s ideological transition, to his son Felipe VI. The case surrounding Princess Cristina, the King’s sister, whose husband is accused of obtaining millions of public funds, which then implicated her on tax fraud charges, may force her to renounce her accession to the throne, and disgrace the family name. In 2015, expect more corruption being picked apart by Spain’s media, but don’t be surprised. Unfortunately, Spain seems to have become accustomed to such debauchery.

Political indignation was a movement that started in Spain back in 2011. Today, it is coming back to haunt politicians most recently following the passing into law of the so-called “Ley Mordaza” – the gagging law. Its content for many Western democracies is eyewateringly draconian. Fines are levied for taking photos of police officers, as well as demonstrating outside government buildings, and it has driven many thousands onto the streets to voice their opposition. It is being seen as an attempt by the conservative government to silence its critics for their handling of the financial crisis. The fight for rights in Spain’s civil society will continue well into 2015.

One story that caught the attention of the Spanish media has been that of pequeño Nicolás, or little Nicolas. It has played out like a movie thriller – there well may be an idea there. A boy of 20 years old, accused now of forgery, fraud and identity theft, allowed himself to rub shoulders with influential members of Spain’s governing party, to the point that Nicolás managed to somehow shake hands with Spain’s monarch, Felipe VI, during his coronation. The pale-faced law student – who hardly ever attended classes – has appeared in countless photographs crowding PP party politicians, including questionably closed-door meetings in party headquarters. Nicolás hired bodyguards, yachts and flash cars in order to pretend to live a high, double life, and allegedly posed as a member of Spain’s secret security forces. Did Nicolás’s infiltration into high political and economic circles lead to any influence? How was it that such a shadowy and young figure was allowed to get so close to politicians? A debate about trust in politicians has already started, as waves of public indignation continue to abound with ever greater magnitude.

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Pequeño Nicolás: the thriller (Credit: Telecinco)

It has also been quite the year for the Catalans. After a non-binding vote in November, talk in the region surrounding calling early elections and shared ballots is continuing. What could once have been seen as a perfect political marriage between Catalan president Artur Mas and coalition partner Oriol Junqueras is starting to produce more difference and disagreement. Demands for early elections are numerous, and look to be coming down the way in May. With absolutely no offer of an olive branch from Spain’s prime minister, Catalan independentists will be continuing to look around Europe for allies and specifically to Brussels to grant them a democratic means of recognising desires of independentistas to break away from the rest of Spain.

In terms of the popularity of independence in Catalonia, data from The Guardian has shown it’s a rising cause, though polls over the years have arguably pegged yes and no fairly level. A later poll in 2014 pushed no ahead of yes for the first time, but it is still very close to call. For its detractors, what marked November’s consultation were those who didn’t turn to the ballot. They may have been too scared to vote since the vote was deemed illegal; they might have thought it wasn’t worth voting because it was non-binding. These arguments work for both the yes and the no camps. Those who did turn out, more than two million of them, voted resoundingly yes-yes to the questions of whether Catalonia should be a state, and if so, should it be independent. I predict results of the early elections in the region will send out a very powerful message of increased support for independence, at the very least from sheer frustration.

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Yes or no? Catalans voting in non-binding consultation in November (Credit: Wikipedia)

Catalonia reached levels of international consciousness in this symbolic referendum through the media – an event that spoke as loud as the crowds did when gathered on the streets of Barcelona during Catalonia’s national day on September 11. This year a V for victory and vote marked the celebration. International consciousness of their cause is equally key for independence to gain further ground.

Much of what can or could happen in Catalonia will be debated in anticipation of the national election towards the end of 2015 with each party gesturing and speechifying, but only when all the cards are on the table and Spain knows exactly who will be governing them will Catalans know either way how close or far they are from gaining a definitive referendum. What will also decide Catalonia’s politics is the outcome of an ongoing legal case which has implicated Catalan president Artur Mas and several allies for illegally carrying out November’s consultation. Artur Mas in his New Year speech bemoaned the fact that the vote should have opened a route for political dialogue, not a legal dispute. The fact that Mariano Rajoy said nothing in anticipation of the vote and allowed it to happen was telling enough of the Spanish prime minister’s way of handling what he says is a side issue which has been growing because of, and not despite, the economic crisis, in his words. The results held no credibility for him.

One more thing that is central to Catalonia’s independence and a sweetener for the rest of Spain: constitutional reform. This is the current stumbling block stopping Catalans from voting, as currently all of Spain would have to be consulted on independence. The leader of the Socialist party says that by reforming the Magna Carta his party will create a more federal Spain, allowing other regions more local powers, but not so far as to allow Catalonia to vote on its own future. Podemos has straddled the two sides: they recognise Catalan and Basque desire for a right to vote, but oppose Catalan independence. The party’s leader said he wants to continue to build Spain all together.

In an election year, it is no cliché to say that it is all to play for. While Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claims that the crisis is over and Spain is well on its way to recovery thanks to his strong governance, Spain’s now tripartite political scene has produced opinion polls that in recent months mean it is very close to call a winner in next year’s general election, expected in November. They have been tussling over economic figures and questioning the recovery, as well as bandying around the perennial need for “change” in Spain.

What the media has been calling the Podemos “phenomenon” could be to some extent a victim of its own success. With increased popularity – which the party undoubtedly has garnered – there has come greater scrutiny, in a year in which the movement became a party, gained a leader in Pablo Iglesias, and outlined some of its key measures, several of which it had to revise. Its rise has been astronomical to say the least. Populism has been spreading across a Europe which has experienced huge change politically from the start of the crisis, with more questioning of austerity and how countries can move away from the spectre of long-term European deflation. Can Podemos, having won five seats in the European elections in May, stand up to the bigger, more established parties and assert itself with a wide range of credible, not pie-in-the-sky, policies? Even the most seasoned of political commentators can never with complete certainty predict elections, and Spain is no exception. A lot can happen in the next year, and for all three main parties, mere points in opinion polls will be keenly fought over.

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Spain’s new leader/university professor? Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (Credit: Elmundo.es)

What Podemos may find hard to achieve on the European stage is credibility. By virtue of being such a new party which formed from a movement with members who are more at ease in lecture halls than parliament buildings, Brussels will undoubtedly eye this party with great uncertainty, as it is already doing with Syriza, the left-wing juggernaut in Greece. With Spain still on such an uneven economic footing, which many would say is as a result of painful, unfair and ignorant cuts and political decisions, Podemos is likely to rattle market confidence in Spain’s ability to become a fully convalescent patient in Europe. In its battle for hearts and minds, Podemos would win tomorrow. It’s not difficult to see that the need for Podemos, in a crisis which not only has political and economic facet but a huge social one, was long overdue. Its grass-root formation may just win it for them and be a shot in the arm for the European project and Spain’s traditional parties who couldn’t have expected a huge shake-up in Spain’s political scene.

This year saw the Socialist party gain a new leader in Pedro Sánchez, who is using Spain’s 1978 Constitution as a means of encouraging reform and a new start for Spain’s democracy. He is pushing Spain’s political classes on transparency, in a year which has seen most parties, according to research, become far less opaque with the voting public. Podemos meanwhile says that while the transition to democracy in Spain is now history, its legacy has produced a political climate built on mistrust and corruption.

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Spain’s unemployment won’t be moving for a while yet (Credit:Thecommentator.com)

Another cliché: it’s all about the economy. This may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but economic prosperity will be a key battleground in the election. Is everybody benefiting from Spain’s recovery? Definitely not. Does the recovery even exist? According to the data at least, mostly. While growth is heading upwards – and the Economy Minister Luis de Guindos very happy to vaunt Spain’s growth figures for next year of 2% – unemployment will remain both stubbornly and depressingly around the 23% level that it has been around for a while. Youth unemployment the same. On a recent trip to Madrid, I listened to rousing and heartfelt addresses to trains and metros by those touched by unemployment, eviction, huge money troubles, ultimately requesting spare change. One woman even laid packs of tissues on seats with a note explaining her sorry predicament. Passengers bow their heads and avoid eye contact, seemingly far too used to these undignifying, desperate, yet polite, calls for help.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Spain, and for Europe, will be the waves of immigrants from unstable and war-torn parts of the world. Scenes from Spain’s enclave of Melilla in Morocco of immigrants storming border fences are a reminder of how close the European continent is to North Africa and the Middle East, where the savagery in Syria and elsewhere is allowed to fester. Countries in Europe are now the place of refuge for several hundred thousand people. The debate around how Europe handles the humanitarian disaster leaking from conflict is going to be increasingly important, as the war in Syria moves into its fourth year. It will require the work of many nations.

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A tough year ahead for Europe as war-torn countries produce thousands of migrants (Credit:eldiario.es)

Though much of Spain’s news this year has been of domestic significance, the rise of Podemos, the battle for independence in Catalonia, trust in politicians, and economic recovery are themes that are springing up all around Europe going into 2015. Not only is their outcome hard to predict, such problems will also take more than just one year to mend.