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How Catalonia is the Key to Spain’s Current Political Deadlock




176: This is the magic number in Spanish politics. Half+1 members of Congress, which is a 350-seat semicircle now plagued with as many as 12 different political groups. Or even 15, if you dare to count in the three regional-based confluences finally included within the Podemos “Confederal” brand that couldn’t struck a deal to obtain a separate group of their own.

Spain used to be a game of two. The Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE) would often rely on regional-based forces such as Convergència i Unió (CiU) in Catalonia to secure comfortable majorities either to the right or to the left. Jordi Pujol, president of Catalonia for 23 years and indisputable leader of CiU, was celebrated as a key negotiator and even named “Spanish Man of the Year” in 1993 by conservative newspaper ABC.

Yet these times are long gone. Jordi Pujol is facing trial for alleged corruption and has vanished from the political arena, while his former coalition Convergència i Unió doesn’t even exist as such anymore. Many Catalans have turned their eyes to independence, and the Republican Left (ERC) and Democràcia i Llibertat (DiL, a coalition that engulfed part of the former CiU) are their new fierce representatives. They won’t settle for less than a Scotland-like self-determination referendum.

And –hence the key– they hold 17 seats in Congress.

With a downsized PP that won last December 20’s general election with 122 seats only, the game of power has become a nightmare that may well soon lead to a snap election. Under Spain’s political system, Congress appoints the President by absolute majority – or by relative majority on a second vote that takes place 48 hours later.

Yet, the sum of PP and the new centre-right party Ciudadanos (163 seats) or PSOE plus the number of leftist coalitions under the umbrella of Podemos (159 seats) simply don’t add up. Now, add the 17 pro-independence MPs in the equation: The centre-right coalition would reach 180 votes, whereas the leftist pact would also get to the magic number of 176.

What do any of both blocks need to unlock ERC and DiL’s votes? Probably setting a realistic calendar for a self-determination referendum would be enough. The United Kingdom and Canada did it, why can’t Spain do the same?

To begin with, Spain can’t for the same reason PP and PSOE can’t seem to be able to struck a deal. “Compromise” is a rare word in Spanish politics. Actually, it doesn’t even have a valid Spanish translation, like John Carlin recently pointed out at El País newspaper. The unity of Spain, and even the existence of different cultural nations within Spain, is a taboo in Spanish politics. To admit that Spain is a plurinational state is seen as a threat to the Spanish nation and the possible beginning of its dissolution. The fact is, monarchs and dictators have not missed any effort over centuries to reassure the “Grand Spanish nation”, as Felipe VI only recently called his Spaniards in his Christmas-speech.

When the Second World War ended, European democrats won over Mussolini and Hitler, but not in Spain, where dictator Francisco Franco held on to power for 40 years. When Franco died in 1975, the Franco’s entourage realized that the only way to guarantee their control over Spain was to make a treaty with democrats. The Spanish Transition allowed for a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward the military and high level bureaucrats, while guaranteeing impunity to judges and politicians. (f.ex. Franco’s Minister Manuel Fraga Irribarne became the president of Alianza Popular, the predecessor of today’s ruling Popular Party).

Having been oppressed for so long, the democrats embraced the chance and voted massively in favour of a brand new constitution. A parliamentary monarchy and a vaguely regionalist “Estado de las Autonomías” were installed (not only for Catalonia and Basque Country but for every region) and maybe there was indeed a chance of becoming the state Spain could have been.

However, as opinion polls have consistenly shown, many Spaniards hadn’t refused Franco’s principles and much less the absolutist concept of “only one big nation”. It is 2016, and the Spanish Parliament keeps on blocking any official statement against Franco. Post-Franco bureaucrats made sure Madrid would keep all checks in order by setting up a regionalist system where the regions get to spend only what the central government allows for, as there is no decentralisation in tax collection. Actually, the Autonomies may have turned out as a clever strategy to wane Catalan and Basque nations among all the rest of Autonomous Regions.

Difficulties to find a real federal accommodation that would have respected the Catalans will and therein allow for a conflict-free accommodation within Spain became evident when the politically appointed Constitutional Court dramatically cut back the Catalan Autonomous Statute in 2010.

What is federalism? German scholar Walter Rudolf defined federalism as “a compromise between two extremes”. Yet, compromise is precisely what Spanish politics seem neither able nor willing to reach. Compromise would mean to recognize Catalonia’s parliament as an equal political player to Spain’s.

To be fair, leader of Podemos and professor of politics Pablo Iglesias recognises the “plurinational reality” of Spain and the need for a self-determination referendum in Catalonia as the only way to make Spain progress.

Yet, neither PSOE, PP nor Ciutadanos consider this option. In the last election campaign, they indeed mentioned a potential modification of the Constitution but most probably into the opposite direction: All of them clearly refused any asymmetric federal solution for the Catalan conflict. Actually, PP and C’s campaigned for the thinning of regional administration – hence a stronger centralisation. So, no matter what Podemos thinks, the fact is that true reforms of the Constitution to fit Catalonia into Spain, which require at least 2/3 of the votes in Congress plus popular referendums etcetera, seem impossible.

Now, the key votes of the pro independence Catalan MPs in the Spanish Parliament have now an unusual role. They won’t support left (PSOE) or the right (PP, Ciudadanos). They are in Madrid to negotiate a referendum and, if necessary, a win-win transition towards independence.

If nobody is going to be willing to compromise with them, Spain may be heading for a snap election and more instability.

Who’s to blame?

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