The New Catalan Government
A snap election in March would have been a step backward for the independence movement in Catalonia. The pro-independence parties would have run divided and devoid of any credibility. The political centre, which is fundamental for the success of the separation process, would have become a fringe force, with a high risk of implosion, as happened to Spain’s Unión de Centro Democrático (UCD) in the 1980s. In the Catalan hinterland—and in some parts of Barcelona city— the separatist left would have become beholden to the pro-referendum discourse espoused by Podemos, which dominates the Barcelona metropolitan area. With the Catalan “challenge” to Spain’s unity halted, fresh elections would have become unavoidable in Spain. They would have allowed the Partido Popular (probably rid of Rajoy) to reclaim the electoral space it lost to Ciudadanos (now a dying party that is trying to get some traction via a Spanish “Grosse Koalition”) last December, and regain parliamentary control in Madrid.
The agreement in Catalonia between Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”) and the CUP (the separatist, anti-capitalist left) has allowed Catalan politics to regain the initiative —at least for now—. With an empathetic, no-nonsense style that managed to counter the shallow rebuttals of the various opposition parties, the new Catalan president emerged as the right link between the various parts of the pro-independence movement: from former president Artur Mas, who culminated the programmatic shift of the Catalan center-right from supporting home rule to advocating independence, to early-days separatists. In addition, President Puigdemont brings in strong connections with the world of local governments: municipal institutions will play, together with the grassroots groups that support independence, a key role in the coming months to implement his government’s programme because the Catalan government alone will not overcome the hurdles laid by the Spanish state. Lastly, the new Catalan president seems able to rebuild a credible social discourse where the state plays a key role in amending inequalities and creating opportunities, whilst recognising that the free market economy and business-led innovation must remain the driving force behind economic growth: this will also be decisive to consolidate the existing political majority.
In principle, by voting in the new president last Sunday Catalonia entered the implementation phase towards independence, as opposed to a merely deliberative or declarative one. Therefore, two considerations are in order. Firstly, although the Yes parties won an outright majority in the Catalan parliament (and more ballots than the No camp), I still believe —as I wrote the day after the elections— that the independence bloc must make one last effort to broaden its social support. The vast majority of Catalans are in favor of their right to self-determination, which is not the same as independence. This explains the (relative) success of En Comú Podem (the pro-referendum Catalan left) in the Spanish elections of December 20, when it managed to woo a number of Together for Yes voters. The Catalan government should offer Podemos and its Catalan counterpart a referendum proposal in exchange for the votes of ERC and Democràcia i Llibertat MPs in Madrid’s parliament. This proposal, though, should come with a deadline for the Spanish institutions to agree to it: say, six months. This would offer Catalonia’s pro-referendum left a way out the corner it has painted itself into after brandishing a referendum without a specific calendar but failing to show any kind of political realism about the correlation of forces in Spain. The referendum could be held in September 2017, just as the constituent process led by the Catalan parliament would be coming to an end, to ratify or not the actions by the Catalan chamber.
At this point we should remember that the leaders of Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot-CSQP (“Catalonia Yes We Can”, the pro-referendum Catalan left) often bring up the case of Scotland to highlight that Edinburgh only held a referendum once it had been agreed upon with London, but they fail to mention that Britain only agreed to it when there was a credible threat of a unilateral vote by Scotland. If we applied this logic to the Spanish case, it would mean that the odds of getting the referendum they say that they want to hold would only increase if CSQP actively joined in the consultation proposal, regardless of what Spain might do.
The second consideration is a reminder that being a sovereign country means having the full capacity to make one’s own decisions. Indeed, this is the kind of sovereignty that was approved in the October declaration passed by the Catalan parliament. Needless to say, to achieve this, one should create “statehood structures”, that is, those institutions that give the Catalan government two full powers: the power to sanction and the power to collect taxes. Still, any steps —legal and practical— taken to deploy such powers will be struck down —at least judicially— by Madrid. Such a blockade will necessarily mean moving beyond mere words and will require crafting a dispassionate, intelligent response, both in terms of its timing and the means to be used by the Catalan government. And, as I pointed out earlier, such a response will need the coordination of Catalonia’s political institutions (its parliament, the Generalitat and the local governments) with civil society.