Catalonia's lesson for Europe
All are winners in these regional elections turned into a plebiscite by the forces fighting for independence, but they leave behind a fragmented Catalonia politically, and a divided one on the issue of self-determination.
- Tuesday, 29 September 2015
The two groupings that promoted unilateral secession from Spain will occupy the majority of seats, but with 47.8% of the votes they fall short of the 50% that would require any plebiscite, forget this one that was not even official. (Montenegro and Quebec, for example, established the need for a qualified majority for any plebiscite on independence).
The parties and coalitions that favor the unity of Spain or a referendum on independence gained 51.7% of the votes, but they represent all positions across the political spectrum. Two facts reinforce the significance of the results of Sunday, 27 September 2015. The first is a record turnout of 77%, in spite of a local holiday in Catalonia and a long weekend. The last did not help anti-secessionist parties that draw on the support of Spaniards from other regions, who live and work in Catalonia.
Queues formed at polling places early in the morning. "I have never seen such a turnout," said the representatives of the parties on the spot. In one polling station in Gracia, a traditional barrio in central Barcelona, waiting outside in a double line were at least a hundred people. Inside, because of the many voters, confusion and also tensions flew high. Three young men had shown up wearing t-shirts celebrating the last pro-independence demonstration on 9 September, when according to police more than a million people gathered (two million according to the organizers).
The president of the Catalonia Region, Artur Mas, member of a party in the right existing virtually no longer, but nonetheless promoter of unilateral independence in association with two left groupings, entered the place later to cast his vote. Some in the crowd, among whom a young woman, held up signs that read "I am Catalan and Spanish." A young man raised a Spanish flag before being sicked on the spot by a few separatists who tried to take the flag from him. The man managed to raise it again and again.
The paradox is that he was showing the official flag of the state holding the election. This was not the only paradox in this polls. The coalition Together for Yes states that they will "start the roadmap towards unilateral independence" aiming at a conclusion by April 2017 even if they now gained only a majority of seats in the regional parliament. This is the beginning "of the final stage of the process to achieve full sovereignty," said their leader Raül Romeva on election night in front of the crowd gathered in the neighborhood El Born, in the historic part of town, to celebrate what they call a victory.
It is a lame victory, however, also because Junts pel Sì to govern will need CUP, a separatist party that is openly anti-capitalist, anti-euro, anti- OTAN and absolutely opposes a government led by Mas, who also faces allegations of corruption.
The parties so far represent local politics, but the other big winner with 25% of the votes, Ciutadans (Citizens), is a party that ballooned at the national level in the last 12 months becoming, along with Podemos, one of the emerging forces that are changing the Spanish party landscape – and that of Southern Europe as well. Favoring the unity of Spain, Ciudadanos is proving to be – especially for young people – an attractive option to the traditional center-right People's Party, which on September 27 slipped to a second last rank with a meager 11%. Triumphant, Citizens candidate Ines Arrimada said in Spanish and Catalan that "Catalans turned their backs to the project of independence."
Citizens also seized votes from the Socialist Party. Leveraging on an unprecedented mobilization in the industrial belt of Barcelona, the PSC managed however to preserve a decent 16%, which seemed to catch them by surprise. This figure consolidates their advantage over PSC's great rival Podemos, the non-party that opposes austerity, and recorded overwhelming results at the last European polls. Podemos' very disappointing results in Catalonia narrow the possibility of an imminent "assault to heaven", like announced ten months ago by their leader Pablo Iglesias.
At the European level, their emergence was functional to the prospect of a virtual front in Southern Europe (together with parties such as SYRIZA) attractive to those European citizens who are paying a high price to reforms. Whatever the dispute in Catalonia about which flag will fly in the future on the balcony of public buildings, at the December general elections in Spain citizens across the country will likely go back to voting, like elsewhere, on economic and social issues.
The Catalan vote, however, aside from showing once more how in modern Europe a push for independence can split a region's public opinion, rather than forecasting the December election, yields perhaps another lesson. "Inaction", a word heard time and again these days in Spain in relation to the government in Madrid, when at stake are sensitive issues, stirs up people's minds, and not only does not solve matters but exacerbates them.