Artur Mas: independence hero, or cynical politico clinging to power?
The Catalan leader has upset the apple cart by calling early regional elections he says will be a referendum on self-rule. This will also avoid a messy poll in two years that might have seen his CiU coalition lose its majority.
By Nick Lyne
Does Artur Mas, the man who likes to be called the president of Catalonia, really think that this northeastern region of Spain is going to become an independent nation any time soon? Does anybody? Surely not. In which case, why is he pushing the self-rule agenda?
In recent weeks, Mas has gone from being Mariano Rajoy’s partner in crime in supporting unprecedented austerity measures to rabble-rousing independence leader, suddenly pulling the rug from under a bemused and increasingly befuddled-looking prime minister.
Mas met with Rajoy in September, pushing for a deal that would give Catalonia a bigger share of the tax revenue it generates for the central government. When Rajoy turned the deal down, Mas moved into brinkmanship mode and called snap elections for November 25, two years ahead of schedule. On September 27, the Catalan parliament backed holding a referendum on independence, and now Mas is saying that the upcoming poll will be seen as a referendum on self-rule.
“Our ideal is to be part of the United States of Europe,” said Mas last week. The newspapers at home and abroad have been full of stories that suggest Spain is on the brink of breaking up, so I won’t go into the ins and outs of changing the Spanish Constitution, winning approval from Congress, along with a promise Spain would not veto Catalonia’s membership, or that the last thing the European Commission needs or wants is a new mini-state any time soon.
Instead, let’s cut to the chase. Like Rajoy, Mas has used the ongoing crisis as an excuse to begin radically restructuring Catalonia’s public sector by cutting spending on health and education. Over the last two years, he has imposed 12-percent cuts in education, 11-percent in health care, along with a 15-percent cut in public sector wages, among others. In Congress in Madrid, Mas’s CiU coalition has repeatedly voted for the Partido Popular’s cuts, labour reform and tax increases.
This is proving unpopular, as in the rest of Spain. Mas knows that if he waits until elections are due in two years’ time, the impact of the cuts and austerity measures may well cost him re-election. So now it’s time to play the nationalist card. Catalonia’s bankruptcy, which has forced it to seek €5 billion in aid from the central government, is due to the fiscal setup. In pressing for independence, however, Mas is not seeking to roll back social cuts, but to dump the region’s fiscal crisis on other, poorer regions by limiting the amount of money it sends to Madrid.
Mas’s approach is in many ways not dissimilar to the tactics that Rajoy has tried to use when negotiating with Brussels: if Catalonia doesn’t get more money from the central government, it will fall, and drag the rest of Spain down with it.
There is widespread support for independence in Catalonia, as shown by non-binding referendums in 2009 and 2011. But Mas may find that he has a tiger by the tail, and that having raised hopes and expectations that he can lead his people out of Spain, he will be unable to deliver: hence the need to consolidate his power. Mas knows that many of the million or so people who marched through Barcelona to celebrate the region’s national day are just as likely to take to the streets again, perhaps in greater numbers, demanding his head as their living standards continue to decline.
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Published: Oct 8 2012
Category: Featured, Iberoblog
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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Tags: Artur Mas, catalan independence, independencia cataluña, spain, spain news, spanish news