Another crisis for Spain’s Socialists
The Catalan independence project opens up a damaging split between the Spanish Socialists and their long-time allies in Barcelona.
By Guy Hedgecoe
When Artur Mas embarked on his separatist bid for Catalonia last autumn, even he can barely have foreseen the repercussions it would have. The intransigent response in Madrid was predictable enough, but his CiU coalition’s loss of a dozen seats in a snap regional election was less so.
And now another effect is being felt as Spain’s Socialists struggle to avoid a damaging schism between the national base in Madrid, the PSOE, and the PSC, the Catalan wing of the party in Barcelona.
For 35 years, they have co-existed, not quite as the same party, but as something very close to it. Catalonia has been a stronghold for the Socialists in the democratic era and therefore the PSC has been a crucial electoral presence. In the 2008 general election, the Socialists’ performance there was key in securing a second term for José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.
For the most part, the PSC’s politicians managed to walk the fine line between the region’s more separatist voices and the centralist rhetoric of Spanish conservatives.
And yet, this week, the PSC and the PSOE appear to be on the brink of a split. The catalyst was a congressional vote on whether or not Catalonia should hold a referendum on the “right to decide” its own future. The PSOE ordered Socialist deputies to vote against. Most did, except those of the PSC, almost all of who voted in favour, marking the first such breaking of ranks in the two parties’ alliance.
The 14 rebel PSC deputies have been fined €600, the maximum possible in such circumstances. But the real cost has became apparent in the handwringing and angst that the Socialists have been performing in recent days.
PSOE leader Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba has said the relationship with the PSC will be “reviewed”, but that’s not going to be an easy process if it’s done properly. The Catalan independence push has barely got underway and yet this weakness of the Socialists has already become clear.
Perhaps the most compromised Socialist figure in all this is Carme Chacón. As a congressional deputy for the PSC, she has Catalan loyalties and yet the former defence minister harbours ambitions to succeed Rubalcaba as PSOE leader. A full split between the two parties could scupper her plans.
She abstained in the “right-to-decide” (the only PSC deputy to do so) a move that still cost her €600 and which highlighted how difficult it is for the Socialists – Catalan or otherwise – to know how to position themselves with respect to the independence issue.
In response to Mas’s full independence plan last year, the PSC and PSOE scrambled to present a “third way”, offering Catalonia increased autonomy in some areas. But they could not agree on the issue of a referendum. The manner in which the current political climate in the north-eastern region is dragging the PSC to the left was reinforced again when party leader Pere Navarro called on King Juan Carlos to abdicate. It’s hard to imagine many PSOE Socialists doing the same at the moment.
This geographical fissure isn’t the Socialists’ only crisis at the moment. Ever since the bleak tail-end of the Zapatero era they have been in an ideological wilderness, desperately seeking a platform that can challenge the Partido Popular from the left while coming across as sincere and realistic in the context of the economic crisis.
As well as the search for ideas and the PSC-PSOE rupture, the Socialists are still struggling in opinion polls, despite the government’s own woes. The existential crisis will not end any time soon.
“The PSOE needs a strong Socialist Party in Catalonia and the PSC needs to have a strong party in Spain,” said José Antonio Griñán, the PSOE’s national chairman, earlier this week. Right now, that sounds like deeply wishful thinking on both counts.
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