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Socialism and the future of Catalonia

The Catalan Socialist Party struggles to respond to the challenge posed by Artur Mas’s push for independence.


The Catalan Socialists faces some stiff challenges.

The independence drive presents the Catalan Socialists with a difficult challenge.

Snap elections in Catalonia will be held on the November 25; the key issue is what Catalonia will be in the future and how it will relate to Spain and the European Union.

Artur Mas’s CiU, the party which governs Catalonia (with 38 percent of the vote in the 2010 election), will present a platform in favour of the “Estat Propi”. This formula, roughly translated as “Free State”, avoids the term “independence” which for Mas would signal not only a break in relations with Spain but also with the EU. Mas, who fully understands that isolation of Catalonia from Europe would be financially and politically catastrophic, is anxious to avoid the rhetoric of rebellion.

Radical separatist party ERC advocates a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain, but mustered just seven percent of the vote in 2010. Though vocal, this group has paradoxically lost support as pro-independence sentiment has gained ground, perhaps because its secession programme conjures up spectres of the very catastrophe that Mas wishes to avoid. Catalans may be angry with Madrid, but most recognise that a violent rupture with Spain will bring them only pain. The leftist-green coalition of ICV-UA (seven percent of the vote in 2010) has rejected nationalist arguments until recently, but now they too support a referendum in Catalonia following elections.

On the Spanish-centralist side of the fence are the Catalan branch of Spain’s governing Partido Popular, the PPC, led by Alicia Sánchez-Camacho (with 12 percent of the vote in 2010), who will of course oppose any move away from the status quo. They are quite likely to lose votes in the upcoming elections in response to the Rajoy government’s perceived mishandling of the crisis. Moreover, as it seems likely that Mas will guarantee existing Spanish-language rights in his “Estat Propi” proposal, thus attracting many voters who are Spanish-speaking but angry with Madrid’s treatment of Catalonia, the PPC may not gain many votes from opposing CiU’s platform.

But what of the Catalan Socialists? The answer is anything but clear. Terms like “asymmetric federalism” float around Socialist circles as they scramble to respond to the new situation. But what does “asymmetric federalism” mean? The Socialists are struggling to answer this question, having come up with this formula just weeks ago.

In Catalonia the Socialists are not the PSOE but the PSC, a party which is nominally separate from the Madrid-based party, but in effect is their little brother. In the last elections, led by former Catalan president José Montilla, they crashed to defeat with a mere 18 percent of the vote. Montilla stepped down and the party prepared to replace him through a series of French-style primary elections.

But this election has caught them in confusion and disarray. Pere Navarro is an interim leader pending primaries, which were intended to go ahead over the next few months. He is not a member of the Catalan parliament and this week has had to sit out the central “State of Catalonia” debate which with the election announcement has become the first battle in a dramatic campaign.

A third, Bavarian, way for Catalonia?

The gauntlet thrown down by Mas was taken up in parliament by Xavier Sabaté, appointed as the Socialists’ new parliamentary group leader following a purge of “Catalanists” just three weeks before. His response was to attack both Mas, for bringing Catalonia to the precipice for party political ends, and Sánchez-Camacho for having cooperated in implementing deep cuts to services. He condemned both for bringing Catalonia into a “dead-end street” and proposed a “third way”. This, at last, would be the Socialist answer to Mas’s “Estat Propi”.

“We want to advance without breaking with Spain”, said Sabaté. He called for a new institutional framework, a rethinking of the Spanish state with a more equitable sharing of resources. If this seemed uncannily similar to Mas’s proposal of the Pacte Fiscal, which was opposed by the PSC in July, and shot down in flames by Mariano Rajoy last week, Sabaté had another twist. “I too want a state”, he declared. “A state like Bavaria.”

So the riddle regarding what the PSC wants for Catalonia has an answer of sorts. In a word, Bavaria. This German state, along with two others – Saxony and Thuringia – are not described as Länder (federal states) in Germany, but Staaten (“states proper”). Apart from this terminological nicety, in all other respects they are treated the same as other states in Germany. Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia already have the terminological distinction of being “historical communities”, while others are merely “autonomous communities”, so another name change for Catalonia is unlikely to satisfy demands for fundamental change.

At the same time, Sabaté supported a referendum for self-determination in Catalonia, but only if it is “legal”. Since any referendum in Catalonia will be inevitably blocked by Madrid as unconstitutional and illegal, this is much the same as being in favour of childbirth, but only if it preserves virginity. Mas, by contrast, was more explicit. The referendum must be done legally, but if the Spanish government refuses to authorise it, said Mas, “it will still have to be done”.

After the nearly week-long Catalan parliament debate, a motion to call a referendum following the election was approved, with 84 votes in favour, 21 against and 25 abstentions.

The motion received the support of CiU, ERC, SI, the solo member Joan Laporta, and PSC rebel Ernest Maragall. PPC and Ciutadans opposed it, presenting amendments calling for legality of the vote by Spanish law which were quashed. PSC abstained almost en bloc.

In a further dramatic twist, Artur Mas snubbed the King at a ceremonial occasion, arriving 20 minutes late and refusing to stand with the monarch in the official photo of the Barcelona port freight facility inauguration.

PSC leader Navarro, meanwhile, announced that the party’s primary process was suspended and that he would remain as candidate in the forthcoming elections. So the Catalan Socialist Party has a tough two months ahead. With an untried and unvoted candidate split between centralist and nationalist tendencies within the party, reacting to events instead of taking a lead, it must struggle to give a coherent form to its newly-found commitment to a nebulous federalism and in support of a legal referendum which won’t be legalised. The Battle for Bavaria may be its most crushing defeat yet.

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Published: Sep 28 2012
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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