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Catalonia’s gambler Mas fails with his biggest bet yet

The Catalan premier’s poor showing in regional elections is a major setback for his separatist plans. But Mas’s manoeuvring over the last three months has brought independence into the mainstream.


Artur Mas

Humbled: Artur Mas. Photo: ABC

“Leaders are those who interpret the sense of every historic moment, those who find their path by listening attentively to the heartbeat of society.”

Artur Mas’s words on taking power as Catalonia’s new regional premier in 2010 have clearly informed his last three months in office, a period during which Catalonia’s relationship with Madrid has been the predominant political issue. His push for greater economic autonomy for Catalans, followed by the more ambitious goal of independence do, he believes, reflect the region’s “heartbeat”.

But on Sunday, as results came in from the region’s election, which he called early in the biggest gamble of his career, it became clear that much of Catalan society was not following him in his separatist wager.

Ahead of the election, Mas had appealed to voters for “an exceptional majority” for his CiU alliance, in order to give it a mandate to proceed with a referendum on independence. But on the night, not only was the magic number of 68 seats beyond him, but CiU actually lost 12 seats compared to the 2010 election.

No amount of spin could hide the fact that, despite remaining the number one political force in Catalonia, CiU was humiliated. Mas acknowledged as much, admitting he will have to look to other parties for support for the referendum.

He will almost certainly court Esquerra Republicana (ERC), which having doubled its share of seats on Sunday enjoyed a remarkable recovery after a poor result two years ago.

Esquerra’s strong showing means that while Mas suffered, Catalan separatism still triumphed. There could be several reasons why the more radical ERC did so well and CiU did so badly.

The program of severe austerity implemented by Mas over the last couple of years rivals that of his nemesis Mariano Rajoy in Madrid. No amount of separatist rhetoric could hide from Catalans the jobs they are losing, the wages that have been cut, or the new medical charges they have to pay. Mas would argue that Catalonia’s economic woes are caused by Madrid alone. But voters are clearly not convinced.

The apparently fabricated corruption scandal published by El Mundo newspaper, which saw Mas face allegations of hiding dirty money in a Swiss bank account, probably didn’t help him, either. Whether or not the central government in Madrid was in cahoots with what looks like a sinister plot is not clear, but if it was, the plan paid off.

But the key to this election was independence. Mas channelled the grass-roots clamour for a Catalan state and he also ensured this was the dominant issue during the campaign. But he couldn’t convince voters that CiU’s sudden conversion to fully-fledged separatism was the real thing; or at least as real as ERC’s pro-independence credentials. Having fattened the tiger, as El País’s Fernando Garea put it, the tiger then ate him.

But Mas’s black Sunday has not ended the independence project. It has weakened him – in the regional parliament, among voters and probably within CiU itself. But pro-independence parties still dominate Catalan politics and while CiU and ERC will be uneasy bedfellows, they both want a referendum on independence.

Moreover, Mas has managed to drag independence into the mainstream and make it the focus of (often unhinged) debate across Spain since the summer. The other consequence of his three-month adventure has been to stiffen centralist resolve in both Catalonia and among conservatives in the rest of Spain. That is one legacy he might come to rue.

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Published: Nov 26 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “Catalonia’s gambler Mas fails with his biggest bet yet”

  1. I’ve been talking this morning to various ERC activists. They are extremely reluctant to enter a coalition govt with Mas, or to support him in anything except the referendum. They want to do a “one-time” deal with him on that issue and remain in opposition on everything else.
    But where would that leave Mas? With a government that can’t govern, that’s where. It’s hard to see how he can cobble together enough support to run Catalonia for any length of time.
    So right now it seems it’s either a CiU-ERC partnership or new elections in the spring.

  2. Maybe Mas has put independence on the table, but what he has not managed is to change the historical fact whereby once put on the table and after everybody starts taking the issue seriously and all the advantages and disadvantages are gauged and weighed sufficiently, the case for independence starts to look a lot less enticing. Moreover, I would say that at least a third of CiU (Unio) voters are extremely lukewarm on independence, thus there is no real majority for independence. Mas is a dead man walking.

  3. The result gives Rajoy breathing space only. If the PP in Madrid continue playing hardball then Spain will eventually split.It really would not take a lot of imagination to arrive at a federal solution that would satisfy the vast majority across Catalonia and the rest of Spain.

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