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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.


Carme Chacón.

Paying the price: Carme Chacón could see her broader political ambitions scuppered by a PSC-PSOE split.

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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Published: Feb 28 2013
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
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4 Comments for “Another crisis for Spain’s Socialists”

  1. “[Chacón] has Catalan loyalties…”

    Not really. Ever since July 2010 when she accepted the Tribunal Constitucional decision to purge the Estatut de Catalunya of its “unconstitutional” bits without any kind of protest, it’s been clear that her loyalties lie with Madrid. In the years following that watershed moment she has been seen as an exclusively Spanish politician by most Catalan voters, whether sympathetic or not to the PSC.

    Now she’s been presented with an ultimatum by her nominal party boss Pere Navarro. Either vote for the self-determination proposal (doomed as it may be) or face expulsion from the party lists.

    The solution to her dilemma is simple – quit the PSC and join the PSOE. I expect she’ll do that soon, manoeuvre to keep her parliamentary seat in some way, and in a year or so, go on to challenge Rubalcaba for the leadership. This will likely be a catalyst for a complete PSOE-PSC split.

    • You’re establishing a nationalist split, yet it is undeniable that Chacón has her Catalan constituency.

      If PSC and PSOE should split, the PSOE would need a leader for its new Catalan franchise. Chacón comes to mind.

      Guy, about whether or not the CiU losing so many seats in the last elections was predictable, allow me to quote from my first Iberosphere article:

      “Whether or not Mas will one day become the new Companys, or a more successful reincarnation of him, is not clear. But at the moment, it is the radical fringe that is setting the Catalan agenda. Mas might think that flirting with its ideas can help him to stay on top of the game. He might want to reconsider: the Catalan Socialists did something similar by buying into significant parts of Catalan nationalist ideology. They ultimately lost half of their electorate and had to give way to the real McCoys.”

      Predicting election results is tough -so we quote the opinion polls, which indeed did not foresee CiU’s landslide loss of seats- but long-term tendencies can be analysed.

      Apparently we’re seeing one coming to bear now, and going on: latest opinion polls see another shift from CiU to ERC, with CiU projected to lose another 10 seats or so. Yet the same projections do not see the combined separatist bloc winning more ground.

      What the PSC does, and how the public perceives it, is therefore of utmost significance. A full PSC-PSOE schism would be the antechamber of a split between Catalonia and Spain.

      This is where the action is now.

      • I agree with that analysis – there’s very little chance of a significant change in the numbers voting for or against independence, so any changes in voting numbers will be within the blocs. In general terms pro-separatist CiU voters will go to ERC as more of the huge wave of CiU corruption becomes clear (Pallerols, spies, ITV) , and antiu-separatist PP voters will migrate to C’s for the same reason (Gürtel, Bárcenas). If UPyD set up in Catalonia they could capture some of those “pro-Spanish” votes too.

        Within the Socialist bloc the split goes three ways – those who are against separatism will follow Chacón and the new Catalan branch of PSOE, those who are in favour of separatism will go to ERC or the newly-formed Ernest Maragall splinter socialist party, and those who think they understand PSC’s position and can support whatever they imagine it means will vote for them.

        But as we’ve discussed before, the PSC position lacks clarity and nobody but them supports it, so it’s a purely theoretical policy with no chance of implementation. A pity, as Pere Navarro himself is an excellent communicator and very convincing speaker – it’s just that he has nothing convincing to communicate. Chacón running against Navarro’s PSC as PSOE leader in Catalonia would beat him easily.

        Five years from now PSC will be a distant memory, only remembered when one or another of its former members is hauled up before a court to rake over long-past corruption cases.

        • If I have followed your math well, this all would bring ERC close to an absolute majority.

          I’m pretty sure Europe doesn’t want to deal with these -sorry for my Squirrel- nutjobs.

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