Why Spain’s Podemos Now Supports Catalan Referendum

Hint: It’s not because the far-left movement is suddenly in favor of Catalan independence.

Spanish Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias appears at an event in Málaga, May 17, 2014
Spanish Podemos party leader Pablo Iglesias appears at an event in Málaga, May 17, 2014 (Cyberfrancis)

Spain’s Podemos party has come out in favor of a Catalan independence referendum, making it the first major national party to break with the government of Mariano Rajoy on the issue.

The anti-establishment movement remains opposed to Catalan independence and argues that a referendum should not be legally binding, but the new policy is a win for Catalonia’s separatists all the same.

It’s probably not for them that Podemos has changed their minds, though.

Party leader Pablo Iglesias coupled the announcement with a warning to the mainstream Socialist Party, saying he would only do a deal with them to unseat Rajoy’s minority right-wing government if they support a referendum too.

He knows the Socialists won’t — and that’s the point.

Intransigent

Iglesias must be worried the Socialists could become a more serious threat to his party now that they have reelected Pedro Sánchez as their leader.

Sánchez was ousted by moderates last year for refusing to allow Rajoy to form a minority government. A Socialist abstention was needed for the conservative to stay in power.

Centrists in the Socialist Party feared they would be blamed by voters if they did not abstain. Sánchez feared there would be more defections to Podemos if they did.

It’s unclear from the polls who was right — Podemos and the Socialists are still neck and neck — but Sánchez’ surprise victory in the party’s leadership election vindicates him. He is expected to compete more with Podemos than with the center-right for votes.

This puts Iglesias in a difficult position. He doesn’t want to make the compromises necessary to form a coalition with the Socialists, at least not as the junior partner, but he also doesn’t want voters to think Podemos is standing in the way of left-wing unity.

In Catalonia’s quest for independence, he has found the perfect wedge issue. He knows that recognizing a Catalan right to self-determination is a bridge too far for the Socialists. By conditioning an anti-Rajoy pact on it, he could make it seem as if the Socialists are intransigent, not him.

Catalan coalition

Iglesias is also eying regional Catalan politics.

Catalonia is currently governed by a pro-independence majority, but it is an unhappy marriage, as I reported here last week. It doesn’t look like the center-right Democratic Party on the one hand and the Republican Left and far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) on the other will manage to sit out their mandate, which could mean early elections.

Polls suggest the far-left alliance of which Podemos is a member, Catalonia in Common, could become the third- or fourth largest. It might win enough seats in the regional legislature to help the Republican Left and the CUP to a majority.

The only obstacle to a left-wing government is Catalonia in Common’s opposition to independence.

By supporting a referendum, Iglesias may have just removed that obstacle. All three parties on the Catalan left now agree the people must have their say — and that is really what most Catalans want.

Eight out of ten demand a referendum, but less than half would vote to break away from Spain.

Correction: After publishing this story, journalist Andreu Barnils alerted me to the fact that the Catalan Podemos has pulled out of the Catalonia in Common coalition at the last minute due to a dispute over voting rules.