Catalan Secessionism Could Benefit Rajoy in Election

Catalonia’s independence bid allows Mariano Rajoy to portray himself as the defender of Spanish unity.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to fight Catalan secessionism tooth and tail, telling reporters on Wednesday, “What is at stake here is the essence of our democracy, the respect for the sovereignty of the people and the unity of the nation.”

But however strongly he feels about the need to keep Spain together, Catalonia’s bid for independence could scarcely have come at a better time for Rajoy, the Financial Times reports.

With less than two months to go until a general election that his conservative People’s Party was until recently forecast to lose, the prime minister has just been handed a potent political weapon.

Rajoy’s has long branded itself as the party of Spanish unity, “ready to fight secessionist challenges with unflinching commitment whether in the Basque country or Catalonia.”

After years of economic hardship, Spain’s economy is also showing signs of recovery. Growth is expected to come in at 3 percent this year which would be one of the highest rates in the industrialized world. Business and consumer confidence are up and the unemployment rate is coming down.

Rajoy’s message to voters is simple.

This is not the moment for political change in Madrid but for sticking with a level-headed leader who has decades of experience in government. In an election that was framed by his opponents as a contest between the tired and the fresh, the old and the new, the old may have suddenly gained in attractiveness.

That is not to say Rajoy’s handling of the Catalan challenge has been effective. As the Financial Times points out, “Spain’s prime minister has made little effort to address — let alone resolve — the recent surge in Catalan grievances, leaving regional discontent to fester and grow.”

When he took office in 2011, just one in five Catalans wanted to secede from Spain. In the last regional election, nearly half voted for separatist parties. Now in the majority, they have started the process of breaking away.