Analysis The Center Can Hold

Catalan Socialists Learn from Their Mistakes

Two years ago, Salvador Illa let his ego get in the way of a deal.

Salvador Illa
Catalan Socialist Party leader Salvador Illa listens to his Basque counterpart, Eneko Andueza, making a speech, January 16 (Socialistas Vascos)

Catalonia’s Socialists missed an opportunity after the last election to split up the region’s left- and right-wing independence parties. The moderate Republican Left, which supports a Socialist government nationally, had tired of the hardliners in Together for Catalonia (Junts), but local Socialist Party leader Salvador Illa wouldn’t accept anything short of the presidency for himself.

“Why should I invest a person that I defeated at the polls?” he remarked of the Republican party leader, Pere Aragonès.

Illa won 50,000 more votes than the Republicans, but both parties got 33 out of 135 seats. Aragonès claimed the presidency too, but he had two paths to a majority, not one. Illa’s intransigence drove the Republicans into the arms of Junts.

But the coalition proved short-lived and Illa has recently set his ego aside.

Aragonès got off to a bad start

Knowing the Republicans had to choose between giving up the presidency or accepting their terms, Junts drove a hard bargain. Whereas the Republicans wanted to give talks with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez about devolving more powers to Catalonia a chance, Junts insisted on taking steps toward secession. That poisoned the atmosphere in Aragonès’ coalition from the start.

In a compromise, the parties agreed to call a second unilateral referendum on independence (the first was forbidden by Spain and boycotted by unionists) in case the talks with Sánchez failed.

Sánchez pardoned the separatists who were imprisoned for organizing the first referendum.

He reneged on a promise to fund more Catalan-language film and TV, and he blocked a congressional inquiry into the revelation that 65 prominent Catalans, including President Aragonès, had been phone-tapped by Spain’s national security agency.

Few powers were devolved. Catalans have for years asked for control over housing policy, labor law and maritime rescue. They are jealous of the Basques’ fiscal autonomy. The Basques raise their own taxes and send a share to Madrid. In Catalonia, the national government collects most taxes. The regional government must ask for its share “back” every year.

Sánchez gave Catalonia the right to award university scholarships.

“Will to move forward”

Even Aragonès had to admit the talks with Sánchez achieved little. But he refused to pull out, and agree to another referendum attempt, so long as “both parties have the will to move forward.”

It’s doubtful Sánchez will muster that will before the general election in December. Other institutions in Spain never had any. The Supreme Court invented a rule that Catalan schools must teach at least one in four classes in Castilian (Spanish). The Constitutional Court overturned a Catalan rent-control law.

Education and housing are two areas where regional and national competencies overlap. The point of the negotiations was to hash out such ambiguities, but they haven’t.

By October of last year, Junts had had enough and quit. That gave Illa a chance to correct his mistake from two years ago.

Socialists get a taste for dealmaking

Aragonès needed a majority for his 2023 budget, which Junts was no longer willing to provide. The Socialists came to the rescue, conditioning their support on concessions that were palatable to the Republican Left: more money for Barcelona’s El Prat airport and regional trains, and a new highway.

That gave the Socialists a taste for coalition building. They did a deal with Junts this week that forced the Republicans to backtrack on water policy.

No fines for excessive water use

Catalonia is in a drought. It hasn’t rained in some places for over a year. The Sau reservoir, 100 kilometers inland from Barcelona, is below 10 percent of its capacity.

A state of emergency has been declared in half of Catalonia’s municipalities. The use of freshwater to clean streets and water gardens has been banned, and agricultural and industrial water use has been restricted.

Aragonès had proposed to fine municipalities that don’t comply. Around one in four still use too much water. The Socialists and Junts were wary, arguing small towns didn’t have the money to repair broken canals and water pipes. They also wanted to use a surplus in the Catalan Water Agency’s coffers to rapidly expand regional wastewater treatment and build a new desalination plant.

The Republicans had little choice but to agree. Instead of fines, municipalities will be offered €50 million in subsidies to fix leaks. Only if they refuse and still exceed water limits will they be penalized. Another €50 million will be spent to improve wastewater facilities and reservoirs.

Dutchification of Spanish politics

Here in the Netherlands, it’s not uncommon for political rivals to do deals. The Labor Party and Socialists sometimes find allies on the far right for supporting the lowest incomes. Progressives have allies on the Christian right to make child care cheaper. My own pro-business party, the liberals, co-introduced legislation with environmentalists to ban people who have been convicted of animal abuse from ever owning pets again.

In Spain, the Socialists and conservative People’s Party were able to alternate in power for decades without compromising with anyone. Two mid-sized parties entered Congress for the first time in 2015: the liberal-nationalist Citizens and the far-left Podemos (We Can). A far-right party, Vox (Voice), joined four years later.

After Spain held two inconclusive elections in 2019 — Socialist leader Sánchez tried, and failed, to form a minority government after the first — I argued in World Politics Review it should come to terms with the “Dutchification” of its political system. Sánchez eventually did and accepted a coalition with Podemos on equal terms. For the few extra seats he needed, he made promises to Basque and Catalan nationalists.

He has been slow to keep those promises, but — belying the expectations of the conservative media and right-wing opposition parties in Congress — it looks like he will complete his four-year term.

Socialists down in Spain, up in Catalonia

Which is not to say the coalition has been popular. Sánchez is projected to lose reelection in December. His few concessions to Catalan nationalists were too much for many Spaniards, who would put the People’s Party back in power.

But in Catalonia, the Socialists are up, polling at 23 to 27 percent compared to the Republicans’ 18 to 23 percent. Voters seem to appreciate Illa’s pragmatism. Junts is in third place with 14 to 17 percent. Smaller left-wing parties are polling in the single digits, but they could win enough seats to give the Socialists and Republicans a majority.

The last time Catalonia had a left-wing government was in 2010.