Spain Strikes Down Election, Leaves Catalonia Little Choice

Catalans celebrate their National Day in Barcelona, Spain, September 13, 2012
Catalans celebrate their National Day in Barcelona, Spain, September 13, 2012 (Fotomovimiento)

Spain’s Constitutional Court left separatists in Catalonia with little choice but to either accept no changes in their relationship with Madrid or declare independence unilaterally when it struck down a watered-down vote on Tuesday that had been called by regional president Artur Mas.

The central government in Madrid had asked the court to block the “consultation” Mas called last month after it earlier suspended a formal referendum, arguing that the vote, which was due to take place on Sunday, was a thinly disguised way to get around the original ruling.

Tens of thousands of Catalans were expected to take to the street to protest the decision. Civil movements and some townhalls pledged they would organize an “unofficial” ballot anyway.

Mas had argued that local elections due in November 2016 could be brought forward and turned into a de facto referendum on whether or not Catalonia wanted to secede from Spain. The two largest parties in its regional legislature, Mas’ conservative Convergence and Union and the less compromising Radical Left, both support independence.

Convergence and Union could possibly be satisfied with increased autonomy for what is Spain’s richest region but the central government’s refusal to even discuss a devolution of powers has radicalized the separatist movement.

Many Catalans feel they are bearing the brunt of Spain’s economic crisis. The region accounts for 16 percent of the country’s population but more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.

Polls show some 80 percent of Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants want a referendum while support for independence has surged in recent years, from 13 percent in 2005 to 45 percent this year.

Catalonia Drops Independence Referendum, to Call Elections

Barcelona Spain demonstration
Catalans celebrate their National Day in Barcelona, Spain, September 13, 2012 (Fotomovimiento)

Catalonia dropped plans for an independence referendum on Tuesday but regional president Artur Mas said there would be a vote nonetheless. While not binding, this would be a proxy plebiscite, he suggested, provided all separatist parties campaign on a single program.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hailed the decision as “excellent news,” but it doesn’t seem to have tempered separatist sentiment in what is Spain’s richest province.

A referendum, originally scheduled for November 9, was suspended by Spain’s highest court last month after the central government lodged a legal challenge against it.

Mas told a news conference in Barcelona that a “definitive consultation” could only be held “through elections that the parties turn into a de facto referendum, with joint lists and a joint program.”

With this demand, the conservative Convergence and Union party leader hopes to stave off an electoral challenge from the less compromising Republican Left. Mas rejected proposals from this party — the second largest in Catalonia’s regional parliament — to interpret a legislative victory for the separatists as tantamount to a vote for independence. Read more “Catalonia Drops Independence Referendum, to Call Elections”

Madrid’s Intransigence to Blame for Catalan Separatism

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons/Josep Renalias)

Undeterred by the Scottish “no” to independence, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, has called for a referendum to break away from Spain.

To comply with Spanish law, the referendum would not be binding — although it is difficult to imagine how the authorities in Barcelona and Madrid could ignore the outcome if a majority votes to secede.

In an attempt to block the vote, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has asked Spain’s Constitutional Court to declare it illegal.

“It is false that the right to vote can be assigned unilaterally to one region about a matter that affects all Spaniards,” he argues. “It’s profoundly anti-democratic.”

Rajoy has a point. But it is the intransigence of the central government he heads that is to blame for the situation.

Struggle for rights

The Catalan culture and language were suppressed for almost forty years while Spain was a dictatorship. After Francisco Franco died in 1975, and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution promised Catalonia autonomy.

It took until 2006 for the region to get self-government. An overwhelming 74 percent of voters approved the constitutional changes in a referendum that year which defined Catalonia as a “nation” and gave it its own parliament. The Catalan regional government was given broad powers over cultural, education, health, justice and transportation policy.

But other regions and Spanish nationalists, especially in Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party, were dismayed by the changes and fought to reverse them.

After four years, Spain’s highest court ruled that fourteen of the new statute’s articles were unconstitutional and a further 27 had to be rewritten.

Perhaps most painfully, it said the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal standing.

The same court suspended Mas’ referendum on independence, a decision which Catalonia’s regional parliament is appealing.

Separatist sentiment

Through it all, support for independence has soared.

Polls suggest that around one in two Catalans would rather break away from Spain at this point and that 80 percent want the referendum.

Little wonder. Catalans have been denied a say in their political constellation for generations by politicians in Madrid who obsess about forging a single sense of Spanish nationhood where none exists.

Separatist sentiment has also been fueled by Spain’s recent economic mismanagement.

Compared to the rest of the country, Catalonia is fairly well run. It has only 16 percent of Spain’s population but is responsible for more than a fifth of its gross domestic product, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. Catalan trade accounts for 35 percent of Spain’s total. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s economic output, is invested in other parts of Spain.

Risks

That is not to say Catalonia should go it alone. Independence is not without its risks. Among the thorniest issues is European Union membership, for which an independent Catalonia would need to reapply.

That includes the use of the euro. Being forced out of the single currency could hurt tourism, which brings in $12 billion per year.

Devolution of powers, similar to Scotland, would satisfy many Catalans. So would a federal structure similar to Germany’s. The Catalans are a nation, but they don’t necessarily want their own state.

It is the central government’s refusal to even consider such options that has caused more and more Catalans to favor outright independence.

If, at some point, they do decide to break away from Spain unilaterally, Madrid will have itself to blame.

Undeterred by Scottish “No”, Catalonia Demands Referendum

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010 (SBA73)

Undeterred by Scotland’s vote against independence a day earlier, the leader of Catalonia said on Friday his region would organize a referendum in less than two months on whether or not to secede from Spain.

“What happened in Scotland is not a setback for us, because what we really want in Catalonia is to have the chance to vote,” said Artur Mas, Catalonia’s president and leader of its ruling Convergence and Union party.

The region’s parliament was due to pass a bill later in the day to give Mas the power to call a referendum.

The plebiscite will not be binding, however, and might not pave the way for Catalan secession as the central government in Madrid says it will not allow the region to split from Spain.

By far most Catalans desire a say in their future. Polls show some 80 percent of the region’s 7.5 million inhabitants are in favor of a referendum. Hundreds of thousands marched in the streets of Barcelona last week for the right to hold a vote.

Many Catalans, who are among the richest people in Spain, feel they are bearing the brunt of the country’s economic crisis. The region accounts for 16 percent of Spain’s population but more than a fifth of its economic output with an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.

But independence for Catalonia involves many more uncertainties than it did for Scotland. Despite criticism that it was unprepared for secession, Scotland’s government had a plan and the region would have been able to continue using the British pound in the months following a “yes” vote. The remaining United Kingdom was also unlikely to block Scottish accession to the European Union.

Spain, by contrast, could veto Catalan membership of the European Union — which would eject it from the Schengen customs union and preclude the region from formally adopting the euro.

Catalan Separatists Unite, Promise Referendum in 2014

Artur Mas Oriol Junqueras
Catalan party leaders Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras shake hands after signing a governing agreement in Barcelona, December 19 (CDC/Rubén Moreno)

The two largest separatist parties in Catalonia joined forces on Wednesday to force a referendum on independence from Spain in 2014.

Regional president Artur Mas’ Convergence and Union and the Republican Left of Catalonia hail from opposite ends of the political spectrum but share a desire to secede from the rest of Spain.

The left pledged support for Mas’ fiscal policy which, in turn, will not include deeper spending cuts, even if the region’s finances are in dire straits. Read more “Catalan Separatists Unite, Promise Referendum in 2014”

Catalonia Votes for Independence from Spain

Catalonia has reelected regional president Artur Mas, who promises to call a referendum on self-determination for the northeastern Spanish region in his second term.

While the secessionist Convergence and Union party Mas leads did not secure an outright majority, it will probably be able to call a referendum with the support of left-wing parties.

Preelection polls predicted that two-thirds of the votes would go to parties that support independence.

The central government in Madrid has vowed to block an attempt to break away. Read more “Catalonia Votes for Independence from Spain”

Secessionist Movements Threaten EU Foundation

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons/Josep Renalias)

The overwhelming electoral success of Flanders’ nationalists this weekend can be seen as part of a larger Western European regionalization movement that threatens the very foundation of the European Union.

In Belgium, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, secessionist groups are on the rise while across the north of Europe, popular resentment to the prospect of perennial transfer union is mounting. Read more “Secessionist Movements Threaten EU Foundation”

Conservatives Win in Spain’s Richest State

Spain’s Socialist prime minister, José Luis Zapatero, is increasingly embattled. Without a majority in parliament, his government has had to rely on the support of minor regional factions. But a recent victory for conservatives in the country’s richest province casts further doubt on the socialists’ ability to garner support for their policies.

Regional elections in Catalonia, both the most prosperous and most populous of Spanish regions, saw gains for the pro-business and nationalist Convergence and Union as well as the local affiliate of the People’s Party, Spain’s right-wing opposition.

The Socialists were decimated in what may well have been a forecast for more regional elections next year, if not the general election of 2012. Read more “Conservatives Win in Spain’s Richest State”