Spain: Catalans Likely to Postpone Independence Vote

Published on October 13, 2014

The tumultuous, dramatic, and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, culminating in the failed vote of September 18, has left two lasting impressions on the key players in the parallel secession movement of Cataluña from Spain.

One is to reinforce the drive by Catalan pro-independence parties to press on to have their “democratic right” to self-determination also be heard, as with their Scottish brethren. That long awaited vote, even if non-binding, has since been promised, or threatened, by the Catalan regional leadership to take place in little less than a month, on November 9.

The other is a determination on his part by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain to avoid at all costs the “mistake” of British Prime Minister David Cameron in volunteering to agree to provide any such forum for a legal independence vote whatsoever where one is not legally required.

In that, Madrid and the entirety of Rajoy’s cabinet have held absolutely firm, immediately sending the Catalan decree for a vote on independence to the Constitutional Court of Spain for a protracted hearing, where it was suspended and is sure to be rejected as unconstitutional.

*** Despite bold talk from Barcelona of proceeding with a vote anyway, in protest, even if only symbolic, the legal challenge by Madrid has created divisions and raised a pause within the Catalan independence movement. While there is still a slight chance of having carton ballot boxes on the streets of Cataluña on November 9, and electoral negotiations within the independence front are still ongoing, that prospect is shrinking by the day. ***

*** A formal decision on whether or not to proceed with a vote on November 9 is likely to be taken in the next couple of days (October 15 is the logistical deadline for organizing a vote indicated by the electoral experts). Even in the now unlikely case it is held, a November 9 “street circus” would under these conditions most likely be seen as an unrepresentative show of force for pro-independence parties, and would fall short of convincing the rest of Spain – let alone Europe – of the seriousness of this campaign. ***

*** Artur Mas, the president of the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat, and head of the Convergencia i Unio (CiU) Party, thus appears to be more and more inclined to take the only legal way out and call for elections instead. He is indeed currently – behind the scenes – negotiating with Oriol Junqueras, leader of the more radical Esquerra Republicana (ERC) Party, to find a common platform, framed around the pledge to initiate a more well-thought independence path, to run as political allies in a snap election to be held early next year. ***

An Alternate and Longer Road …

According to the 1978 constitutional framework of Spain, the independence of a region can only be decided through a nation-wide vote. In the Catalan case, the right to hold the referendum on a nation-wide basis was denied in an April 8, 2014 vote in the Spanish Parliament, defeated by a crushing margin of 299-47 votes against.

And on September 30, the constitutional tribunal of Spain – following an appeal from the national government – suspended the Catalan decree unilaterally calling for a referendum.

While Mas did manage, technically, to legally open the campaign over the weekend preceding the court decision, legal experts selected by the pro-independence party to overview the “road to referendum” procedure all seem to be agreeing since then that perhaps it may not be a good idea to proceed in open defiance of the law.

One of the seven appointed members of the Catalan “electoral board” even resigned on October 6, after the court decision, stating an unwillingness to participate in a process that could be deemed as illegal without some assurance of immunity, and declaring the path to the referendum effectively over once the constitutional tribunal suspended the Catalan law.

Further complicating matters legally for the independence movement, Spanish sources point out that both the Spanish Constitution and the Catalan Statute were confirmed by referendums that a vast majority of Catalans voted in favor of (albeit what seems like a long time ago to the youth of today).

And so the November 9 referendum date is now increasingly looking unlikely – legal issues forbid Mas to launch the electoral campaign and any consultation held without a fair and balanced campaign would ridicule the Catalan “referendum” and Mas himself.

Instead, Mas is now more likely to try to win a general election, and – if he does – to gradually build up the independence quest through ” state-type” institutions in open defiance of Madrid.

Mas is in talks to either run on a joint ticket, or on a unified independence platform, with the now more popular, and more radical, ERC party of Junqueras.

In this way, the elections, which would be constitutionally valid, could be presented as a “plebiscite” on independence at the same time, with Mas’ political position strengthened through an electoral mandate with no ambiguity.

The only obstacle to snap elections at this point indeed appears to be the reluctance of Junqueras to join Mas in an electoral coalition.

The ERC has been polling firmly ahead of the CiU for months, to the point where Rajoy has questioned whether Mas is really in charge of the region or not.

Junqueras’ fear, in addition to his reluctance in sharing power, is that under the electoral path both parties could possibly be heading towards being forced to govern the region in radical opposition to Madrid, without the benefits of independence, and vulnerable to cuts in funding that could leave Cataluña exposed and in dire financial state.

A Modicum of Dialogue

Mas has not spoken to Rajoy since July and – while some discussions with the ruling Partido Popular (PP) have taken place with lower level bureaucrats – the only party clearly negotiating with the Catalan leadership at this point has been the Socialist party (PSOE).

PSOE has so far fully backed the government appeal to the constitutional tribunal that effectively blocked the referendum path. However, convinced that the Catalan issue is generational and won’t die this winter, the socialists appear more open to negotiations with the Catalans, at least behind the scenes, with an eye to a political hook for the party in the 2015 general elections.

As to the nature of a possible compromise with the central government, such as perhaps granting fiscal neutrality in transfers between the central government and the region, the Catalan government faces a serious conundrum. While one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, generating almost 20% of the country’s GDP, the current per capita cost of Catalan public services is also the highest in the country, and the region spends more than any other in Spain on social security.

And the system in Spain is of transfers from the central government towards autonomous regions, while the capacity of those regions to impose or collect their own taxes is fairly limited (with exceptions carved out for Navarra and the Basque Region). This puts the Catalan government – as things stand – under pressure to comply with Madrid’s diktats, at least in the short term.

Sources in the socialist party have told us in the past couple of weeks that big names formerly in the PSOE (including former PM Felipe Gonzalez) have indeed spoken to the Catalan leadership to negotiate a possible fiscal path forward – but as things stand such efforts have not been effective in finding a plausible solution.

And it is still far too early and the politics far too heated for Rajoy’s ruling PP to engage in any concrete negotiations, even though Rajoy himself has now also ndicated a general willingness to talk.

The tumultuous, dramatic, and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom, culminating in the failed vote of September 18, has left two lasting impressions on the key players in the parallel secession movement of Cataluña from Spain.

One is to reinforce the drive by Catalan pro-independence parties to press on to have their “democratic right” to self-determination also be heard, as with their Scottish brethren. That long awaited vote, even if non-binding, has since been promised, or threatened, by the Catalan regional leadership to take place in little less than a month, on November 9.

The other is a determination on his part by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain to avoid at all costs the “mistake” of British Prime Minister David Cameron in volunteering to agree to provide any such forum for a legal independence vote whatsoever where one is not legally required.

In that, Madrid and the entirety of Rajoy’s cabinet have held absolutely firm, immediately sending the Catalan decree for a vote on independence to the Constitutional Court of Spain for a protracted hearing, where it was suspended and is sure to be rejected as unconstitutional.

*** Despite bold talk from Barcelona of proceeding with a vote anyway, in protest, even if only symbolic, the legal challenge by Madrid has created divisions and raised a pause within the Catalan independence movement. While there is still a slight chance of having carton ballot boxes on the streets of Cataluña on November 9, and electoral negotiations within the independence front are still ongoing, that prospect is shrinking by the day. ***

*** A formal decision on whether or not to proceed with a vote on November 9 is likely to be taken in the next couple of days (October 15 is the logistical deadline for organizing a vote indicated by the electoral experts). Even in the now unlikely case it is held, a November 9 “street circus” would under these conditions most likely be seen as an unrepresentative show of force for pro-independence parties, and would fall short of convincing the rest of Spain – let alone Europe – of the seriousness of this campaign. ***

*** Artur Mas, the president of the Catalan parliament, the Generalitat, and head of the Convergencia i Unio (CiU) Party, thus appears to be more and more inclined to take the only legal way out and call for elections instead. He is indeed currently – behind the scenes – negotiating with Oriol Junqueras, leader of the more radical Esquerra Republicana (ERC) Party, to find a common platform, framed around the pledge to initiate a more well-thought independence path, to run as political allies in a snap election to be held early next year. ***

An Alternate and Longer Road …

According to the 1978 constitutional framework of Spain, the independence of a region can only be decided through a nation-wide vote. In the Catalan case, the right to hold the referendum on a nation-wide basis was denied in an April 8, 2014 vote in the Spanish Parliament, defeated by a crushing margin of 299-47 votes against.

And on September 30, the constitutional tribunal of Spain – following an appeal from the national government – suspended the Catalan decree unilaterally calling for a referendum.

While Mas did manage, technically, to legally open the campaign over the weekend preceding the court decision, legal experts selected by the pro-independence party to overview the “road to referendum” procedure all seem to be agreeing since then that perhaps it may not be a good idea to proceed in open defiance of the law.

One of the seven appointed members of the Catalan “electoral board” even resigned on October 6, after the court decision, stating an unwillingness to participate in a process that could be deemed as illegal without some assurance of immunity, and declaring the path to the referendum effectively over once the constitutional tribunal suspended the Catalan law.

Further complicating matters legally for the independence movement, Spanish sources point out that both the Spanish Constitution and the Catalan Statute were confirmed by referendums that a vast majority of Catalans voted in favor of (albeit what seems like a long time ago to the youth of today).

And so the November 9 referendum date is now increasingly looking unlikely – legal issues forbid Mas to launch the electoral campaign and any consultation held without a fair and balanced campaign would ridicule the Catalan “referendum” and Mas himself.

Instead, Mas is now more likely to try to win a general election, and – if he does – to gradually build up the independence quest through ” state-type” institutions in open defiance of Madrid.

Mas is in talks to either run on a joint ticket, or on a unified independence platform, with the now more popular, and more radical, ERC party of Junqueras.

In this way, the elections, which would be constitutionally valid, could be presented as a “plebiscite” on independence at the same time, with Mas’ political position strengthened through an electoral mandate with no ambiguity.

The only obstacle to snap elections at this point indeed appears to be the reluctance of Junqueras to join Mas in an electoral coalition.

The ERC has been polling firmly ahead of the CiU for months, to the point where Rajoy has questioned whether Mas is really in charge of the region or not.

Junqueras’ fear, in addition to his reluctance in sharing power, is that under the electoral path both parties could possibly be heading towards being forced to govern the region in radical opposition to Madrid, without the benefits of independence, and vulnerable to cuts in funding that could leave Cataluña exposed and in dire financial state.

A Modicum of Dialogue

Mas has not spoken to Rajoy since July and – while some discussions with the ruling Partido Popular (PP) have taken place with lower level bureaucrats – the only party clearly negotiating with the Catalan leadership at this point has been the Socialist party (PSOE).

PSOE has so far fully backed the government appeal to the constitutional tribunal that effectively blocked the referendum path. However, convinced that the Catalan issue is generational and won’t die this winter, the socialists appear more open to negotiations with the Catalans, at least behind the scenes, with an eye to a political hook for the party in the 2015 general elections.

As to the nature of a possible compromise with the central government, such as perhaps granting fiscal neutrality in transfers between the central government and the region, the Catalan government faces a serious conundrum. While one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, generating almost 20% of the country’s GDP, the current per capita cost of Catalan public services is also the highest in the country, and the region spends more than any other in Spain on social security.

And the system in Spain is of transfers from the central government towards autonomous regions, while the capacity of those regions to impose or collect their own taxes is fairly limited (with exceptions carved out for Navarra and the Basque Region). This puts the Catalan government – as things stand – under pressure to comply with Madrid’s diktats, at least in the short term.

Sources in the socialist party have told us in the past couple of weeks that big names formerly in the PSOE (including former PM Felipe Gonzalez) have indeed spoken to the Catalan leadership to negotiate a possible fiscal path forward – but as things stand such efforts have not been effective in finding a plausible solution.

And it is still far too early and the politics far too heated for Rajoy’s ruling PP to engage in any concrete negotiations, even though Rajoy himself has now also ndicated a general willingness to talk.

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