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Catalonia Is Still in Limbo

Catalonia’s political landscape remains dominated by forces more interested in separating from Spain than governing this fragile region.

Most people start the new year with a renewed sense of hope and optimism for the future. It’s unlikely, however, that many Spaniards will be as enthusiastic about 2018 as other parts of the world. The stalemate in Catalonia will not be easily overcome and tensions with Madrid could flare up at any time.

Despite winning last month’s snap regional elections, it remains far from certain that the pro-independence coalition will be able to form a stable government. Catalonia’s next prime minister and the fate of the 18 politicians in jail, self-imposed exile or under investigation are among the issues that could undermine the coalition’s ability to break the deadlock with Madrid. What’s more certain is that the Catalan political landscape remains dominated by forces more interested in separating from Spain than governing this fragile region.

Just the Start

Catalonia’s December 21 election was significant for two reasons. First, the record turnout of 82% reflects the determination of many Catalans to resolve the secession issue one way or another. Second, the vote demonstrated that Madrid’s strategy of “winning hearts and minds” to restore “rule of law” was ineffective. Indeed, the outcome may have left Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with less freedom to maneuver given that his Popular Party (PP) came last. The biggest single vote-winner was actually the center-left Ciudadanos (Citizens), on whose support Rajoy’s minority government depends. It might well be the case that this unionist party will be the PP’s biggest competitor in the general election scheduled for 2020.

And while two separatist parties — Carles Puigdemont’s JuntsxCat (Together for Catalonia) and Oriol Junqueras’ Esquerra (Republican Left) — won most seats, it’s the small anti-capitalist Popular Unity (CUP) that remains the most likely kingmaker. Despite holding only four seats in the new Catalan parliament, the CUP has a reputation for being a tough negotiator, as Artur Mas found out when he tried to form a government back in 2016. Indeed, the former Catalan leader’s inability to build rapport with the CUP resulted in his downfall and the selection of Puigdemont as the compromise candidate for the subsequent round of elections. To this end, the JuntsxCat leader’s “exile” in Brussels, coupled with the threat of arrest upon his return, might also prove to be an obstacle to forming a new administration.

Conversely, successful talks resulting in a JuntsxCat-Esquerra-CUP agreement would most likely be followed by efforts to reinstate Puigdemont as Catalonia’s prime minister and the formation of an administration hell-bent on unilateral independence. In response, Madrid would decide to uphold Article 155, meaning that Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria will remain at the helm of the Generalitat of Catalonia.

The secessionist parties’ problems don’t end there. Despite winning 70 of the Catalan parliament’s 135 seats, 8 of their MPs are either in Brussels or in jail. Their failure to turn up for the opening parliamentary session on January 17 would reduce the bloc to 62 seats, six short of the amount required to form a majority government and select a new leader. There’s also the prospect of the secessionists losing another 10 MPs currently under investigation for illegal activities. Governing under these conditions would be virtually impossible.

Consequently, the pro-independence parties have a very tight deadline for forming a new government. Following two rounds of leadership elections in late January and early February, the secessionists have until April to form a new government or parliament will be dissolved. Under this scenario, JuntsxCat and Esquerra might try to work with Comú-Podem’s 8 MPs. However, a partnership with the former Podemos affiliate would not only preclude the CUP from government but also require the secessionists to significantly soften their stance on unilateral independence. While some Esquerra leaders have said they would set aside calls for independence in order to govern, JuntsxCat is unlikely to follow suit.

Unionist Disunity

Ultimately, the outcome of last December’s election cast further light on the divisions that exist within Catalan society. Despite turning out in record numbers, the result mirrored 2015, when roughly 47-48% of the electorate voted for either side of the independence debate. Indeed, while the pro-unity vote increased by 4.5% this time around, the pre-electoral hopes of a silent majority turning out to maintain the status quo did not materialize. This meant that the pro-union Ciudadanos also had no chance of forming a government with PP or Socialist Party (PSC) counterparts, despite achieving 25.4% of the popular vote.

Some misjudged decisions taken by Madrid, the post-referendum violence on the streets of Barcelona and short deadline for new regional elections are among the factors that also help to explain the unionist parties’ underwhelming performance. In addition, their cause was hardly helped by those Spanish legal experts who defended the prosecution of separatists for civil disobedience but disagreed over whether charges should include rebellion, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. As a result, Rajoy saw Catalan support for his party plunge from 8.5% to 4.2%. This turn of events also strengthened Ciudadanos’ claim that it is now best placed to take charge of the crisis and uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Spain. Additionally, if the general elections were to take place today, it would be Ciudadanos (27%), not PP (23%), that would be the most popular party.

Yet, it’s not all doom and gloom for the incumbent Spanish prime minister. The removal and imprisoning of former members of the Catalan government and other separatists sent a strong signal that Madrid will not tolerate any breach of the rule of law and Spanish constitutional order. It’s a decision that’s seemingly proved popular with the wider electorate after a recent opinion poll suggested that Catalan independence now ranks fifth (16.7%) among Spain’s problems. From there, Rajoy must also seek to capitalize on the fact many Catalans remain reluctant to pursue the dream of full independence. A renewed approach to the Catalan question should be supported by fresh thinking on how to rebuild relations between Barcelona and Madrid.

As recent history has amply demonstrated, the very fact that a political scenario seems absurd and irrational to some commentators and observers doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. That’s another reason why Madrid should rethink what it can offer Catalans, up to and including a legal referendum on independence. Otherwise, Catalonia and the rest of Spain will remain in a harmful state of limbo that’s unwanted by separatists and unionists alike.

*[GLOBSEC in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Pere Rubi / Shutterstock.com