What is happening in Catalonia?

What is going on in Catalonia?

If you go to Catalonia, in Northeastern Spain, you will frequently hear “Som una nacio”- “we are a nation”. With their own language, history, high and folk culture, and economy, Catalans are justly proud of their nation. For centuries they have been the most economically advanced part of Spain, constantly tugging at Madrid’s centralist and redistributive policies while also tightly bound into Spanish politics, with Barcelona as a clear second city of Spain that until the last twenty years always felt more outward looking and “European.”

So it’s interesting that over half of Catalans in a recent survey said they support independence, and that the traditional demonstrations on September 11th, Catalonia’s national day, were enormous and explicitly secessionist in a way that Catalonia’s famously moderate nationalism has rarely produced:

source: FranceTV

A Catalan flag has four red bars on yellow. A nationalist Catalan flag has four red bars and a yellow triangle with a red star. A secessionist, determined, Catalan flag has the blue triangle you see- to match the flags of the other countries such as Cuba that left Spain.

What’s going on? A mixture of elite and mass politics in a nation, and state, in crisis.

Catalonia’s traditionally had a dual electorate: Catalan nationalists and Spanish identifiers, either immigrants from the rest of Spain or descendants of immigrants from what were very poor regions of Spain through the 1980s. The “immigrants” were industrial working classes, and so traditionally didn’t have any cachet with Catalan elites. Catalan identifiers overwhelmingly voted nationalist, and that almost always meant the center-right nationalist party coalition Convergencia i Unio (ERC, the Catalan Republican Left, says it’s left, but look at its votes and delegates- a thin film of leftish activists atop a rural very nationalist base, and anyway ERC imploded over the last few years).

Until the 2000s the PSC, the Catalan Socialist Party, had Catalan leadership (Barcelona’s famous mayor Pasqual Maragall, later head of the Catalan government, was the nephew of one of the most famous Catalan poets, etc) and Spanish-identified voters.  The second-generation immigrants from the rest of Spain then took over, starting with Jose Montilla (bearer of a telltale Spanish name). The PSC and PSOE also both won elections, governing for a decade each.

Office started to spoil the nationalist credentials of Socialists- already under pressure because they didn’t want to be disloyal to the PSOE anyway. It’s hard to be the PSC when its sister party PSOE is in power in Madrid It got worse, as did the standing of Spain in the minds of Catalans, when a negotiated amendment to Catalonia’s statute of autonomy, supported in a referendum, was overturned by the Constitutional Tribunal (which had a majority appointed by the Spanish right, the Popular Party- PP). Greater autonomy for Catalonia was, the Court decided, not legal even if the Catalan government, the Spanish government, and the Catalan people supported it. For Catalans who wanted more autonomy, the choice was now either secessionism or status quo.

Then came the economic crisis. PSC and then its Spain-wide sister party the PSOE crash in the polls just like any other incumbent party that presided over such a mess. BUT. The effect in the two halves of the electorate is different. The nationalist vote got amped up and converged around CiU. Unfortunately, the larger vote is not nationalist, and there the effect was the mass importation of Spanish politics. Turns out that a Spanish-identified worker in the industrial suburbs of Barcelona, when dissatisfied with the Socialists, doesn’t get up from watching Television de Espana and turn into a  Catalan nationalist! Turns out that he votes PP. Result is that the Catalan electorate went all over the place and they get a minority government of nationalists dependent on the PP.

(In something with echoes of the Scottish situation, the PSC also lost a lot of town halls- which had been its traditional power base anyway. Given that Spanish parties make anemic American parties look like mass social movements, this was a catastrophe- a huge percentage of the party had been local government types who were suddenly unemployed. Big problem because the PSC does not have business support to step in and fund them like CiU or the PP)

Meanwhile, Catalonia is the most indebted region of Spain and needs a bailout. On one hand, that makes it dependent on Madrid’s support. On the other hand, Catalans will point out the enormous transfers they have made every year to poorer regions of Spain- some of which spend more per capita than Catalonia despite GDPs that are a fraction of Catalonia’s. The transfers, a Catalan nationalist will point out, are larger than the Catalan deficit, and that does not include things like the fact that the state builds tollways in Catalonia and freeways elsewhere in Spain.

What do you do if you’re Artur Mas, the new CiU nationalist leader, with a nationalist electorate that agrees with the PP on most things but viscerally hates the PP? In the short term, accept PP support in the Catalan Parlament to do what you want to do (cut back welfare state), but do everything you can to wreck relations with Madrid. Madrid obligingly helps (remember, outside a few regions public opinion in Spain has turned harshly against regional governements, and a lot of the austerity policies they are enacting, such as end of universal health care access, are of dubious constitutionality). Mas then has a really good situation: while everybody knows his is a right party, he can blame the PP for the worst of stuff, point to the shambles in Madrid and say he could do it better alone, and reframe the discussion around independence (since Catalan nationalist voters expect their leaders to do battle with Madrid, not win).

Once it starts to work- and as everything continues to get worse, there is more appetite for reframing- you, Artur Mas, call snap elections. Say, for this November (the 25th, to be precise). Your friends in the PP are tarred by association with not just a failing Spanish government (Rajoy= Zapatero), but also by the fact that they are the PP. The PSC is exactly where they don’t want to be: trying to win back disaffected core voters who swung to the PP while also shoring up Catalan nationalist cred for soft nationalists and elite media purposes. When the PSC gets to frame debates, they are about left economic issues and more autonomy for Catalonia. Mas gets to frame this one, and he framed it around Spain vs not-Spain- knowing that  this means the PSC has to either offend its PP-inclined flank, or blow its nationalist credibility.

I still doubt Catalonia will secede, since Catalan elites are so integrated into Spain and dependent on Spanish markets, but the motive force is Mas, and his incentives are to play with secession. I think it will backfire on him at some point, maybe not November, and at that point the interesting question is whether the Spanish-identified electorate will go to the PP, the PSC, or something else (Spain has been seeing more and more parties that flare up, do well, and vanish again). It might be for the PSC in the medium run ; they are always more interesting and vigorous when the PSOE is out of power, and can campaign for social justice, jobs for the boys, the virtues of Spain, and Catalan autonomy without contradictions. Meanwhile, being associated with Rajoy’s Madrid government is starting to look worse than being associated with Zapatero.

In the mean time, though, it’s a game between the PP and Mas. The PP and its judges called Catalonia’s bluff: Catalans get the power Spain will give them, not the power they wanted, negotiated, and voted. Now, continues the PP, they will lose autonomy as part of crisis management. Mas made his move: so Catalonia should vote for his government as a referendum on secession (which is constitutionally illegal in Spain). That might not be what most voters in Catalonia or the rest of Spain want, and it could produce quite some tension when Spain’s established powers confront secessionism, but that’s what the voters are getting.


About scottlgreer

Associate Professor, Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. I am a specialist in the health politics and welfare states of of advanced industrial countries, with a special research focus on the politics of the UK, France, Spain and the European Union.
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