Just over three months after the elections Catalunya has a new government and a new President. The long running saga of farce and high drama finally came to an unexpected end last Saturday. The two pro-independence groups in the Parliament reached an agreement at the 11th hour. The new President is Carles Puigdemont from Convergència Democràtica, the Catalan Liberal party, and he was voted in as President on Sunday. Why did it take so long to reach this outcome? This post gives an overview of the recent comings and goings in Catalunya.
At the elections way back in September of last year the two pro-independence coalitions won an overall majority of the seats in the Parliament – 72 seats out of 135. However the larger of the two coalitions – Together for Yes, JxSí, won 62 seats, six short of an overall majority on its own. JxSí was thus dependent on the other pro-independence coalition – the Radical Left Popular Unity party, CUP, for the necessary votes to get its candidate, Artur Mas, elected as President.
CUP play hardball
Alas for JxSí, the CUP had campaigned resolutely against Artur Mas during the election campaign, claiming he was too right wing and tainted with corruption. After the elections, the CUP stuck rigidly to their guns. Two extraordinary assemblies of the their membership were held. The first resulted in a tie between those who supported voting for Mas and those against. The second eventually decided to maintain CUP’s opposition to voting for Mas. Everything pointed to a dissolution of the Parliament and fresh elections in March. Then, out of the blue, at the last moment a compromise was reached. Arthur Mas would stand aside and a close associate of his, Carles Puigdemont, would become the JxSí candidate for President.
A pyrrhic victory for CUP?
Though the CUP has doggedly stuck to its guns over not voting for Mas and has achieved its wish, the cost to the party may turn out to be more damaging than accepting Mas. The first point is that both groups had already, as early as November, agreed on the road map to independence. So all that the CUP was arguing about was who should lead this transition to independence. Secondly, the price that the CUP will now have to pay for getting Artur Mas to stand aside seems to be very high. The CUP has now given written assurances that two of its MPs will join with the JxSí parliamentary group and vote with them at all times. This assures that the new government will have a majority even if the other 8 CUP MPs vote against the government. In addition the CUP has publicly agreed that in no circumstances will its MPs vote against the government in a motion of confidence. Effectively this means that the CUP is pretty much hamstrung for the rest of the parliamentary term. All this just to get someone else as President. Seems a very high price for purity!
Who is Carles Puigdemont?
The new Catalan President is 53 years old and from the province of Girona. He is a journalist by profession and founded the English language journal Catalonia Today. He was until yesterday the Mayor of Girona city council. A member of Convergència Democràtica, he was elected to the parliament in September as part of the JxSí coalition. He is also a very close ally of Artur Mas. Judging by his performance in the parliament during his investiture, he seems to be a very confident, sympathetic and articulate politician.
Now that the Presidency has been sorted out, the new government can begin to implement the nine points in the Road Map to Independence that the parliament approved way back in November. This will involve the creation of all the institutions that go to make up a new republic – treasury for example. Inevitably this will lead to a rupture with the current Spanish state. Already the Spanish constitutional court has ruled the Road Map as unconstitutional. The new Catalan government will just ignore these rulings from Madrid and persevere with the creation of a new republican state. This process will also involve negotiations with other countries, especially the EU. The intention is that this new Catalan republic will be declared within 18 months.
The Spanish and EU response?
This is where things get really interesting and potentially violent. All the main Spanish parties, with the exception of Podemos, are rigidly opposed not only to Catalan independence, but to the right of Catalans to determine their own future – the right to self-determination. No referendum will be allowed, ever. This has been the mantra up to now. Will it change? Faced with the insistence of the new Catalan government to move ahead with creating a new state and ignoring the decisions of the Madrid government, what will the Spanish government do? Arrest the members of the Catalan government? Send in the troops? Dissolve the Catalan parliament and impose direct rule from Madrid?
Just as uncertain is how the EU will react to all this. Not just at the formal, collective level, but how will the individual member states react? Hard to see them all, or indeed any of them, just ignoring the clear democratic wishes of Catalans as expressed in last September’s election. Will they try to persuade the Spanish government to agree to a referendum? Interesting times lie ahead.