The future of Spain hangs in the balance with old parties failing and secessionist movements seeking freedom from Spain's iron grip. Can Spanish politicians find a way out?
The People’s Party (PP), the ruling party in Spain, is using everything within its means to crush secessionist parties in Catalonia.
Opposition parties have protested numerous times against several measures taken by the government. Yet the PP and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy remain undeterred, marching ahead regardless of the consequences. They're hoping that a victory in Catalonia may ensure that the PP remains a viable political force, as to lose would mean future decline and irrelevance.
The crisis in Catalonia is a microcosm of divisions within Spanish society. The battle underway between the secessionist forces in Catalonia and the Spanish state is not the only battle being fought. It may not even be the most important one.
Forty years after the start of its transition to democracy, Spain is facing questions about its own identity, its relationship with the past, and vision for the future. And the forces competing to gain the upper hand in answering these questions are fighting it out in Catalonia.
Since the intensification of the Catalan crises, Spanish parties and groups have been offering their own answers and vision, hoping to use Catalonia as a platform to transform Spain.
Podemos, the four-year old left-wing Spanish party has been the most sympathetic to the Catalan cause, supporting what’s referred to as the “right to decide.” A central plank of its electoral platform has been to grant Catalonia an independence referendum.
Podemos has been steadfast in supporting radical constitutional reform to convert Spain into a plurinational federation of states with the right to secede.
Podemos believes that the current model of “Autonomous Communities,” drawn up at the beginning of the post-Franco era to appease an array of forces such as fascists, communists, and separatists, is past its expiration date and doesn’t concord with the realities of today’s Spain. It thinks Spain should take one more step towards decentralisation and further embrace the wider complexity of its peoples.
Podemos was a forceful presence in Spanish politics until the day of the referendum and even held demonstrations in a few Spanish cities outside of Catalonia in support of negotiations between Madrid and Barcelona. As a consequence, their popularity in Spain has dropped considerably. Only a year ago they received 25 percent in the opinion polls and were on the way to becoming the main party of the Spanish left. The most recent polls have shown around 15 percent of the vote.
The Socialist Party (PSOE), the old centre-left party and one of the pillars of the Spanish post-Franco era, has seen its fortunes decline in recent years.
In the early 2000s the PSOE could have counted on a comfortable share of the vote, at around 40 percent. Now, it hovers in the low 20s. During the Catalan crises, it has been mostly supportive of the state’s heavy-handed response to the Catalan crisis.
Although their Catalonia branch has managed to stop the vote hemorrhaging for more than a decade now, their support for some of the state’s policies (e.g. the dissolution of autonomy) has led to a number of socialist cadres leaving the party.
The party has been calling for an amendment of the constitution and the creation of a federalist Spain — and using the crisis in Catalonia — they finally managed to convince the PP to set up a commission in parliament to study constitutional reform.
It is still too early to say, but with PP's absolute majority in the senate and opposition to a federalist Spain, a complete overhaul of Spain’s model of autonomous communities seems improbable.
Just like Spain, PSOE has been dealing with internal issues, and various factions within the party have been trying to reshape it in their image. With the threat from Podemos seemingly receding, they might just get back to more pressing issues.
As long as these internal entanglements continue, the party seemingly won't to be able to offer much to the new generation of Spanish voters who have lived all their lives under “bipartidismo”: the post-Franco system of government dominated by two parties, PSOE and PP, who lost most of their credibility and votes in the aftermath of 2008 financial crisis.
Prime Minister Rajoy’s party, People’s Party (PP), had its worst showing in history in the Catalan elections. They got less than five percent of the vote in Catalonia. The very next day, Pedro J Ramirez, a veteran journalist called on Rajoy to hold early general elections so that every party could propose ways to get out of the crisis and for the Spanish people to choose between them.
Ramirez, a Spanish nationalist, does not have much in common with the pro-independence movement in Catalonia but both agree on one crucial thing: Rajoy’s party was vehemently defeated in Catalonia, and its era is over. It might hang on to power in Madrid for a while, but a party that ranks seventh in the second-most populous region of the country is clearly facing an existential threat.
This is why Rajoy’s government has been reluctant to normalise the situation in Catalonia and has created one obstacle after another for the secessionist parties in their attempt to re-establish the Catalan government and autonomy.
The threat for the PP doesn’t come from the left or from the separatist parties. But from Ciudadanos, a young Spanish nationalist party born out of opposition to the independence movement. It has worked hard to position itself as the inheritor to PP voters. Ciudadanos got 25 percent of the vote and was ranked first in the recent Catalan elections and can claim that where PP has failed, Ciudadanos won.
In a matter of a few years, Ciudadanos has moved from presenting itself as a centre-left party to presenting itself to dissatisfied right-wing voters as staunch defender of Spanish norms and a centre-right party without the PP’s baggage.
A number of recent polls show them ahead of the PP and other parties. In the likely event that the PP continues with its lacklustre performance in managing the Catalan crisis, Ciudadanos might just be ready to attract an increasing number of voters.
Two former Prime Ministers, Socialist’s Felipe Gonzalez and PP’s Jose Maria Aznar who together held the Prime Minister's post from 1982 to 2004, have seemingly supported Ciudadanos in the last few weeks, leading some to believe that at least a part of Spanish establishment is behind Ciudadanos’s rise to power.
For now, the only thing that’s clear is that PP has lost and whoever wins Catalonia, may just win Spain.
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