28 September 2015

Catalan Elections and Franco's Ghost

Reading the tea leaves of Sunday’s elections in Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of Spain’s GDP, it can be safely divined that the ruling Partido Popular (People’s Party, PP) will lose its majority in the December general elections. Though the elections were for the regional parliament, it was seen as a plebiscite for Catalan independence after the Madrid government and the country’s Supreme Court disallowed an independence referendum.

The turnout was a record 77.4%, up 10% since the last elections three years ago. The pro-independence parties together won 72 of the 135 seats and will keep governing the province, as they have for decades. Of these, the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition won 62 seats, losing seats and votes, while the radical pro-independence and anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) won 10 seats. The two groupings together received 48% of the votes.

The Citizens Party (C’s), a Right-wing Catalan political brand that has gone national, emerged at the head of the pro-Madrid opposition almost with 25 seats compared to nine in 2012. The PP and the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party), which alternate in the national government, lost votes and seats, especially the former. The pro-Madrid parties received 40% of the votes, principally from the elderly and the normally apathetic poorer Spanish working class voters in Catalonia who seem to have turned out this time, fearing independence.

The clearly identifiable loser on the Left was Sí que es Pot (Yes we can), the regional derivative of Podemos, which won 11 seats, about a third of its own worst estimates. The Podemos-led third way coalition supported an independence referendum but wanted the province to stay in Spain. It was squeezed out by the polarised vote but was also given a more generalised warning that it will not emulate Syriza in the December elections. Spain is tiring of Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’ constant attention-seeking theatrics.

Tea leaf reading at this point gives way to the sharper (Donald) Rumsfeldian logic. The “known knowns” of the situation (things we know we know) are that Catalonia has become a highly politicised part of Spain even as apathy runs strong in the rest of the country. The pro-independence segment of the population has stabilised at about half the population and it could squeak through with a referendum victory if Madrid allows one, which it won’t.

This suits the Catalan regional leader Artur Mas and his Democratic Convergence Party, a pro-business grouping tainted by charges of corruption and misgovernance. Keeping the Catalan independence issue on the boil distracts attention. The PP government in Madrid is not too displeased either. Aware that it is losing support, which is heading the way of the party of the C’s, it will hope that a running verbal battle with Barcelona will pay electoral dividends.

The “known unknown” (knowing there are some things we do not know) is if the Catalan nationalists, without 50% of the votes, will push through with the route map of unilateral independence as they had warned before the elections. The government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said it will use all judicial means to stop that from happening. Retired generals have warned that the military will not watch Spain crumble. The Catholic Church hierarchy has opposed Catalan independence. Neo-Nazi and pro-Franco groups have been hitting the streets to whip up nationalist passions.

There are no “unknown unknowns” (the ones we don’t know we don’t know) to report of at the moment. Perhaps the only way to find one is by falling off the Rumsfeldian epistemological cliff.

Spanish nationhood is creaking with Catalonia, the Basque country, Valencia and Galicia all seeking in different degrees to wrest free of central control. Franco’s ghost still haunts Spanish federalism. The dictator tried to crush vernacular languages, cultures and identities in his obsession with a hegemonic Spain, held together by nationalism, military, the Church and violence. The past was never exorcised after his death and the Spanish establishment unmistakably bears Franco’s imprint.

The subprime crisis hit Spain hard with high unemployment, precarious jobs, poor wages and inadequate labour laws. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes for failing to pay the banks. Its gag law (ley mordaza), aimed at curtailing popular protest, is the most retrograde in Europe. The results of the Catalan elections are perhaps an indication that many of its citizens have reached a point where they think they could do better without Madrid.

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