The Monkey Cage is carrying an interesting update on the Catalonia situation from Duke political scientist Laia Balcells. Catalonia is heading to elections, called by the premier Artur Mas, from the Convergence and Unity (CiU) party, a moderate Catalan nationalist party on the center-right. The CiU has always favored a “right to self-determination” for Catalonia, but now they favor holding a referendum on independence, unless Spain agrees to a new fiscal pact giving Catalonia broader powers.
She lays out three possible post-election scenarios:
1. A secessionist process scenario: a combination of Catalan nationalist parties (e.g. CiU ERC; CiUERC+SI) obtains a majority of the seats. Mas calls for a referendum. Despite the fact that the referendum is not likely to be recognized by Spain, it gives democratic legitimacy to the self-determination process. The medium-term outcome of this path is highly unpredictable at this point: Rajoy is not Cameron, and the PP government is making threats to deter Mas from the referendum (e.g. declaring it illegal). Some members of the Spanish military have even mentioned armed intervention in Catalonia to defend the “inviolable unity of the Spanish State”. The EU, on its end, delivers ambiguous messages regarding the permanence of Catalonia in the union if there is a breakup.
2. A fiscal pact scenario: CiU obtains a majority of the seats. Mas makes a credible threat of a self-determination referendum to Rajoy, who concedes on an agreement that improves Catalania’s fiscal capacities. CiU then renounces its secessionist demands, and ERC and other minority parties remain as the only ones asking for independence.
3. A stalemate/centralization scenario: Catalan nationalists do not obtain sufficient support in the elections and things remain at a standstill. Mas has a hard time governing given the economic and political gridlock. This scenario would probably imply asking for another bailout to the Spanish state and new attempts at centralization. (Given the results of the polls, this is however the least likely scenario)
Let’s look down the game tree to see what is likely to happen.
I think we can rule out 3 as a likely scenario, if the polls are right. Apparently 57% of poll respondents now say they would vote “yes” in an independence referendum and only 20% no. That’s a dramatic increase in secessionist sentiment even over the last few months. Catalan nationalist parties have frequently won significant majorities in the past, and I see no reason why they would not in the upcoming election with the radical turn in Catalan opinion.
So what happens after the election if nationalists win a majority? I think it likely that a referendum will be scheduled, even if the Spanish government rules it illegal. The Basque Ibarretxe Plan gives a contrary precedent: the Basque premier backed down on his referendum plans after threats from the Spanish government. But the Ibarretxe Plan came about in a different political context. Basque nationalism was in decline, not ascendancy. The Plan was a stratagem to re-energize nationalist voters and perhaps convert some voters to the cause. The grassroots support for the plan was nowhere near the levels recently observed in Catalonia.
However, the scheduling of a referendum does not mean that it will take place. The Spanish government should know that Mas will be willing to go ahead with the referendum. Will the Spanish government be willing to arrest him and invade Catalonia, if necessary, to prevent the referendum from going forward? They are currently threatening to do so, but these threats are unlikely to prove credible, as if followed through, they will only inflame popular sentiment against Spain and risk some sort of uncontrolled secessionist process.
More likely, the Spanish government will be willing to negotiate a fiscal pact with Catalonia. That will also give Mas a way out of endorsing independence in a referendum. Instead, the outcome of a negotiated settlement can be put to a popular vote, with an independence as an option but the CiU now back in opposition to independence. That referendum would likely reject independence. No secession referendum in any of the “Western democracies” has won a majority since the Faroese referendum of 1946. Thus, I think a modified scenario 2 is the most likely one. The first scenario cannot completely be ruled out, however.