Last week I was in Barcelona for two days, giving a talk at an event on “the right to decide,” sponsored by the Centre Maurits Coppieters (nonprofit arm of the European Free Alliance, the European Parliament group for ideologically mainstream minority nationalist parties) and by the Fundació Josep Irla (nonprofit arm of the Catalan Republican Left [ERC], largest pro-independence party in Catalonia). I also did some media interviews. You can see some excerpts of my interview with Catalonia’s TV3 evening news here (in Catalan).
I was interested in going to find out more about Catalonia’s independence movement and its prospects. For background on the Catalan movement, see my post here on Pileus from September 24, 2012, two weeks after the massive Catalan National Day demonstrations that kicked off the current process. (That post, including its forecasts, has held up pretty well, I’d say.)
Now that the Spanish Constitutional Court has invalidated the consulta (consultative plebiscite) that the Catalan Government had authorized with the support of over two-thirds of Catalan MP’s and three-quarters of the Catalan electorate, the way forward is murky. An official consultation will not now happen. Instead, tens of thousands of volunteer poll workers are signing up to help with an unofficial poll that will involve ballots and ballot boxes and occur on November 9.
It remains to be seen how successful the November 9 consultation will be. The pro-independence parties and civil society organizations are trying hard to mobilize voters and volunteers for the event. The anti-independence parties are boycotting the vote, as indeed are some far-left types who hate Artur Mas, such as the leader of the ex-communist, ecosocialist party ICV-EUiA, which otherwise supports the “right to decide” and remains agnostic on independence.
If the November 9 consultation is successful, then the pro-independence parties will try to negotiate a “unitary party list” for early elections to the Catalan Parliament. They will treat this election as a plebiscite-by-proxy, and if an absolute majority of seats and votes go to the pro-independence list, Artur Mas will take it as a mandate for independence.
However, several difficulties remain. The more radically independentist party, ERC, wants to declare independence right away after a successful “plebiscitary election.” Artur Mas’ party, Convergence and Union (CiU), is divided between independentists and those favoring a solution like confederation. (Technically, the party is a long-standing alliance between two separate parties, the now-independentist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia and the autonomist Democratic Union of Catalonia.) Generally, the last few days have seen more division and acrimony among secessionist leaders than the previous two years, and if it continues, that division will alienate voters. Civil society groups continue to call for unity among the pro-independence leaders.
Another difficulty is that while a majority of Catalans with an opinion on the matter favor independence (a recent El Mundo poll had the anti-independence side ahead within the margin of error, but their polls have always been biased in an anti-independence direction), polls suggest the pro-independence parties would not together gain a majority in early elections. The reason for this is that many independentists are not in the secessionist parties. For a successful result, the “unitary list” will need to contain important leaders from civil society and non-secessionist parties.
If the Catalan process stumbles now, it will be a shame, because it will show the Spanish government that they can face down demands for more autonomy simply by standing pat and threatening to arrest politicians. Spanish autonomous communities like Catalonia enjoy far less autonomy than American states (they are not allowed, for instance, to vary the overall tax burden from a central standard).
The most likely outcome of the process now seems to be a November 9 consultation that can be spun as a successful result, followed by a petering out of the momentum as parties squabble over unitary list placements, election timing, and whether to declare independence immediately after the election. Again, this is not the outcome we should hope for. If there is a successful plebiscitary election, I don’t expect ERC to be able to win majority support for an immediate independence declaration. Instead, there will be further negotiation, until Artur Mas and other moderates decide that it is fruitless. The probability that Catalonia will actually be independent of Spain by the end of 2016 remains somewhere in the range of 20% to 40%, a bit lower than I would have said a month ago.
See also Edward Hugh’s defense of Artur Mas’ political prowess. If he is right, the independentist left would do well to unite behind him, as galling as that may be for them.