On Sunday night, after more than two months of failed negotiations, bitter public recriminations, and a supposed do-or-die vote that ended in a 1,515-1,515 tie, the two secessionist parties in the parliament in the Spanish region of Catalonia managed what seemed impossible only days before: they agreed on a new prime minister and, just two hours before hitting the midnight deadline that would have forced new elections, formed a government.
“The [independence] process is saved. The Parliament will begin to function immediately,” Artur Mas, the outgoing Catalan Prime Minister, said when the preliminary agreement was reached on Saturday evening.
And with that, the already unstable Spanish political situation got even more complicated.
In Sept. 27 regional elections, the two pro-independence groups—the anti-capitalist leftist party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), and Junts pel Sí (Together for the Yes, or JxSí), a coalition of center-right, center-left, and civil society groups—won a majority of 72 out of 135 parliamentary seats with about 48% of the vote.
But the two quickly deadlocked over who would be prime minister, as the CUP refused to support another term for Artur Mas, who pushed austerity policies during Spain’s economic crisis and who heads a political party (Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, or CDC) that is the focus of multiple corruption investigations. Mas, in turn, refused to back down.
On Saturday afternoon, however, the groups reached an agreement: Mas, 59, would step aside and be replaced by Carles Puigdemont, 53, the mayor of the Catalan city of Girona. In return, the CUP agreed to vote for Puigdemont and declared that it would not vote against JxSí in any situation where parliamentary “stability” was at stake.
“Next stop, Independence!” Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Catalan Left) party, which forms part of JxSí, tweeted minutes later.
Judging from the multi-century length of the scuffle between Catalonia and Spain’s central powers, odds are that it won't be that fast.
For now, according to Teneo Intelligence political risk analyst Antonio Barroso, “The deal means that Catalonia is likely to accelerate its secessionist challenge in the ongoing game of chicken with the central government.”
Barroso expects that the Catalan parliament will pass bills to create “state-like” structures like a Catalan tax agency and social security system, moves that the central government in Madrid will undoubtedly challenge on constitutional grounds.
The question now is whether Puigdemont will have the political heft to keep his uneasy coalition together enough to govern the region—by getting parties with diametrically opposed politics to pass budgets and the like—while simultaneously trying to provoke an ill-considered reaction from Madrid that would draw international condemnation and allow Catalonia to achieve independence within his group’s self-proclaimed 18-month timetable.
This is very unlikely, says Juan Rodríguez Teruel, a professor of political science at the University of Valencia who writes about the subject. Unlike Mas, Puigdemont is relatively unknown in Catalonia, much less in the rest of Spain, he says, and does not have a close relationship with Barcelona-based bankers and business leaders or international politicians. (This comparative anonymity inspired a social media meme comparing Mas and Puigdemont to Russia's Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.)
Moreover, Rodríguez Teruel adds, the parties selected Puigdemont in a moment of declining support. The last-minute deal between JxSí and the CUP was an admission that the bitter negotiation process and the radicalization of the secessionist discourse has alienated voters, he says, meaning that if Catalonia went to new elections the independence camp could lose their parliamentary majority.
“The likelihood of independence is very low, and even with the new government that does not rise substantially,” Rodríguez Teruel says. "Of course, with the change in Catalan Prime Minister, we find ourselves in a more unpredictable situation."
Indeed, the formation of a pro-independence Catalan government makes a head-on train crash with the central government more likely. Puigdemont is considered a more diehard separatist than Mas and is expected to speed up the independence push just as Spain deals with confusing national election results from December that so far have left the country without a government in Madrid.
According to Barroso, this means that parties on the national level will feel renewed pressure to form a government. By doing so, they would have the power to face the issue politically, perhaps through constitutional reform, instead of in the courts, the route announced by Mariano Rajoy, who is trying to hang on to his position as Prime Minister.
This pressure will be especially strong for Pedro Sánchez, head of the center-left PSOE socialist party, whose 90 deputies in the 350-seat congress are the key to a new government. He has been the focus of relentless arm-twisting to form a German-style 'Grand Coalition' with Rajoy's center-right Partido Popular (PP), or at least abstain in an investiture vote to allow Rajoy to continue as Prime Minister. At the same time, Sánchez has been trying, unsuccessfully, to build an unwieldy left-wing coalition with smaller parties.
Getting into bed with the PSOE’s arch-enemy could be political suicide for Sánchez’s party, which has been trying to stop the flood of voters who've left to join Podemos, a new left-wing party untainted by the economic crisis and the corruption scandals that have battered Spanish politics.
But the PSOE could turn this situation to its advantage, Rodríguez Teruel says, if it can overcome its internal divisions and form an alliance with the upstart liberal party Ciudadanos. Together, the two would have more seats than the PP and could use their combined power to press the PP to push aside Rajoy in favor of a less polarizing PP politician or even perhaps for Ciudadanos head Albert Rivera.
No matter what, after the surprise formation of the Catalan government the battle for power in Madrid has already begun.
Shortly after the secessionist parties in Catalonia came to an agreement on Saturday, Rajoy’s office released a statement to the country’s political parties calling for them to create a national government that has “a broad parliamentary base that guarantees the stability and capacity to…confront the secessionist challenge.”