Spain’s Catalonia Secession Drama Is About to Get a Lot Worse

January 15, 2016, 7:40 AM UTC
Catalonian regional election
BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 27: People hold up Spanish flags and placards after Catalonia's regional government president and leader of Catalan Democratic Convergence 'Convergencia Democratica de Catalunya' party (CDC) Artur Mas (not seen) casted his ballot in the Catalonian regional election at a polling station on September 27, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Photograph by Getty Images

After the 1975 death of dictator General Francisco Franco, the birth of Spain’s democracy was midwifed by the Pacto del olvido—the Pact of Forgetting.

In what Omar Encarnación, the director of the political studies program at Bard College, calls “Democracy Without Justice,” political leaders both left and right informally agreed to move forward by ignoring the atrocities committed during and after Spain’s Civil War. A comprehensive amnesty law was passed; there would be no truth and reconciliation committees, no wrestling with the past.

This willing refusal to look in the rearview had gone a long way to help Spain build a vibrant democracy and modern society in the ensuing 40 years. But it has also saddled Spain’s political class with an unfortunate unwillingness to address problems directly.

The challenges of this willful ignorance became clear when two secessionist parties in the wealthy region of Catalonia formed a government over the weekend, just hours before a deadline would have sent the region to new elections. Immediately, pressure heightened on lawmakers in Madrid—who have been bickering since December elections left the country without a ruling party or coalition—to form a national government and deal with Catalonia.

Until the two opposing Catalan pro-independence parties came to their unlikely eleventh-hour agreement, it seemed like the national parties might be able to again join in a pacto del olvido. The odds had been that Catalonia would go to new elections and that support for the secessionist parties would recede.

If that happened, the thinking went, the future would be clear. Afraid to face new elections amid his own declining support, Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the center-left PSOE party—the second group in parliament with 90 of the 350 seats—would feel obliged to tragarse el sapo (make a painful decision; literally, “swallow the frog”) and allow the re-election of current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the arch-rival center-right Partido Popular (PP), which controls 123 seats. And Spain would return to its regular programming.

The deal in Catalonia has killed that potential scenario.

Now, the independence movement in Catalonia does not have majority support. In September regional elections, the two secessionist groups received just short of 48% of the vote (or, viewed more broadly, the support of 36% of the electorate). That’s not enough to claim a mandate for secession. But because of election rules, the parties received 72 of the 135 seats in Catalonia’s parliament. With seats in hand and no government in Madrid, the opportunity was too good to let percentages stand in the way. And so, on Sunday evening, new Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont declared that his government was embarking on an 18-month roadmap to a Catalan republic.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Tensions have risen in recent years in part because Prime Minister Rajoy and the PP have exhibited a mix of antipathy towards the regional government and an almost pathological inability to address the Catalan issue openly. When the region negotiated an autonomy statute with the government of Prime Minister Zapatero in 2006, Rajoy and his party responded by appealing—successfully—to have Spain’s Constitutional Court strike down large parts of it. He did the same when the Catalan government tried to hold a regional referendum-opinion poll on independence in 2014.

These moves made Rajoy’s later suggestion that the Catalan government should stop complaining and seek more autonomy through constitutional reform—which would have required support from the PP—seem disingenuous, to put it mildly.

Rajoy’s strategy has inflamed tensions. While, by all measurements, most Catalans do not support secession, a clear majority wants more regional autonomy and the right to be heard. As a Catalan friend—who is no fan of secession—asked me recently, “Why are they so afraid of a referendum?”

Faced with the increasing possibility of a political train wreck, Spanish intellectuals have floated solutions. Political scientist Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University, has pushed for a two-step process of constitutional reform, then referendum.

First, Spain’s Parliament would negotiate a constitutional reform that would give more powers to the nation’s regions, and Spanish voters as a whole would vote on it. If the reform passed nationally and in Catalonia, the issue would be considered closed. But if the reform failed, or if it passed nationally but a majority of Catalans voted against it, Catalonia would go to the polls and vote on a binding referendum with a clear question (in or out), a high threshold (half the electorate, as a proxy for a true majority), and limited repeatability (no sooner than 10 years).

While this may seem logical, it does not benefit those who are currently in power. The PP appeals to its core conservative supporters as a defender of national sovereignty. And the best, albeit small, chance that Catalan secession parties have for independence lies not in negotiation but in taking provocative steps—by creating an independent tax authority, for example—that could inspire the central government to respond with heavy-handed measures, such as eliminating the region’s self-government powers, that might move the international community to get involved.

There are obstacles beyond the political. Constitutional reform requires an ample majority in both the Parliament and the Senate, which means that the PP would have to be somehow convinced, however grudgingly, to let it pass. But it is worth the effort. While another 18 months of inflexible standoff probably won’t lead to independence for Catalonia, it will almost certainly lead to more bitterness, recrimination, and pain.

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