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Letter from Spain: Post-Election Imbroglio

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | January 26, 2016

This year my winter retreat in Gran Canaria coincides with an unprecedented political crisis in Spain which may herald some trouble for the Brussels-based superstate. More than a month has passed since the inconclusive general election on December 20. It has marked the end of the decades-long duopoly enjoyed by the center-right People’s Party (Partido Popular, PP) and the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE). The scene is rather exciting: many Spaniards feel that a long-standing arrangement has been broken by antiestablishmentarian newcomers.

Former, now acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s PP (in power since December 2011) still commands the largest bloc with 123 seats in the 350-seat Cortes; but it scored its worst result in 26 years, and the worst result ever recorded by a leading party. The Socialists, with 90 seats, fared more badly than at any time since their victory in the second post-Franco election in 1982. The new, leftist and Euroskeptic Podemos (“We can!”)—similar in rhetoric and policies to the Greek Syriza—came a close third with 20 percent of the vote and 69 mandates. Catalan-based Citizens (C’s) is represented for the first time with 40 seats. The writing already was on the wall at the time of the 2014 European Parliament election. Both duopoly parties suffered major losses, failing jointly for the first time to exceed 50 percent, while Podemos and the C’s—newcomers to the game—did remarkably well.

The two establishment parties had excluded the possibility of a grand coalition during the campaign, even though it is the preferred option for the business community (and the barely concealed preference of the EU regime in Brussels and Angela Merkel in Berlin, who is known to be horrified by Podemos). Last Friday Rajoy declined an offer by King Felipe VI to form a government, saying he did not have sufficient parliamentary support. Both PP and PSOE are aware that a grand coalition would look to the majority of Spaniards like an old boys’ ploy to keep power at a time when, for the first time after Franco, the EU’s third-largest country has moved from a two-party arrangement to a genuinely multiparty system.

A grand coalition is possible, but it would be tense and precarious. The big two parties’ punishment at a subsequent early election would be even more severe than that experienced last December. PSOE is loath to be Rajoy’s partner, in view of his hugely unpopular austerity packages (VAT went up from 18% to 21% four years ago), his de facto amnesty of tax evaders, and his government’s implication in corruption affairs (such as the crash of the Bankia banking conglomerate in 2012 and the Bárcenas affair a year later). Some PP leaders might be willing to consider the possibility, but Rajoy is heartily hated by the Socialist base who accuse him of kow-towing to the IMF and dismantling the Spanish welfare state. Other parties’ voters want a coalition of some sort, but without Rajoy. My local contacts are adamant that a grand coalition would be the duopoly’s short-lived swansong.

The era of bipartisanship, inaugurated in 1977, is over. This is good news for Spain and bad news for the European Union’s unelected clique of bureaucrats and social engineers. If there is no grand coalition, the options are either another election—which most Spaniards do not want—or a leftist, Euroskeptic coalition based on Podemos. Competing for the first time since its founding two years ago, Podemos commands one-fifth of the electorate; with 69 seats (together with its regional allies) and over five million votes, it is the strongest third party in Spain’s post-Francoist history. It would be hard pressed to join a coalition that would include the Socialists, however, as their leader Pedro Sanchez is loath to make deals with various nationalist and pro-independence parties from the Basque Country and Catalonia to gain a parliamentary majority. In addition, Greece’s abject capitulation to the EU—under an equally leftist, anti-austerity party last July—bodes ill for the Podemos leaders’ claim to credibility.

My prediction is that there will be another election in April, and that the two establishment parties will suffer further losses, or—at best—remain where they are. A Podemos-led coalition may emerge, and create problems for the EU/IMF dictated austerity dictates, but it will lack the ideological unity and a coherent plan of action to pull Spain out of its euro-dictated doldrums. Returning to the peso, making national decisions about interest and exchange rates, may be the answer—but the Left is not to be trusted, as the Greek example has shown.

The problem with Spain is that it does not have a patriotic, conservative and Euroskeptic party a la Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Franco’s decades in power have made it difficult for Spanish patriots who loath Brussels (and there are millions) to embrace the essence of his legacy—brave and healthy as it was—unapologetically and unequivocally. Spain is a mere shadow of its former might, but almost 80 years after the civil war that saved it from the horrors of communism it is almost as divided as it was in July 1936. The outcome is important because Spain is a key rampart of Europe—an antemurale christiansitatis—as the continent succumbs to the third Muslim invasion of Europe.

As for Catalonia, Spain’s most prosperous province, it is unlikely to make an all-out bid for independence in the near future. On January 15 the new Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont—who took his post just four days earlier—surprised both separatists and unitarists when he said that “we are standing between post-autonomy and pre-independence.” Puigdemont favors independence but he is a realist who is aware that political and legal obstacles are formidable. “Do we have enough strength to proclaim independence with the current parliamentary makeup?” he asked in a TV interview last week. “Not yet,” he declared, only days after replacing staunchly separatist Artur Mas at the helm of the Catalan government. “We will not make a unilateral declaration of independence. It is not on the program.”

Mas and his Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), which had ruled Catalonia continuously for 37 years, have been badly shaken by corruption scandals, arrests of several top officials of the party and several ongoing investigations. The new regional government says it intends “to prepare Catalonia to declare independence” 18 months from now, based on the motion passed by the regional assembly last November. This means that the Catalan issue will not dominate Spanish national politics in the immediate future. Puigdemont’s position—“We have the strength and democratic legitimacy to begin this road”—reflects the fact that Catalonia is a divided polity. Staunchly unionist parties are still strong (42 percent of the vote), while the pro-independence Junts pel Sí coalition and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) failed to obtain a majority of votes at the September 27 election (48 percent) even though they did gain parliamentary plurality.

Puigdemont hopes that pro-independence forces will achieve a majority once Catalans get their own constitution, one of the goals included in his 18-month “preparation period”: “The goal is to get a majority of the people who would have voted no at [last year’s non-binding, low turnout] referendum to vote yes to a constitution to which they can relate more closely than to the Spanish one.” He does not believe that Madrid will introduce reforms that would make the bid for independence unnecessary, but at the same time he says he is still open to “dialogue” with whatever central government emerges from the current imbroglio.

Catalonia is a stable and prosperous nation (20% of Spain’s GDP). Its 7.5 million people—more than medium-sized EU members like Denmark, Finland or Bulgaria, a little less than Austria—inhabit a clearly defined territory. They have a distinct language, history, traditions and culture dating back to the XIth century. This does not mean that the support for sovereign nationhood is as solid as its advocates claim, however. The prevailing sentiment is comparable to that in Scotland: long centuries of political, cultural and economic association with the center have created certain habits of thought and complex loyalties which are not easily broken. “Soft” separatism prevails: assertions of distinct cultural identity often fall short of the determined, Balkan-style separatism. 

In addition, there are pragmatic issues: would an independent Catalonia have to apply for the European Union membership and undergo the long and complex process of admittance? (Its pro-independence parties are strongly pro-European, but the answer from Brussels is discouraging.) How much of the massive Spanish public debt—currently in excess of €1,000bn ($1,1 billion)—would Catalonia have to inherit: 19 percent (its share of the county’s GDP), or 16 percent (its share of Spain’s population)? Would it need to leave the eurozone, and reapply for membership at some future date? The consequences of uncertainty could be detrimental to Catalonia’s still-vibrant economy, which is doing far better than the rest of Spain.

My Spanish friends are convinced that when push comes to shove most Catalans will opt for continued union with Spain, possibly with an increased level of political and fiscal autonomy. Unfortunately I lack good contacts in Barcelona and do not read Catalan, so I cannot make a reliable judgment on the course the new provincial government will take until the fall of 2017. What seems certain is that, compared to its predecessors, it will not be a disruptive force as Spain struggles to find its bearings after last month’s general election.

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