November 12, 2019
How the Catalan question poisoned Spanish politics
The resignation of Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos, yesterday morning was entirely predictable given the collapse of his party at Sunday's general elections. The liberal party went from 57 seats and under 16% of the vote in April to 10 seats and under 7% now. But the trajectory of Ciudadanos and Rivera himself over the past 14 years gives an opportunity to discuss a deeper matter, and that is how the Catalan issue, and the national question in general, have become the major driver of Spanish politics. The latest push for Catalan independence has contributed to gridlock in the Spanish parliament since 2016, political paralysis in Catalonia, and the recent rise of the far right.
Ciudadanos started life in 2005, not as a political party but as a civic manifesto by mostly left-leaning Catalan intellectuals in the orbit of the PSC, the Catalan sister party of the PSOE. This manifesto, Ciutadans de Catalunya, aimed to criticise the dominance of Catalan nationalist ideology from a Catalan cultural perspective. And it was a reaction to Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's support for the project to reform the Catalan autonomy statute. The manifesto quickly led to the formation of a Catalan political party, Ciutadans, which only really made the jump to the national level in late 2014 in reaction to the rise of Podemos on the left.
The reaction of the right to the Catalan statute was no less virulent. Not being in power, the PP took a different route to oppose Zapatero. They decided to use the judiciary. First they blocked the appointment of judges to the Constitutional Court, which at some point was at risk of losing its quorum. Then they lodged a complaint against the reformed Catalan statute before the Constitutional Court. This succeeded after the PP recused a Catalan judge from the Court for conflict of interest. But there was a problem with the Constitutional Court striking down parts of the Catalan statute of 2005: it had been approved not just by the Catalan and Spanish parliaments, but also in a referendum by the people of Catalonia.
And so this episode convinced a large proportion of the Catalan polity that they could no longer realise their national aspirations within the Spanish constitutional order. As early as 2009 there was the first grass-roots independence referendum in a small Catalan municipality. That ballooned over the years to the mess the region finds itself in. Meanwhile, the government of Mariano Rajoy decided the judicial strategy was the way to go and allowed the political problem to fester.
After the attempted secession two years ago there was a spectacular rise of Ciudadanos at the national level, as it capitalised on its position as the leading unionist party in Catalonia. When the PSOE ousted Rajoy with the political support of the Catalan nationalists, Ciudadanos started attacking the PSOE as an enemy of the Spanish state. After the April election, Rivera vetoed Sánchez as PM for precisely this reason.
The political discourse has become poisoned by the national question, with the PSOE basically waging the recent election campaign not on economic issues but on Catalonia and the transfer of the corpse of Francisco Franco to a private cemetery. And in the last year, with the backdrop of the trial of the leaders of the Catalan secession attempt, Vox has risen to replace Ciudadanos as the country's third-largest party. So, the seeds of much of what is going on today were sown in 2005, and the effects are likely to continue maybe for another fifteen years.