We use cookies to help improve and maintain our site. More information.

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.

Show Comments Write a Comment

November 12, 2019

A renaissance for minority governments?

Minority governments are notoriously difficult. It is true that, compared to coalition governments, they give parties more freedom and independence. On the other hand parliament majorities need more work and support can easily be withdrawn, which makes it a weapon of choice for the government's allies. 

Alexis Tsipras and Charles Michel had their experience with how difficult it is to survive or get anything done in such an environment. Both had to call snap elections before their terms were up, and subsequently lost at the polls. But there are successful minority governments, too. António Costa led one with the support of the Left Bloc and the Communists for a whole term. Elected with more votes for the second term, Costa is now likely to renew a support agreement with the Left Bloc. Only the Communists have suffered in the elections from backing the government. Costa named trust and ongoing communication as one of the key ingredients for this success.

Another example is Ireland, a clear expert in minority governments. Fifteen of its last 32 governments were minority governments, most of them formed by Fianna Fáil. The current Fine Gael minority government is backed in parliament by a support agreement with Fianna Fáil. The understanding between the two rival parties is that, once Brexit happens, the unloved agreement will lapse. The two leaders Varadkar and Micheál Martin seem to agree on an orderly wind-down of the four-year agreement. The only question is when an elections should happen. Varadkar wants elections to be held in May, while Martin is open to a date in April or May, the Irish Times reports. This is not much of a disagreement between the two leaders, even if some of their MPs are rumbling about it. As Martin put it: 

"I think we’ve demonstrated that Irish politics can be mature, unlike like what’s happening in Britain."

Let's hope this will continue when Brexit reality sets in, affecting the people and the economy along the border with Northern Ireland.

Show Comments Write a Comment

This is the public section of the Eurointelligence Professional Briefing, which focuses on the geopolitical aspects of our news coverage. It appears daily at 2pm CET. The full briefing, which appears at 9am CET, is only available to subscribers. Please click here for a free trial, and here for the Eurointelligence home page.


Recent News

  • November 11, 2019
  • Grand coalition agrees to continue grand coalition
  • Can Greens and conservatives agree on priorities?
  • Germany - self-content and without energy
  • November 08, 2019
  • Rethinking security - Macron edition
  • Rethinking defence - AKK edition
  • November 07, 2019
  • Merkel's Huawei decision now questioned by SPD
  • Decentralisation: the Achilles' heel of Macron?
  • November 06, 2019
  • Could the German coalition fall over the basis minimum pension? Quite possibly.
  • Philippe to present new immigration policies
  • The sharp edge of soft power
  • November 05, 2019
  • Grassroot movements and a new era of instability