Saturday, November 20, 2010

Catalan elections: trouble for Spain's left?

With Catalonia going to the polls, the outcome is widely expected to cause Spain's socialist government yet another headache.

Spain has been one of the biggest casualties of the economic crisis. With unemployment at a staggering 20 per cent and no tangible signs of a steady recovery, not many are ready to bet on Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialist government - the last bastion of leftist administration amongst Europe's "big five" - to last until the end of its mandate in 2012.

And given the increasingly tense relationship between Madrid's central government and Catalonia, the situation is likely to be further complicated by the region's elections taking place next week.

For the past seven years, Spain's most influential autonomous region has been governed by a left-wing coalition known as Tripartit, an alliance between the Catalan Socialists (PSC), the Greens and radical separatist party Esquerra Republicana.

Their two consecutive election victories in 2003 and 2006, ensured that a progressive answer to the never-ending debate surrounding Catalan identity could finally be found. Or, if anything, that the issue could be at least temporarily held off.

Similar to Scotland, politics in Catalonia is centred around national identity. No matter the subject, the issue of the region's relationship with the rest of Spain will pop up within seconds.

And while Catalans are broadly split into Espanyolistas and Catalanistas, the latter camp is also divided into those advocating more autonomy and federalism (though still within "the Spanish State") and those calling for outright independence.

Amongst Catalan politicians, however, few would be ready to openly advocate separatism.

Artur Mas, leader of centre-right and pro-business Catalanist party Convergència i Unió (expected to storm to victory after today's vote), has turned ambiguity on the subject into an art, never spelling out exactly whether he supports independence or not.

Nor has he specified what level of autonomy and devolution of power would be enough to satisfy his party's particular brand of nationalism. He said he would vote 'yes' in a vote over independence, but he's also stated that - if in power - his party would not call for a referendum.

As for the Socialists, seven years of juggling between their radical Catalanist allies and their natural vocation as a Spanish party has clearly taken its toll.

They thought they'd cut it when their carefully drafted Estatut (Catalan Statute of Autonomy) was approved by popular vote in a 2006 referendum, but last summer's decision by Madrid's Constitutional Court to annul a number of articles relating to language, justice and fiscal policy pushed anti-Spanish suspicion to new heights. This, in a region where posters circulate that caricature "the Spanish State" into an incompetent array of sinister-looking generals, judges, taxmen, bullfighters and priests.

Many interpreted the Estatut fiasco as evidence that the Socialists' policy of promoting an España Plural can only lead to a blind alley.

Which is why opinion polls indicate a total collapse for the PSC. From their peak of 31 per cent in 2003, the Catalan Socialists are now expected to just about hit 20%, leaving a reinvigorated Convergència i Unió running for power on a Cameronite programme of severe cuts in local government, inheritance tax cuts for the rich and financial incentives to private healthcare.

As for the radical catalanists of Esquerra Republicana, with their "uncompromising" image shattered by seven years in power and a new party to their left set up by former FC Barcelona chairman Joan Laporta, they're expected to net 7 per cent only - half of all the votes they managed in 2006.

This may all sound like a nightmare for the Spanish left, but there are at least three reason not to feel too pessimistic.

For starters, analysts believe that the right are not benefitting from drop in consensus for left-wing parties. At just over 50 per cent, turnout is expected to be lower than in the past, suggesting that progressive voters are simply staying at home.

Secondly, it's a fact that many people who vote for catalanist parties at local or regional elections tend to support PSOE at national level. It happened in 2004 and again in 2008 - such is the dislike for the rabidly anti-catalan Partido Popular, that many Catalans are happy to still cast their ballot for the only party that will prevent the Spanish right from winning at national level.

Which bring us to the final point. In spite of a crisis of epic proportions and a government crumbling before their eyes, support for the Partido Popular in Catalonia remains low. The most recent polls give the PP at 10,3%, even lower than the measly 10,8% they managed four years ago.

True, Catalonia has never been their stronghold. But if they really want to return to power in Madrid, they'll have to do better than that.

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