Backing for a separate Catalan state fades

Oriol Junqueras, left, shakes hands with Artur Mas. Picture: Getty
Oriol Junqueras, left, shakes hands with Artur Mas. Picture: Getty
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EXACTLY a year ago an opinion poll carried out by the Catalan government showed 60 per cent in favour of independence. By December the figure had dropped to 44.5 per cent.

In fact, the pro-independence vote began to drop almost immediately after the unofficial referendum on 9 November. What is going on? Why has secessionist soufflé, which has been rising since 2012, suddenly began to subside?

“The soufflé appears to have sagged for the same reason that it appeared to have risen,” says Francesc de Carreras, who holds the chair of constitutional law at the Universitat Autònoma in Barcelona. “In both cases it’s a matter of appearances, not reality. The fact is the result of the 9 November poll was bad for the secessionists because it became plain that going on a demo is one thing but voting is another.”

In the wake of the referendum there was pressure on Catalan president Artur Mas to call a snap election as a single-issue sovereignty poll. Instead he called one for 27 September, buying time to try to outplay his rival Oriol Junqueras, leader of the Esquerra Republicana (ERC) party.

It doesn’t seem to be paying off. A poll published this week shows Mas’s CiU party winning only 31 seats compared with 50 in 2012 while ERC sees only a modest rise from 21 to 28. So where are the voters going? The surprise winner in this forecast is Ciutadans, a centre-right, anti-secessionist party that is tipped to go from nine seats in 2012 to 23, apparently scooping up traditional CiU voters who feel they have been dragged into the independence camp against their will.

“It’s a watershed moment,” says Susana Beltrán, vice president of Societat Civil Catalana, an umbrella group that gives a voice to those who wish to maintain the link with Spain. “The pro-independence parties led people to believe that gaining independence would be easy and quick and would solve a lot of problems. Now they’re disappointed and weary and… see that other problems, like health and education cuts, haven’t been resolved and that the parties calling for independence aren’t resolving them either.”

“We’ve reached an impasse,” admits Jordi Rull, co-ordinator of the Convergència party, “because the pro-independence parties couldn’t agree a unitary slate.”

At least now there may finally be a debate, says Beltrán, after two years in which anyone who voiced their dissent risked being branded a traitor.

“People have got sick of being told what they think, that we all think the same,” she says. “Now the opposition is finding its voice. People are … starting to see that it was never real, it was all a mirage.”

Another group that has found its voice recently is business. Empresaris de Catalunya (Catalonia Business People) claims to have 500 members. Its vice president, Pere Bou, says business people have been afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals or boycotts. He claims unemployment could reach 30 per cent in an independent Catalonia as it risks losing the ¤45 billion worth of business it does with the rest of Spain.

The exultant mood of the past two years, with mass demonstrations and independence apparently just around the corner, has faded.

Whatever the result, the September election won’t resolve anything and in the meantime other parties such as Podemos and Barcelona en Comú have arrived on the scene to remind people that they haven’t got jobs, that hospital waiting lists are getting longer and that Catalonia has some of the worst educational outcomes in Europe. The silver bullet of independence has lost some of its shine.

“What Mas hopes is that the elections won’t return a pro-independence majority,” says Carreras gloomily. “Then we can go back to where we were before: complaining, playing the victim and demanding constitutional reform.”