Catalan president Artur Mas promised to call a snap election – not due until next year – after a referendum on 9 November was ruled illegal by Spain’s constitutional court. Mas said the election would be “a plebiscite on independence”.
Mas originally planned to hold the vote in March, but realising his CiU party would be trounced by its left-wing Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left) rival, he called on all pro-independence parties to shelve their differences and stand on a united slate.
Esquerra leader Oriol Junqueras declined but came under pressure to maintain national unity. Outflanked and outplayed by Mas, he has accepted the compromise of a September poll. There will be no joint slate but candidates will stand on an as-yet-to-be-defined “road map for independence”.
The news of the poll has been received with little more than a shrug by ordinary Catalans, many of whom see what began as a popular movement being hijacked by the political old guard.
“The parties haven’t reached this agreement for the good of Catalonia but for certain people whose only goal is to continue their wealthy lifestyle,” said Juan Sada Vidal from Barcelona.
Marc, also from Barcelona, said that “Mas is playing this game with Junqueras rather than admit what everyone knows, that he has little commitment to Catalonia.
“This is the second time he’s brought forward elections in order to stand as president.”
Not everyone agrees.
“The government has taken the reins of the popular movement because it has listened to the people,” says Nuria Ruiz Soto from Vilafranca del Penedes.
“Now’s the time for politicians to reach an agreement. The people have already taken to the streets, now the politicians are or should be their voice.”
Mas says he has postponed the poll until September in order to have time to set up parallel institutions, such as a Catalan inland revenue department.
Meanwhile, Junqueras insists there will be a unilateral declaration of independence in 2016, despite polls showing only half the population is in favour.
Curiously, since the unofficial referendum on 9 November when a huge majority of those who took part voted for independence, polls show support for secession down by around 4 per cent. Aside from buying time, it is difficult to see what the elections will achieve as the 2012 poll, also billed as a plebiscite on independence, resulted in a pro-independence parliamentary majority.
Some commentators believe Mas fears a March election would benefit Podemos, Spain’s new left-leaning party which is ripping up all the old political certainties. Podemos (“We can”) has put social issues back on a Catalan political agenda which for over two years has been dominated by the sovereignty issue and is scooping up votes from the hapless socialist party. Mas may believe Podemos’ star will fade by September.
“Both CiU and Esquerra understand it would be best if Syriza wins in Greece which will give the catastrophists time to remind us what a disaster Podemos will be,” wrote Salvador Sostres in the El Mundo newspaper.
Meantime, the Socialists and CiU, who have run Barcelona for the past 35 years, may be usurped in the May local elections by Guanyem Barcelona (“Let’s win back Barcelona”) a new party which, like Podemos, is anti-austerity and focuses on social issues while being agnostic on secession.
Gunayem supporters claim that, behind the independence flag-waving, the Catalan government has been implementing massive cuts in public services and privatising the health service by stealth.
Spanish president Mariano Rajoy said the decision to bring the elections forward was “evidence of a failed policy that has only served to create instability and uncertainty” .His deputy Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said: “The worrying thing is they’re going to spend eight months on this when what’s needed is to work for an economic recovery.” She added that “Mas is calling elections because he’s incapable of governing”.
Mas is at best a reluctant secessionist, forced into backing independence by popular demand. He now gives the impression of someone whipping the horses to gallop while trying to rein them in.