Why should you care about the Catalan elections?
From a foreigner’s perspective, Catalonia’s parliamentary elections may seem like a minor issue. Are elections in a country of 7.5 million people and a GDP of 234 billion euros important? It depends. It depends mainly on 3 factors: the powers and competences of the polity elected, if the elections end in a clear change of the political landscape and if the country’s elections will have an impact on its environment. All factors will very likely be present in the next Catalan elections, scheduled on Sunday the 28th of November. The Catalan Parliament and Catalan Government have many powers devolved, the Catalan political landscape will change and all this will have an impact on the rest of Spain, especially for the Spanish Government.
The legislative and executive powers are highly decentralised in Spain – not the judicial power, an issue that will deserve quite some thought. The Catalan Parliament is the one electing and dismissing the Catalan Government. Catalonia rules significant competences such as education, healthcare, social care, housing, police, prisons, and consumer rights, among many others. Catalonia rules them on its own, some with complete autonomy, others in coordination with the Spanish Government. Other competences are ruled at the Spanish level or by both levels, depending on concrete projects or areas (such as rail or road transportation). Therefore, for 7.5 million Catalans, the next elections are extremely important as everyday policies may change.
In fact, according to all the published polls so far, the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalist coalition, Convergència i Unió (CiU), will win the elections and will govern Catalonia. From an internal Catalan view, this change will bring an end to the first Left-Wing Government since the 1930s in Catalonia. It will also mean the return to power of the moderate Catalan nationalists, which already ruled Catalonia from 1980 to 2003. Finally, there will be a change of policies, as the CiU has already announced. Taking into account not only the demographic but the economic weight of Catalonia within Spain, changes in some of these policies may have an impact for the rest of Spain, because Catalonia represents 19% of Spain’s GDP and is its most industrialised part, with the 7th metropolitan area of Europe being Barcelona.
And here we are: the 3rd factor, the impact on the environment. Catalonia is not an independent state. Therefore, the Catalan elections will not have a direct effect on international relations – although more and more international relations answer to logics that independent nation’s governments have more difficulties to rule on. Catalonia’s environment is, firstly, the rest of Spain. The Catalan elections will definitely have an impact in the rest of Spain, from an economic but especially from a political point of view.
Four main issues should be stressed, all of them related to the future of Spain as a whole:
1. Prime Minister Zapatero won the 2004 and, especially, the 2008 elections thanks to the difference of seats he got in Catalonia in relation to the People’s Party (PP). However, polls point at a significant decrease of Socialist Party support. The behaviour of Socialist electors is different in the Catalan and Spanish elections; in the latter they get far more votes. However, if the Socialist Party loses a significant part of its support (and polls say it could get the worst results in the last 30 years), Zapatero will face the next Spanish elections (foreseen in 15 months) with a weakness that may be fatal for his interests.
2. The People’s Party (PP) is delivering a speech in Catalonia focusing on immigration and linking it to insecurity, as many other Right-Wing or extreme Right-Wing parties are doing in Europe. In Spain, there is no significant extreme Right-Wing party. It seems that the PP is trying to stop its appearance by using some of this ideology’s arguments. Catalonia seems to be PP’s lab. The PP is the 4th political force in Catalonia, with only 14 seats in the 135-seat Parliament. It does not have much to lose. If the PP gets better results in Catalonia, and polls say it may get 2 or 3 more seats, the conservatives may use the immigration card in the coming municipal and regional elections for the entire Spain, scheduled in 6 months, or against Zapatero in early 2012.
3. Zapatero has weak support in the Spanish Parliament. His Left-Wing allies have abandoned him after the deficit reduction measures and the labour reform. The Catalan nationalists of the CiU, which have 10 seats in the Spanish Parliament, would be extremely useful to pass new laws and measures to fight the economic crisis. In a context where Spain is at the centre of the “euro crisis” due to pressure of financial markets, Europe and the rest of the world should care about Zapatero’s capability to pass new reforms. If the CiU governs Catalonia and is not the opposition force against a Catalan Government lead by a Socialist any more, the CiU may be keener to agree with Zapatero. Traditionally, the CiU has played this card with Felipe Gonzalez and with José Maria Aznar, and on very punctual occasions with Zapatero.
4. The change in the Catalan political landscape can have an impact in the relations between Spain and Catalonia, and thus change Spain political structure. In fact, one of the main drives behind current Catalan politics is the relationship between Catalonia and Spain. Considering this as a mere Catalan issue would be a mistake. In Catalonia, there is a political majority that questions the current rapport between Spain and Catalonia, mainly pushing for 2 antagonist trends: some push for a federal Spain, others for Catalan independence or, at least, for the right to call for a self-determination referendum. This is the Catalan answer to the trimming of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy by the Spanish Constitutional Court at the end of last June. The current Spain of Autonomies could have its days counted, threatened by the clash of Catalan nationalism with Spanish nationalism, which exists, is extremely powerful, is coming back, has an aggressive history and is not getting enough attention.
Are the Catalan elections only affecting a corner of Spain?
Gaspar Pericay Coll
Journalist and Editor of the Catalan News Agency (www.catalannewsagency.com)