Catalan independence hangs in the balance

Readers will remember last year’s contrasting European referenda on independence: in Scotland, where a fully official vote turned down independence by a relatively narrow margin, and two months later in Catalonia, where an unofficial “consultation” returned a large majority for independence on a low turnout.

The Scottish vote settled the issue, at least for the time being. But the Catalan vote settled nothing, leaving a pro-independence regional government determined to push its agenda, facing a central government equally determined to stop it – and neither of them sure just how much public support it has.

While Madrid could stop the Catalans from having a proper referendum, it can’t stop them having an election, so the way forward was clear. At the beginning of this year Catalan premier Artur Mas announced that an early regional election would be held, which he promised to treat as a de facto vote on independence. He proceeded to put together a pro-independence coalition that he hoped could win a legislative majority.

The vote takes place on Sunday, and polls show that Mas’s goal is within sight. Running on a single ticket, called “Together for Yes”, are his centre-right Democratic Union Convergence of Catalonia, the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia, a number of smaller parties and representatives of the grassroots citizens movement for independence. The radical left Popular Unity Candidates are running separately, but allied to the pro-independence strategy.

Between them, the independence forces have been polling in the mid- to high 40s (Wikipedia has a summary), enough to win between 60 and 70 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament (voting is D’Hondt proportional within each of four provinces). The anti-independence vote is split quite evenly between four groups: the centre-right People’s Party, the centrist Citizens, the centre-left Socialist Party and a radical left populist movement called Yes We Can.

It’s hard to imagine how the anti-independence groups could put together any sort of coherent coalition government, but at least if they win a majority between them it will be clear that independence is off the table for the time being. If Mas’s coalition wins a majority, however, the future is wide open.

If support for independence in Catalonia was overwhelming – say 75% or more, along the lines of East Timor – we know what would happen next. The pro-independence forces would win a large majority, and if Madrid remained intransigent they would proceed to unilaterally declare Catalan independence. With popular backing, they would quickly take control of most of the organs of state in Catalonia, and the Spanish government would be left with the choice of either negotiating or attempting a military conquest of rebel Catalonia.

In modern-day Europe the second alternative is unthinkable, so in effect independence would be a fait accompli. In a democracy, autonomy always gives the option of full independence if that’s what the population clearly demands, whatever the letter of the constitution says.

But that’s not the position in Catalonia: instead of being unequivocal on one side or the other, public opinion is fairly evenly divided. If the supporters of independence win a majority, it will be a narrow one, and that’s not enough cover to take into a major constitutional conflict.

Mas says that “If we get a clear and specific democratic mandate …, things will change.” No doubt they will, but the nature of the change remains fuzzy. The pro-independence forces have not ruled out a unilateral declaration, but their immediate goal is more modest: to get the central government to negotiate with a view to holding a proper binding referendum that would settle the issue – just as the Scots did.

But the Spanish government of prime minister Mariono Rajoy has never been very interested in negotiations, and with a national election approaching in December there is no prospect of it coming around any time soon. And if, as seems likely, no party wins a majority then, Catalan independence could easily become a political football in coalition negotiations.

While all of the national parties have opposed independence, Rajoy’s People’s Party has been particularly dismissive: he recently said “We are talking about regional elections, in which people will choose their regional parliament. Nothing else.” Mas and his allies might reasonably hope that a change in government in Madrid will bring a more conciliatory approach. And as the Scottish case showed, when given the chance and assured that their choice will be respected, people are quite capable of voting to stay put.

But first, to even get to that stage, the independence forces need to win on Sunday.

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