A new Catalan headache

It’s fair to say that Pedro Sánchez has not had an easy run as prime minister of Spain. Even getting there was difficult; his Socialist Party seemed in a winning position after twin elections in 2015 and 2016, but it took an internal party brawl and a no-confidence motion before he finally took the top job in June 2018.

The following year his budget was rejected by parliament, leading to an early election in April 2019 and another one six months later after Sánchez failed to reach a coalition agreement with the far-left Podemos. The second time he succeeded, but his party had gone backwards at the second election and now also needed the support of most of the Basque and Catalan separatists.

He won over just enough of them, and last January parliament confirmed him in office with only one vote to spare, 167 to 165 with 18 abstentions. Then came Covid-19, with Spain one of the worst-hit European countries, recording so far more than 700,000 cases and more than 30,000 deaths.

There were other crises as well, including the disgrace and exile of ex-king Juan Carlos. So most of Sánchez’s agenda went on the back burner, including the promised talks with the separatist government of Catalonia – an attempt to find a solution to what had seemed, prior to the health crisis, the biggest thing Spain had to deal with for about the last five years.

The Catalans were at best wary towards Sánchez; his Socialists had supported the then centre-right government’s crackdown on Catalonia in 2017, although Podemos was more sympathetic. The centrist component of the Catalan independence movement, Together for Catalonia (JxCat), voted against Sanchez’s investiture in January, but the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) abstained; their continued tolerance is critical for his government’s survival.

Regional elections in July in Galicia and the Basque country didn’t help. Both saw big gains for separatist or autonomist parties – a good omen for the Catalans – and a collapse of the Podemos vote, from which the Socialists failed to benefit.

Now, with a second wave of the coronavirus raging and still no substantive talks with the Catalans, comes an additional headache. The Spanish Supreme Court on Monday upheld the disqualification of Catalan premier Joaquim Torra, forcing a government crisis in Catalonia that will almost certainly lead to an early regional election, possibly in February next year.

Torra’s offence was to have compromised official neutrality during last year’s (first) Spanish election campaign by displaying pro-independence banners on regional government buildings and defying an order of the electoral commission to remove them. For this he was disqualified from office for 18 months last December by the Catalan High Court, but he remained in place while his appeal proceeded.

Now he will be replaced on an acting basis by his deputy, Pere Aragonès, who is from the ERC – Torra is from JxCat, which has itself split between rival groups. In the circumstances there is no prospect of the regional parliament agreeing on a new government (it was difficult enough last time), so a fresh election seems inevitable.

Torra says that “The elections need to be a new plebiscite” on the question of independence, but of course that’s what the separatists said about the previous two regional elections: in 2015, following the unofficial “consultation” on independence, and in 2017, following the chaotic unauthorised referendum of that year. Both yielded inconclusive results; pro-independence forces took a narrow majority of seats each time, but on neither occasion actually won a majority of the vote.

The opinion polls suggest that the same thing could easily happen again. But it’s also possible that a backlash against Madrid’s interference will finally deliver the separatists the mandate that they seek. In that case, Sánchez’s chance of luring them into a compromise settlement will plummet.

It’s not the first time that Spain’s courts have shown their centralist leanings and made the Catalan issue more difficult than it need be – although certainly they are not the only culprits in that regard. But for Sánchez it’s just one more step in his extraordinary run of bad luck.

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