President of the Catalan Generalitat, Artur Mas, announced yesterday during a press conference that his government would call off the November 9th consultation in the light of the precautionary suspension imposed by the Constitutional Court. In his statement, the Catalan president declared:
“The Government still has the intention of holding a consultation on 9N.
The Government of Catalonia will put out ballot boxes and people will be able to vote on 9N. Our intention was to have the consultation in accordance with the signed decree, but that is not going to be possible.”
This statement is extremely confusing. After all, what the Consultation Law signed by Mr. Mas on the 27th of September called for was a non-binding consultation of voters on the question of: 1. whether Catalonia should be a state; and 2. whether Catalonia should be a state independent of Spain. What does Mr. Mas mean? That the consultation will now be even more non-binding? Or that it will not be about independence at all?
Mr. Mas further then muddied the waters:
“The consultation on 9N is the consultation prior to the definitive one. The (new) consultation on 9N cannot be considered the definitive consultation because this can only be done through elections that the parties will transform into a de facto referendum.
Trying to apply the (Consultation) Law is to renounce the consultation…since we want to have it, we have to find another way. The greatest guarantees are offered by elections converted into a referendum. This is the only means of having the definitive consultation.”
Mr. Mas explained that the government planned to call upon volunteers – some 20,000 – to man the ballot boxes, which would be in public buildings of the Generalitat and organized with the help of the 900 municipalities that had already offered their support in September for the previous consultation law. Voters would have to register on the day of the consultation using their national identity cards, and the questions asked would be the same as had been previously indicated.
What has changed? On the surface, not much: the consultation was always going to be non-binding one, at least legally. The main difference appears to be:
- The Catalan government isn’t going to apply all the organs of the state in a massive effort to get out the vote and ensure the widest possible coverage of the territory. The key here appears to be the reliance on volunteers and municipalities, rather than public employees and funds: so there will be far fewer ballot boxes than in an officially approved election or consultation, for example.
- There will be no mass advertising, unless private individuals are willing to pay for it, ad citizens will have to motivate an inform themselves. Private civic groups, like Omnium and the ANC, will be relied upon to provide much of the needed details on times, locations and proof-of-identity requirements;
- Mas referred to the use of pre-existing legal mechanisms to allow this new consultation to take place; this implies public opinion surveys, which are permitted by both the Spanish constitution and Catalan law without reference or prior authorization of the Spanish legislature. This inference is further supported by Mr. Mas’ confusing terminology of “the consultation prior to the definitive consultation”.
All of this hemming and hawing has come in the wake of three intense “summits” held by the leadership of the pro-consultation parties after the Constitutional Court agreed to hear the government’s case against the Consultation Law and issued the precautionary suspension. After the first summit, Mr. Mas announced that the “official” consultation would go forward come hell or high water; things have gone pear-shaped for the Catalans since then. The central government has threatened legal action, including criminal charges, for leaders of the Generalitat who failed to obey the suspension order.
Mr. Mas declared in the press conference that the Generalitat was not taking a single step back. But as my brothers-in-arms in the US Marines would say, he has executed an “about face” and charged in the opposite direction.
Common Sense Analysis
To use a very sophisticated sociological expression, Mr. Mas has blinked. Whatever was promised in terms of continuing with the consultation is doublespeak: the consultation is now nothing more than a large, voluntary survey in the style of the Veneto online survey held earlier in the year. It will confer no democratic legitimacy whatsoever, any more than the multitude of public surveys held by the CEO or CIS would. Everyone in the press room understood this to be the case; the government in Madrid understood it; and the President’s “former” political allies understood all too well. Immediately after the press conference, the most hardline secessionist party, Esquerra Republicana, went into a closed door session and there were very cloudy faces to be seen there.
The Catalan public seems to agree. Although it is very early for a definitive reaction, an ongoing online survey of La Vanguardia readers shows 60% of the responders disapproving of the “consultation light” proposed by Mr. Mas, out of 26,322 responders. Early days: but as people have a chance to think through the implications of the new policy, and if the unity of the Catalan pro-consultation parties remains broken, expect public opinion in Catalonia to turn increasingly against Mr. Mas.
What has happened to change Mr. Mas’ mind? The most immediate and most obvious explanation is that the negotiation between the pro-consultation parties has broken down definitively over the issue of a joint list for any future elections. It is here that the difference between “pro-consultation” and “pro-independence” because critical to understand: they are not interchangeable. ERC, CUP and ICV-EUiA are pro-independence and support the consultation as the most pragmatic way to achieve that end. The governing party, Convergencia I Unió (CiU) was never a pro-independence party, and only became “pro-consultation” after they were trounced in the November 2012 regional elections by ERC. For them, the consultation is the end.
Mr. Mas and CiU face an intractable political problem: if they don’t support the consultation, they will be gobbled up by ERC and fade into irrelevance. If they DO support the consultation, they will still probably lose electorally against an ERC with better independence credentials: assuming they don’t all end up in jail. The solution that Mr. Mas has pursued has been to support the consultation as the only means of keeping his party relevant while attempting to negotiate a “unified front” of all the nationalist parties for any upcoming election. While stress the need for unity against the “common enemy” – which is how Mr. Mas has referred to the Spanish state – what CiU actually hopes to achieve is to lock in the current distribution of seats in Parliament. In other words, a joint list would maintain the current balance of power, with CiU narrowly in front of ERC and with CUP and ICV as distant partners.
It is my guess that the three party summits that were held were about establishing this formula, not about whether to defy the Constitutional Court’s suspension. Remember: Mr. Mas had already declared that the consultation would go forward even AFTER the suspension on the 29th. Here is how I think it played out:
- Mas signs the Consultation Law which had been overwhelmingly approved by the Catalan Parliament;
- The Spanish government declares the law to be in violation of the Spanish constitution and asks the Constitutional Court for a ruling;
- The Constitutional Court, with unheard of alacrity, agrees to hear the government’s case and orders a precautionary suspension of all activities related to the consultation, as well as to the consultation itself;
These first three points are public knowledge, now I enter into the realm of speculation:
- The pro-consultation parties hold their first summit on the evening of the 29th of September during which they decide whether or not to defy the court order. ERC, CUP and ICV all push for a continued organization of the consultation; CiU agrees but only if the others agree to a united front in the next elections. The other parties agree in principle and Mr. Mas comes out on the 30th announcing the continued organization of the consultation;
- The Spanish government begins to issue direct threats of legal action and criminal charges against public officials who continue in defiance of the Court’s suspension order;
- The pro-consultation parties hold a second and a third summit. My guess is that these summits were held to decide upon the specific formula to be used to in apportioning power within the joint candidacy list. CiU probably pushed for maintenance of the current distribution of seats in Parliament; ERC probably pushed for equality with CiU. It might have come down to individuals: Mr. Mas demanded that he head the list, while Mr. Junqueras fancied his own leadership of the united front.There might also have been an argument over the exact platform: ERC might have demanded an immediate declaration of independence, while CiU might have demanded scope for negotiation with the Spanish government over a possible federalist solution – the famous “third way” which is what CiU has always desired, not independence.
- Upon this Scylla and Charybdis, the negotiations broke down. Neither party ceded in their core demands; so Mr. Mas determined that a continuation of the consultation as written in the Consultation Law was simply too risky for himself and his party.
There is also the possibility that the threats of legal action and criminal prosecution worked. It is Mr. Mas and his party that stand, initially, to go to jail for contempt since they are in the government – meanwhile, Mr. Junqueras, ERC and the other pro-consultation parties are out of the immediate firing line since they have no executive responsibility at this point. There is also the possibility of even more direct threats being transmitted behind closed doors to Mr. Mas, threats of direct police intervention in Catalonia should he proceed with the unauthorized consultation.
These threats are nothing new and have been aired in public before now: but a private threat is often more believable and it is possible that Mr. Mas was given sufficiently weighty evidence to conclude that it was not a bluff. Perhaps the message came not from the government itself, but from the leader of the Spanish Socialist party, Pedro Sánchez; a guarantee that the Socialists would unite with the Populares to back any police action these might order. Or perhaps it came from Albert Batlle, the new Director-General of the Mossos d’Esquadra, Catalonia’s regional police force: “we’ve been told that if you don’t back off the consultation, we’ll be ordered into our barracks on the 8th of November as the Guardia Civil comes through to arrest the lot of you.”
The current opinion poll promised by Mr. Mas – I’m not going to refer to it as a consultation anymore because it isn’t – is nothing more than a face-saving maneuver. 5th Marines might say “Retreat, hell!” but there is no disguising this retrograde movement even with the best of good will; and there isn’t much of that going around.
How does the situation evolve from here? In my “End Game Scenarios” published last April, I presented a number of alternatives. Up until yesterday, the Catalans were following the path of Scenario 3, an unauthorized referendum held in defiance of Madrid’s prohibition. Mr. Mas has now backed off of that. What he is proposing is closer to Scenario 2 (the “Veneto Scenario”) which is nothing more than a large opinion poll and neither binding nor particularly legitimate. However, what is most likely to happen now is Scenario 4, a de facto referendum covered by an election campaign:
For one thing, I do not think that even Mr. Mas’ “very large survey” is going to take place on the 9th of November. The 9th will come and go without anything newsworthy taking place, except of course the omission of a consultation. So long as the poll, survey – whatever you wish to call it – includes the word “independence”, the Spanish government will block it, by fair means or foul. The new Justice Minister, Rafael Catalá, has already stated that the government is studying this new proposal by the Catalan President to determine whether it is admissible or not (it won’t be).
Even if the poll goes forward as per scenario 2, the business does not end there. It will inevitably revolve around the next elections, which in Catalonia are scheduled for no later than November 2016. At this point, I believe that it is highly unlikely that there will be snap elections in Catalonia: Artur Mas has committed the next thing to political suicide by calling off the consultation, and it will only get worse for him when he is forced to call off the “consultation light” in the near future as well. Mr. Mas must also avoid a rupture within his own party, which is composed of the Unió faction lead by M. Duran i Lleida, who is even less pro-consultation than Mr. Mas, and his own Convergencia faction.
Mr. Mas and CiU have only two hopes for survival:
- Negotiate a favorable deal with ERC to head a united front list in 2016; or,
- Negotiate a favorable deal with the Spanish government granting some greater degree of devolved powers to Catalonia, especially fiscal powers, prior to the 2016 election.
Both possibilities would seem like whistling in the wind. If ERC wasn’t willing to make concessions to CiU on a united front prior to Mr. Mas cutting his own throat yesterday, why would they do so now? They are going to get a big boost in the polls as all of the pro-consultation and pro-independence CiU voters now flock to Esquerra as the only alternative. So far, Mr. Junqueras has agreed to support the “new consultation” proposed by the Catalan President, but this is most likely window-dressing, and a necessary show of “Catalan solidarity”: Mr. Junqueras is convinced that the only way forward is elections, an ERC victory, followed by a unilateral declaration of independence.
Nor is the Partido Popular going to negotiate anything at all with Mr. Mas: as well expect the fisherman to take pity on the fish. The Partido Popular has decided to follow the hardline approach of the Aznar faction, which is utterly against providing Catalonia with so much as a loaned pencil much less greater fiscal autonomy.
Yet Mr. Mas has one slim hope: Spain has a general election in 2015, prior to the Catalan Parliamentary election. If the insurgent party Podemos were to do well enough to come out first or even second in the voting, there is the possibility that the next Spanish government might be a coalition of leftwing parties: Podemos, IU and whatever is left of the Spanish Socialist Party by then. Such a government might very well be willing to negotiate a new constitutional arrangement with the Catalans, which is precisely what CiU has always desired and pretty much the only thing that could save their political existence.
How likely is this scenario? That is very difficult to judge. Podemos is not a flash in the pan: its support continues to grow with each corruption scandal that is revealed. Given the thorough rot in every political institution in Spain, that is not going to change. Nor is the economic situation likely to improve; with Europe again in the doldrums, Spain will be lucky to avoid a triple dip recession in 2015.
The most likely scenario is one in which the Partido Popular remains the most voted party, but without an absolute majority. Everything will then depend on how well the PSOE does: at the end of the day, the Populares and the Socialists are the two parties that gain the most from the current electoral system and a “grand alliance” against Podemos is very likely. If the Partido Popular and Partido Socialista together make up 50%+1 of the legislature, then I would expect an alliance between the two of them with the Socialists as junior partners. In this scenario, there will be no negotiation with President Mas.
If on the other hand, the Populares + Socialists do not equal 50%+1, then the door opens for a Podemos + IU + nationalist party alliance, which might or might not include the diminished Socialists. In this scenario, even though the Populares won the popular vote, they are not able to form a government and move back into opposition. Assuming Podemos are the senior partners, the door opens for a negotiation between the new government and the Generalitat. Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, desperately desires to reform the Spanish Constitution on a number of measures, such as ditching the monarchy. So does Izquierda Unida; and for that matter, many Socialists would support it as well. If they’re going to have constitutional reform, they will probably be willing to include a new deal for the Catalans to keep them in the union. It won’t make ERC happy, but ERC will not be able to block the negotiation nor the passage of a reform package, which would have to go to referendum across Spain. Additionally, if the reforms do eventually include abolishing the monarchy and establishing a Third Spanish Republic, at least some of the rank-and-file of Esquerra Republicana would be willing to back it over the uncertainties of independence.
This is nonetheless a very long shot; and it is entirely possible that Catalonia will hold their elections in November 2016 before a hypothetical new Podemos government could hammer out a constitutional reform package in the 11 months prior to that date. That means that Esquerra might still win the elections and have a sufficiently large block to declare independence unilaterally; but that sort of analysis is pure speculation and there will be plenty of opportunities to review the possible outcomes in 2015 and 2016.
In the meanwhile, Spain will continue to experience political instability and investor uncertainty which will have an effect on the economy, though probably not a large one.
The Spanish government has clearly and indisputably won a point yesterday, but the game is not yet over. Whatever satisfaction the Populares might derive from watching their adversary squirm as he politically self-destructs ought to be tempered by the thought that what comes afterwards might be worse (from their point of view). Mr. Mas was prescient when he addressed Prime Minister Rajoy directly in his press conference: “Sometimes excellent news only lasts a few hours.” Destroying Mr. Mas ushers in the real possibility of an Esquerra Republicana majority in the next Catalan legislature, whenever that may be. And if Esquerra wins, barring miracles, Catalonia will declare independence unilaterally.
And then the Guardias Civiles.
Sources and Notes:
 ‘El Govern de Catalunya mantiene la intención de hacer la consulta el 9N. El Govern de Catalunya pondrá urnas y la gente podrá votar el 9N. Nuestra intención era hacer la consulta del 9N de acuerdo al decreto aprobado, pero eso no va a poder ser así’ “La comparecencia de Mas, en frases,” La Vanguardia, 14 October 2014
 ‘La consulta del 9N es una consulta previa antes de la definitiva La consulta del 9N no se puede considerar la consulta definitiva porque ésta solamente se puede hacer a través de elecciones que los partidos transformen en referéndum de facto.’
‘Aplicar el decreto es renunciar a la consulta (…) como la queremos hacer hay que buscar otro camino. Las máximas garantías sólo las dan unas elecciones convertidas en referéndum. Es la única manera de hacer la consulta definitive.’ Ibid.
 Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió – part of the Catalan government
 Centro de Investigaciones Sociales – part of the Spanish government
 La Vanguardia is Catalonia’s leading daily newspaper with a print circulation of approximately 200,000 subscribers. It is generally considered to be a moderate and centrist in ideology.
 This percentage probably includes voters who are against ANY form of consultation, and therefore might be slightly more favorable to Mr. Mas. I don’t know what percentage of PPC voters read La Vanguardia as opposed to ABC.
 Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) and Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds – Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (ICV-EUiA)
 “El Govern nombra a Albert Batlle nuevo director de los Mossos d’Esquadra,” La Vanguardia, 10 June 2014
 “Catalá dice que si Mas realiza la misma pregunta en la consulta, se volverá a impugnar ante el TC,” La Vanguardia, 14 October 2014
 “UDC aboga por agotar la legislatura y rechaza una declaración unilateral de independencia,” La Vanguardia, 14 October 2014
 According to the Oxford dictionary, to whistle in the wind is “try unsuccessfully to influence something that cannot be changed.”
 “Junqueras ‘ayudará’ a la consulta alternativa aunque cree que ‘rompe la unidad’,” La Vanguardia, 14 October 2014
 “A veces las noticias excelentes sólo duran unas horas”, see note 1 and 2.