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Catalonia Update: July 2015

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Two recent polls report that support for Catalan independence is waning in Spain’s prickliest region. A survey commissioned by El País[1] indicates that 63% of Catalans view independence as unlikely. Meanwhile, another separate poll commissioned by La Razón[2] shows the pro-independence unity party Junts pel Sí with only 39.5% of expected vote. This would appear to signify a precipitous dampening of enthusiasm over the past few months, but both polls suffer from potential flaws that raise questions about their interpretive and their impartiality.

The El País poll, conducted by Metroscopia, bases its entire premise on the answer to the first question: “Is the independence of Catalonia possible in the near or distant future or is it unlikely ever to occur?” to which 63% of Catalan respondents expressed their belief that it was not likely to occur. From that single response, the authors draw their conclusions. But the rest of the questions paint a very different picture:

  • 60% of Catalans believe it is too late to prevent a rupture between Spain and Catalonia;
  • 47% of Catalans believe independence will benefit Catalonia versus 39% who think it will be detrimental, and 14% who do not know;
  • 55% of Catalans believe they have a right to decide by themselves, unilaterally, whether they should remain part of Spain or not.

elpais1

The inference to draw from these responses is that the Catalans polled believe independence for their region would be beneficial to them; further believe they have the right to decide their status democratically; don’t believe a negotiated solution to retain the status quo is possible, but also view independence as an unlikely proposition. Significantly, the poll did not come out and ask the obvious question: “do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?”

The poll also suffers from small sample size: only 160 respondents in Catalonia versus 1,000 interviews in the rest of Spain. Metroscopia thus introduces a whopping +/- 8% margin of error, which makes the poll results essentially useless. Furthermore, no demographic information on the Catalan respondents is provided beyond the bare fact that they were older than 18 years old and willing to be interviewed by telephone. Curiously, when the poll lists “potential voters for” the only parties listed are the Partido Popular, the Socialists, Podemos and Ciutadens. That doesn’t mean that no one from the other parties participated, but it does mean that Metroscopia/El País elected not to give the break out of their responses to the final two questions. At the very least, that is misleading; at worst it is purposefully deceptive.

elpais2

Finally, it is significant to point out that while more than half of the Catalans polled would support a constitutional reform that establishes a federal state in Spain as a solution to the current impasse, a similar percentage of the Spaniards polled reject that option.

The second poll, conducted by NC Report for La Razón, exhibits similar deficiencies in presentation. Telephone interviews – with the known bias this introduces – and a forced distribution by age and gender; no other demographic data is available on the 1,255 respondents. Part of the difficulty arises from the radical change to the Catalan political landscape since the last election. Old parties have split and new parties have formed; before going into the voter intention poll, it is worthwhile to review these:

  • The governing party, Convergencia i Unió has split into its constituent elements, CDC and Unió;
  • CDC has agreed to join a united pro-independence list called Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”);
  • ERC has also joined Junts pel Sí, and will not stand in the September 27th election on its own;
  • ICV-EUiA (the Left-Green party), Podemos and Ada Colau’s Barcelona en Comú have agreed to form their own united list called Catalunya Sí Que És Pot (“Catalonia, Yes It is Possible”);
  • CUP (Popular Unity Candidates) will present itself as Crida Constituent, but is still essentially CUP (so don’t be confused by the new name);

So of the seven political formations that won seats in the last regional elections, only three remain:

  • PPC, the Partido Popular Catalán;
  • PSC-PSOE, the Partido Socialista Catalán; and,
  • Ciutadens, the Citizens party of Albert Rivera;
  • Unió will also stand for election, but independently[3].

lavanguardia1

La Razón reports that the Junts pel Sí formation polled only 35.8% of voter intention versus the approximately 45.1% that CiU and ERC received during the 2012 regional elections. Part of this can obviously be explained by the defection of Unió (4.6%). The 5% difference appears to have gone mostly to Catalunya Sí Que És Pot. La Razón concludes that independence is nowhere near winning a majority of votes.

larazon1

That argument is deceptive, however, when we align the parties according to their stance on independence:

votersplit

CUP has always indicated its stance in favor of independence for Catalonia, which brings raises support to 40%. Sí Que És Pots and the Socialists are together 25% of the people polled and both have been very ambivalent on the subject. PSC legislators have, in the past, broken ranks with the official PSOE position; while Sí Que És Pots has declared itself against a unilateral declaration of independence but in favor of a Catalan Republic[4]…a position which is somewhat difficult to reconcile with reality. It is difficult to know precisely what might happen if Junts pel Sí brought about a vote in the Catalan Parliament on a unilateral declaration of independence, but if two thirds of the PSC candidates voted “no” and two thirds of the Sí Que És Pots voted “yes” then the declaration would be approved by a 54-46 margin:

votersplit2

The eruption of Podemos and its affiliates on the political scene has certainly complicated the dynamics of Catalan politics; but it was never true that Catalan politics revolved only around independence. Perhaps that is the view from Madrid; but Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau can in favor of a Catalan Republic while still being against Artur Mas: the is a ideological dimension that cannot be ignored that makes this stance perfectly logical. The regions politics will continue to evolve over time, and it is very easy to conceive of a new alignment between Sí Que És Pot, CUP and Esquerra Republicana to form a strong leftist coalition that rejects both the centralism of the Socialists and the center right ideology of CDC.

In any case, the methodological and interpretive biases make these polls of dubious value. They appear to continue the practices of recent polls across Europe with atrocious results: the recent Greek referendum, the run-up to the Spanish municipal elections, and the Scottish referendum. Such consistency in error points to systematic errors in the statistical methodology used. The most likely reason is ideological: pollsters are getting the results they want to get, rather than seeking truly representative samples. This sort of cherry-picking is very likely influenced by governments – especially in Spain, where two media conglomerates dominate the national viewership, they pay for the polls; and are heavily dependent on the central government for their revenues. Governments have caught on to the usefulness of polls to not only gauge public opinion, but to shape it as well. Though there are still many reputable, independent polling agencies in the market, many of them have become mere tools; one more method of propaganda; Pravda with statistics.

The real question will come later, on 28 September. What will Catalans do if and when Spain refuses to negotiate? What will they do if and when the Spanish Justice Minister orders the Mossos d’Escuadra to arrest secessionists in the Catalan Parliament? What will they do if and when the CNP and Guardia Civil are given the same orders because the Mossos refuse to obey it? Upon the answers to these questions depends the possibility of bloodshed and civil strife. The Partido Popular has used its absolute majority in the Spanish legislature to vote itself a set of highly repressive and unconstitutional tools to suppress any attempt by Catalans to break away:

  • Spain’s new National Security Law (NSL) gives broad, extra-Constitutional powers to the Executive to deal with any contingency that it feels threatens “the national interest”. It is written broadly enough that it could be used for anything, including mass public gatherings or strikes. It is Spain’s PATRiOT Act: pre-authorizing any abuse the Executive sees fit to undertake without the usual requirement to seek a verdict first from the Constitutional Court. God help the Partido Popular if Podemos wins the next election…they will have handed them a very convenient tool;
  • The NSL reinforces the infamous “Citizen Security Reform” recently approved with only the votes of the Popular legislators. This reform also criminalizes all manner of constitutionally protected rights, including freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and the right of due process. The sanctions and fines, which range from 5,000 euros to 500,000 euros, can be imposed at the discretion of the police and without recourse or appeal to the already creaky Spanish judicial system. It is wholly appropriately dubbed “the Gag Law” by opponents;

These shenanigans would be bad enough in a state with a long democratic history and strong institutions, like the US – and there has certainly been an erosion of civil liberties at home – but in a nation with almost no democratic tradition to speak of, weak institutions, and decades of fascist rule within living memory, it is entirely nefarious. Catalan leaders would be taking an enormous gamble to simply assume the central government won’t use these powers that it has given itself; it would be criminal negligence on the part of Catalan civil authorities to proceed with a declaration of independence without considering and making proper provision for the worst case scenario. A “Plan B” is an absolute requirement.


Sources and Notes

[1] “El planteamiento soberanista de Cataluña,” El País, 26 July 2015

[2] V. Ruiz-Alejos, “Mas y Junqueras pierden 11 escaños tras anunciar su «lista unitaria»”, La Razón, 27 July 2015

[3] Technically they were present in the last elections, but as part of the CiU coalition.

[4] Iñaki Ellakuría, “La alianza de izquierdas se presenta con la “República catalana” como objetivo,” La Vanguardia, 19 July 2015

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