Wednesday 17 October 2018

Catalan result could ease crisis by forcing Madrid into rethink

ERC – ‘Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya’ (or Republican Left of Catalonia) – supporters watch polls results of the Catalan regional election in Barcelona on Thursday. Photo: Getty Images
ERC – ‘Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya’ (or Republican Left of Catalonia) – supporters watch polls results of the Catalan regional election in Barcelona on Thursday. Photo: Getty Images

Dorcha Lee

Against the odds, the pro-independence parties have successfully held onto their majority in the Catalan regional election. In calling, and losing, the election, Madrid has failed demonstrably to put the independence genie back in its bottle.

Unlike the referendum, this time Catalan unionists voted in big numbers, and the overall turnout was 82pc. However, there was no evidence of a major shift in public opinion between the pro-independence and unionist blocks. The main change is in the unionist parties, where the centrist Ciudadanos Party emerged as the largest in the next parliament. The Popular Party, of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, was reduced to only four seats in the 135-seat chamber.

It is hard to believe that it is only four months since the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils. The aftermath was well covered by RTÉ, with its numerous takes of the dignitaries leading the subsequent public protests and ceremonies. In the front row there were repeated shots of the three most important personalities, the tall impressive King Felipe VI, an equally tall Rajoy, and the diminutive Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan regional government. The juxtaposition of two very tall men, and one much smaller, boyish-looking man, looked ominous. The imagery of David and Goliath came to mind. To make it worse, RTÉ's voice-overs, at the time, did not even mention Puigdemont's name. Perhaps it was just too difficult to pronounce.

Re-elected to the regional parliament, Puigdemont is still a fugitive in Brussels, facing an arrest warrant should he return to Spain. His vice-president, Oriol Junqueras, also re-elected, is in prison, and the remaining former regional cabinet members are slowly being entangled in the labyrinthine Spanish legal system. During the election campaign, Puigdemont appeared regularly on large TV screens at rallies of his supporters in Catalonia. Only last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan overturned a military coup with a mobile phone from the Anatolian backwoods. This year, Puigdemont, using satellite TV, has turned around what the nationalists call a "political coup" in Catalonia, from the heartland of the EU.

Last weekend, circles close to Puigdemont indicated he would return to Catalonia if he won on Thursday. If he is jailed on return, his seat in parliament is secured. Under the D'Hondt system, the next on the list takes his place.

Since the independence referendum, the mood among pro-independence supporters has gone through a roller coaster of emotions, from euphoria at the prospect of independence, to fear of an uncertain future. Many workers in enterprises with links to the central government were fearful of losing their jobs.

In a destabilising move, Madrid introduced legislation to facilitate Spanish banks, and companies, to relocate out from Catalonia to other regions of Spain. So far, more than 3,000 enterprises are reported to have moved their headquarters, on paper at least, in a blow to the Catalan economy that is both psychological and economic. Belatedly realising the impact on Catalan unionists, Rajoy invited the enterprises to return to Catalonia, and offered tax incentives.

Fear was also apparent in the pro-independence media. While Madrid has not closed down, or directly imposed its control on Catalan media, fear has led to a degree of self-censorship not seen in Spain since Franco's time.

However, the elections present an opportunity to ease the crisis. By regaining its majority in the parliament, the pro-independence parties have a fresh mandate, and a strengthened claim, to open a dialogue with Madrid.

Madrid will have to rethink its direct rule strategy, and reconsider the scope of the proposed reform of the Spanish constitution. The nationalists need to win over the 'soft' unionist vote, and perhaps slow down the rush to independence. No one wants to see a divided Catalonia.

WHAT foreign commentators often miss in this crisis is the deep intensity of feelings aroused by the bid for independence. During the campaign, Puigdemont repeatedly found it necessary to call on pro-independence supporters to tone down the rhetoric directed against their unionist compatriots. Moreover, in recent months, the increased outpouring of venom from some websites, and Twitter accounts, was particularly vicious.

This observer received a tweet from a Spanish contributor, under her own name. She called for the suppression of the Catalan language, the destruction of Catalan culture and the annihilation of the Catalan people.

On a lighter note, Dublin City Council has finally agreed to fly the Catalan Independence flag, the Estelada, from City Hall. It will fly for a period of one month, just as soon as repair works are completed on the rooftop flagpole. There are no plans (at least not yet) to offer the Catalan president the Freedom of the City.

  • Colonel Dorcha Lee (retd) is co-author of "Politica de Defensa I Estat Propi", a study on a possible defence policy for an independent Catalonia

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