Financial Times


Last updated: November 10, 2014 6:49 pm

Unity of Catalan independence campaign faces political test

Tobias Buck in Barcelona

Pro-Independence Catalans gather in Barcelona last month ahead of the unofficial referendum©Getty

Pro-Independence Catalans gather in Barcelona last month ahead of the unofficial referendum

The voting in Catalonia is over. Now watch the political scheming begin.

Almost one in three Catalans – 2.3m according to the final result – took part in an informal poll on Sunday to say whether the northern Spanish region should be an independent country or not. The consultation went ahead in the face of protests from Madrid, and despite a ruling by Spain’s constitutional court to formally suspend the vote. With virtually all pro-union Catalans choosing to stay at home, it came as no surprise that more than 80 per cent of voters supported a break with Spain.

The days and weeks ahead are now likely to offer a distinct shift in tone inside the Catalan independence camp. Until now, political leaders in Barcelona have managed to largely paper over their differences, setting aside old rivalries in an effort to maintain a united front against Madrid. But with crucial decisions looming about where the campaign goes next, the ties that have held together an unusually disparate coalition will face perhaps their toughest test yet.

Artur Mas, the Catalan president, appeared to be aware of the political risks that lie ahead. Amid the triumphant boasts on Sunday night (he hailed the poll as a “total success”), Mr Mas urged the independence campaign to remain united. “When we are together, we can go farther. That is the message we must keep in mind.”

The political tussle in Barcelona will be dominated by two protagonists: Mr Mas, who heads the conservative, moderately nationalist Convergència i Unió movement (CiU), and Oriol Junqueras, leader of Esquerra Republicana, a leftwing pro-independence party. Both agree that the next logical step for the Catalan campaign is an early regional election, but they differ sharply on how.

Josep Rull, secretary-general of CiU, outlined the party’s strategy ahead of Sunday’s poll: “We will use an ordinary election, supervised by the state with all the democratic guarantees, and we will transform this into a referendum. How? Our proposal is to form a grand national list of candidates that has the capacity to win an absolute majority and with one electoral programme: If you vote for us, we have the mandate to achieve independence.”

In Madrid the government talks about legality. In Barcelona, they talk about the right to decide their own future. What is lacking is the political courage and skill to bring these two discourses together

- Ángel Pascual-Ramsay, Esade business school

Esquerra leaders, however, argue that a joint list uniting CiU and Esquerra risks diluting rather than boosting support for independence. Anna Simó, leader of the Esquerra parliamentary group, said: “It is not clear that a list led by Artur Mas will win more support than if we stand separately – especially in areas like metropolitan Barcelona. We believe that, a priori, diversification is good”.

The disagreement may appear tactical – but at heart it is over who should be at the helm of the Catalan independence campaign. CiU wants a joint pro-independence list to be headed by Mr Mas, a move that would allow him to remain de-facto leader of the movement and effectively hand the Catalan president another term in office. Should Esquerra and CiU stand separately, however, there is a strong chance that the leftwing party – and Mr Junqueras – will come out on top.

Maintaining unity in the independence camp, however, is not the only challenge for Mr Mas. On Sunday evening, he again appealed for negotiations with Madrid – but the political fallout from the poll may make such a process even more distant.

Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, is weakened from a series of corruption scandals that have rocked his party. He also faces accusations from all sides that he has mismanaged the Catalan vote: despite voicing firm opposition to the process, Mr Rajoy ultimately failed to stop it from happening – a worst-of-all-worlds stance that upset supporters and opponents of Catalan independence alike.

Prospects for a political settlement between the Spanish government and the Catalan parties appear slim. “The two sides are like ships passing in the night,” said Ángel Pascual-Ramsay, of Esade business school. “Here in Madrid the government talks about legality. In Barcelona, they talk about the right to decide their own future. What is lacking at the moment is the political courage and skill to bring these two discourses together.”