Paolo Dardanelli

The crisis over Catalonia’s bid for independence reaches a turning point with today’s regional election. Both sides have run an intense campaign in unprecedented circumstances but will the election break the impasse? Unlikely. A neck-a-neck race between the two main blocs reflects a society deeply divided by rival nationalisms. Only a change of government in Madrid could open a way forward. But depending on which party wins the next general election, the crisis could even spread to other regions.


Election outcome 

The election outcome is too close to call in terms of party arithmetic and support for independence but Catalan nationalism is likely to maintain its position. The secessionist parties, comprising of the Republican Left (ERC), Together for Catalonia (JxC) and Popular Unity Candidature (CUP), have a fair chance of regaining a majority. A forecasting model by El Pais, based on an average of the latest opinion polls, gives the secessionist bloc a 54% probability of gaining the 68 seats needed for an absolute majority in parliament. By contrast, the three ‘constitutional’ parties – the liberal Citizens, the socialist PSC, and the conservative People’s Party (PP) – have a 46% probability of reaching that target. The left wing cartel Catalonia in Common (CeC) is forecasted to win around nine seats and may well find itself in the role of kingmaker. CeC broadly subscribes to Catalan nationalism but advocates the calling of a negotiated referendum, as opposed to unilateral secession.  Hence, even if secessionism does not secure a majority, Catalan nationalism most likely will. Such an outcome would not be particularly surprising, given it has occurred in every regional election since the restoration of Catalonia’s autonomy in 1979. One trend in the anti-secessionist camp, on the other hand, is remarkable and potentially of far-reaching consequences: the rise of Citizens. Under its charismatic regional leader, Inés Arrimadas, the party has risen strongly in the polls and is on track to have the largest representation in the ‘constitutional’ camp, if not overall. Were Citizens to come first, it would be the first time that a non-Catalan nationalist party has the largest share of the seats in the regional parliament in the post-Franco era. Beyond the contest between secessionism and anti-secessionism, the election forecasts thus paint a picture of a deeper polarising confrontation between Catalan and Spanish nationalisms.


Weak rival nationalisms

Although it is often portrayed as a question of democracy or legality, the dispute between Catalonia and the rest of Spain is at its heart a clash of rival nationalisms. Any appeal to democracy begs the question of who constitutes the demos whose will is meant to prevail. In the contemporary era, the era of nationalism, the demos is defined in national terms. Hence, is the demos in question formed by all Spanish citizens, as Madrid insists? Or is the relevant demos formed by those living in Catalonia, on the ground that they constitute a nation, as Catalan nationalists would have it? If the latter, what about those citizens living in Catalonia but whose national identity is Spanish? Likewise, laws are only obeyed if the authority that enacts them is perceived to be legitimate. When legitimacy breaks down, appeals to legality cut little ice. The dispute between Catalonia and Madrid should thus be seen for what it is: a clash between Catalan and Spanish nationalism. Because the deposed Catalan government wanted to change the status quo in the name of a Catalan nation, Catalan nationalism is front and centre in the debate and is often blamed for precipitating the crisis in the first place. As the central government can fight the Catalan challenge with the legal arsenal under its control, it does not wear Spanish nationalism on its sleeves. This, however, should fool nobody. Behind the smokescreen of legality, Spanish nationalism guides Madrid’s action. The clash between the two nationalisms is particularly bitter because both are weak. On the one hand, Spanish nationalism has never fully succeeded in turning the old, dynastic Kingdom of Spain into a national state where the titular nationality commands the loyalty of the vast majority of its citizens. In both the Basque Country and Catalonia, rival nationalisms have taken a strong hold among the population. The tension between the drive to nationalise Spain and the reactions it has unleashed has been the most enduring fault line in Spanish politics for the last two centuries. On the other hand, post-Franco Catalan nationalism has pursued a strategy of winning Catalans over to Catalan nationalism but has only partly succeeded in doing so. Despite Catalan nationalists’ protestations to the contrary, the reality is that Catalonia today is only half a nation. Catalan society is divided roughly 50-50 between those who consider Catalonia as their national community and those for whom Spain as a whole is their nation. The Catalan nationalist half of the population is now highly mobilised in favour of independence but the other half is equally determined to resist being separated from the rest of Spain. The party landscape thus reflects a deep social divide.


Change of government in Madrid

How can this impasse be broken? Given the polarisation in Catalan society, only a bold step by the central government to address some of the root causes of Catalonia’s discontent can open a way to a compromise. Due to its history as the heir of Francoist nationalism, the PP is unlikely ever to have the willingness and credibility to do so. Hence, change can only come with a change of government in Madrid, when the next general election, to be held by July 2020, comes. Were its likely success in the Catalan election to be replicated state-wide, Citizens appears at first glance to be in a better position. A closer look at its programme and some knowledge of 19th-century Spanish history, however, should sound a note of caution. Citizens subscribes to a liberal vision of Spanish national citizenship, focussed on equal individual rights as opposed to group rights. It is therefore strongly opposed to any form of regional nationalism and claims to special treatment, which it perceives as undue privileges. Given that the 1978 constitutional settlement was based on a partial acceptance of historical rights, such as the Basque fueros, a Citizens-led constitutional reform could actually lead to a spreading of the centre-periphery conflict, particularly to the Basque Country. The 19th century Carlist wars between liberal reformers and defenders of traditional ‘privileges’ stand as a powerful reminder of how toxic this question is in Spanish politics. This leaves the socialist PSOE, more sympathetic to minority nationalism, as the party potentially in the best position to deliver positive change. The party could work in two directions in particular. First, towards some form of recognition of Catalonia’s nationality claim, in the context of a wider recognition of Spain’s multinational character. Second, by initiating a reform of the fiscal equalisation system that would address some of its glaring shortcomings. For such a two-pronged approach to succeed, though, a genuine willingness to compromise on all sides must be present.


Paolo Dardanelli is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Kent. He is the author of Restructuring the European State (McGill-Queen’s University Press). He tweets @PaoloDardanelli.

Image: Ivan McClellan