Punished at the Polls, Catalonia’s Artur Mas is Heading for Grim Coalition

Maria Tadeo

artur mas getty 300x225 Punished at the Polls, Catalonias Artur Mas is Heading for Grim CoalitionOn Sunday night Catalonia’s Artur Mas was set to win a landslide victory that soon tuned into a bitter disappointment.

Yes, Mr Mas was re-elected but he emerged as the biggest loser of the night. The leader of centre-right separatist party Convergence and Union (CiU) won 50 out of 135 parliamentary seats. But the result was a far cry from the 68-seats ‘exceptional’ majority that CiU hoped to win to push for a referendum on independence.

Ironically, his party’s move toward independence bolstered left-wing separatists Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the real winner of the night, which capitalised on Mr Mas’ unexpected fall by winning 21 seats. Effectively becoming Catalonia’s second largest political majority.

Overall, a group of pro-referendum parties won Sunday’s regional elections, which recorded the highest participation rate since 1988, taking control of almost two-third of a very fragmented Catalan parliament. Mr Mas  has admitted that his party would have to form a coalition government and he seems to be heading towards an awkward union with ERC.

Both parties have a long history of political bickering stretching back to 2003, when a block of left-wing parties led by Catalonia’s socialists and ERC forced Mr Mas out of the presidency by forming a coalition government known as “the tripartite” in power until 2010. Mr Mas fought hard to bring the tripartite down in the previous elections; but after Sunday’s results, he is right back where he started, only this time ERC holds the key to CiU’s future and they will negotiate accordingly.

A coalition union between left-wing and conservative separatists could work on the basis of shared self-determination goals, although they disagree on the timing of the plebiscite; ERC wants it by 2014, unlike CiU, which has set a four-year deadline.

However, moving closer to ERC could jeopardise Mr Mas’ austerity measures aimed at reducing Catalonia’s deficit to 1.5 percent of its GDP from 3.7 percent in 2011. Earlier this week, Oriol Junqueras, leader of ERC, warned that CiU must reverse its economic policy to win his party’s support, which is strongly opposed to austerity and wants higher taxes on the wealthy. This could alienate CiU’s pro-business supporters and poses a threat to CiU’s budget. But Mr Mas has been cornered after losing 12 crucial seats and ERC will push him hard to get what they want.

If a CiU-ERC coalition proves unsuccessful, Mr Mas could turn to Catalonia’s socialist party to form an anti-Rajoy block. In this case, the dire state of Catalonia’s large, but highly indebted economy, would take centre stage. A CiU-PSC cohort could unite against the Spanish PM hoping to get a better tax deal from Madrid. A priori, this could be a good deal for the socialists after losing badly in the regional elections in Galicia and the Basque country last month. But pro-union socialists have become increasingly wary of Mr Mas’ separatist agenda and he would have to give up his plebiscite for this coalition to work.

Pere Navarro, leader of Catalonia’s socialists and supporter of regional federalism, has said it would be “difficult” to reach an agreement with Mr Mas while Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, leader of Spain’s socialist party, added that “Mas is not Catalonia” and Sunday’s election is a testament to that. Mr Mas is determined to keep his separatist agenda untouched, but he may have to tame his rhetoric in a desperate attempt to get the socialist party on board and push through next year’s budget.

After all, this doesn’t seem so unlikely considering how Mr Mas has gone from being a moderate Catalan nationalist to leading the secessionist movement in less than 24 months. Back in 2010, Mr Mas told Spain’s Vanity Fair magazine that Catalonia’s place was “not outside, but next to Spain and in a European context”. He’s also made Mr Rajoy’s pro-union PP party his de facto ally to pass two unpopular austerity bills in parliament. This opportunistic entente cordial between Mr Mas and PP explains why the separatist vote favoured ERC on Sunday night.

Mr Mas called for a snap-election on 25 September halting his party’s four-year mandate prematurely after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to renegotiate Catalonia’s tax redistribution system. Catalonia’s regional president pressed ahead with plans to call for a referendum on self-determination backed by seemingly unprecedented nationalist support after close to 1.5 million people marched in favour of independence on 11 September.

However, in light of Sunday’s results, Mr Mas may have overestimated public support for his party, which has presented three austerity bills in 18 months and requested a five billion euros bailout package since assuming office in 2010. Catalonia’s credit rating was slashed to junk status by Standard& Poor’s and severe spending cuts in healthcare benefits were introduced under his administration.

Punished at the polls, Catalonia’s incumbent regional president is facing a bittersweet scenario. He needs a coalition that could swing from pro-referendum leftists to pro-union socialists. Both scenarios are a setback.  Along the way, he’s alienated CiU’s most moderate voters and placed ERC as the champion of separatism. Meanwhile, in Madrid, the central government is breathing a sigh for relief and the Spanish press has come together under the same headline “Mas Fails“.

Even if he decides to continue as a minority government, Mr Mas will be challenged by a very fragmented parliament ranging from pro-unionist to federalists and a strong left-wing block led by ERC- and make no mistake, as separatist as it may be, ERC is no ally.

At best, Mr Mas will be able to forge a working coalition with ERC. At worst, Catalonia becomes ungovernable.

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  • francois duris

    From Mas to Menos. how embarrassing.

  • francois duris

    from mas to menos, how embarrassing

  • FernandoMO

    coalition with ERC> economic suicide, coalition with PSC: adeu plebiscite, either way he loses.

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