How Spain’s New Fault Lines Could Shape Catalan Secessionism

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy expresses support for Spanish unity, at a People's Party rally. Barcelona, Spain, November 21, 2015. (Matthias Oesterle/Demotix/Corbis)

The Spanish general elections on December 20th will be transformative for several reasons. Two parties have traditionally dominated Spain’s politics since its democratic transition nearly 40 years ago: the conservative People’s Party and, at the other end of the political spectrum, the Socialists. But the establishment is now being challenged by two insurgent parties: Podemos, which is similar to other left-leaning European radical movements such as Greece’s Syriza; and Ciudadanos, a center-right party with a more modern image. The result is likely to be a political realignment that will in turn have a major effect on the independence movement in Catalonia.

Catalan secessionism is an impressive phenomenon. It has been built on the back of strong civil society organizations, has a formidable intelligentsia, is supported by several regional political parties, and its base is politically and economically diverse. Regional support for independence has surged in recent years, with polls showing an increase from 14% to 45% between 2006 and 2014. The Spanish government has steadfastly refused to negotiate Catalan demands for increased autonomy, and the resulting polarization has created a tense atmosphere. But the independistas are themselves divided and have still only won over roughly half the Catalan electorate. They narrowly lost a popular vote on September 27th but won a slight majority in the Catalan Parliament. Support for the movement is somewhat fluid, which is why the Spanish elections matter.

The latest polls indicate that the results will almost certainly require two or more parties to form a coalition, since none is likely win a majority on its own. A coalition that returns the more unionist People’s Party and its leader Mariano Rajoy to power is likely to yield a government that is unwilling to negotiate with the Catalans, especially if the likeminded Ciudadanos is the coalition partner. A coalition that includes the Socialists, on the other hand, may produce a more accommodating government where Catalonia is concerned, particularly if Podemos is a partner, since its leaders have openly discussed the possibility of a Catalan referendum on independence.

However, this difference in levels of willingness to negotiate does not necessarily mean that a People’s Party-led coalition is the end of the line for Catalan secessionism. Independence movements faced with an unwilling state have two basic strategies. The first is to work through the state by bargaining for increased autonomy and, ideally, the staging of a referendum on independence. This strategy is mostly a domestic affair and a good contemporary example is the Scottish independence effort, which narrowly lost a referendum last year but may win the next one should it be called.

The second strategy involves going around the state and enlisting the help of the international community. A surprising number of secessionist movements take this route, including the successful ones in East Timor and South Sudan. The key is to get the international community to pressure the central government to grant recognition. Both strategies use tactics that are designed to appeal to, and coerce, their central government; the key difference is that the second uses the international community as a means of doing so.

Depending on its nature, the ruling coalition that results from the Spanish election is likely to tilt the balance toward one of these two strategies. A Socialists-led coalition may open a space for negotiation that favors the first route of working through the state. Although this path is more defined and more likely to defuse tensions, it is nonetheless considered less likely to produce an independent Catalonia, since an offer of increased autonomy would weaken the independence drive by winning over the less committed secessionists. Many Catalan secessionists think that this “third way” between the status quo and independence is the surest way to undermine the drive for sovereign statehood.

On the other hand, a People’s Party-led coalition would likely yield further recalcitrance and polarization, and swell the ranks of the Catalan secessionists, who would in turn increase their efforts to attract outside support. This path is less defined and will likely raise tensions as the two sides engage in a costly game of chicken. Still, many observers feel that it increases the chance of independence because at some unknown point the international community, and specifically the European Union, will press for a negotiation that could open the door to independence. Indeed, sources have told me that some of the more committed members of the Catalan leadership are convinced that conflict will be necessary to get independence, and an adversarial Spanish government will actually help shore up local support.

It is important to remember that secessionist movements are not monolithic. Their quasi-formal, under-institutionalized, and grassroots character create bodies that are typically united around the single issue of independence, and even then variation in the intensity of secessionist sentiment can be found. Catalonia is no exception. Many Catalans would be content with an offer of increased autonomy, and would therefore be satisfied with a new, more accommodating Spanish government. But many of the most committed independistas know that polarization fuels secessionism, so, somewhat counterintuitively, want their adversaries to stay in power. The future of Catalan secessionism will therefore be shaped by the election on December 20th.

Ryan D. Griffiths is a lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.