Battle Lines Drawn in Catalonia
Published: November 23, 2010BARCELONA (CATALAN COUNTRIES) — When voters in Catalonia go the polls on Sunday, they will not just be writing another chapter in the long and complex saga of whether and how Spain holds together. The most recent opinion polls suggest that the current Socialist-led coalition government in Spain’s northeastern region will fall, a slap in the face for Spain’s prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a Socialist whose own popularity has plummeted along with the country’s economic fortunes in the financial crisis.
The likely triumph of a Catalan nationalist party, Convergència i Unió, heightens the regional tensions that continually tug at Spain’s fractious unity. As in other European nations, most notably Italy and Belgium, there is a gulf between northern regions like Catalonia, which spearheaded Spain’s industrial revolution and remains home to some of its most successful corporations, and poorer southern areas like Andalusia.
Edward Hugh, an independent economist based in Barcelona, said that, while hard to measure, the consensus estimate among his peers was that Catalonia contributed the equivalent of 10 percent of its gross domestic product to supporting other Spanish regions, through taxes collected by the central government in Madrid.
With Spain particularly hit by the world financial crisis, and Catalonia itself grappling with a total debt that rose 20 percent last year to €30.5 billion, or $41 billion, burden sharing has become a burning issue within Spain, as has the question of who should collect taxes. Catalonia’s limited fiscal autonomy has also contrasted with that of another prosperous northern region, the Basque Country, whose own government recently struck a new financing deal with the central government in Madrid, triggering loud demands from Catalonia for a similar treatment.
“The Basque Country has managed to get a credit rating that is better than that of Spain because it is fiscally independent,” said Xavier Vives, economics professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona.
Instead, faced with tough refinancing hurdles, Catalonia was recently forced to issue €2.5 billion in domestic bonds for the first time since the mid-1980s, at a 4.75 percent yield, which was above that paid on similar Spanish government bonds.
Unless Convergència i Unió wins an outright majority on Sunday, however, the election is almost certain to be followed by intense horse-trading among parties hoping to join a coalition government. The consequences for Mr. Zapatero are also hard to predict, because he has maintained an ambiguous relationship with his Socialist counterparts in Catalonia, strained since a contested ruling last June by the Constitutional Court on a Catalan autonomy charter that had already been approved by Catalonia’s 5.5 million voters and the national Parliament in 2006.
Some of the parties competing on Sunday, in fact, want Catalonia to split immediately from Spain and become a new member state of the European Union. “This election is a historic opportunity to take a decisive step toward independence,” said Joan Laporta, who started his own party earlier this year after leaving the presidency of Barcelona F.C., one of the top soccer clubs in the world.
But rivalries between Mr. Laporta and other advocates of independence have splintered and weakened their movement. Catalan politicians also disagree over the level of popular support for independence.
Celestino Corbacho, who recently stepped down as one of Mr. Zapatero’s ministers in order to return to Catalonia and help bolster the Socialists’ prospects on Sunday, suggested that a better target would be to provide Spain with a stronger federal structure akin to that of Germany, in which Catalonia could stand out, because at most 25 percent of Catalans would vote for full independence should a referendum be held tomorrow. “Many politicians here are at least one step ahead of what people actually want,” he said.
That, however, is partly because “the benefits of independence in the long term are huge but there are costs in the short term, which many people aren’t ready to assume,” argued Salvador García Ruiz, one of the founders of Col-lectiu Emma, an association promoting Catalan interests. He compared that reticence to the constraints of dieting: “I would love to be thinner, but am I really ready to eat only healthy food and start exercising immediately?”
Among long-term benefits, Mr. García Ruiz predicted that Catalonia would better manage its infrastructure spending, while Barcelona would attract more foreign investment as a capital city. Indeed, Catalans consider several past economic decisions made in Madrid as unfair, ranging from the prioritizing of Madrid’s airport expansion over Barcelona’s to a veto of an attempted takeover of the electric utility Endesa by Gas Natural, headquartered in Barcelona.
Catalan separatism has been gaining ground since Spain’s return to democracy in the 1970s, with the re-establishment of the Catalan language as arguably its most notable achievement so far. Earlier this year, the Catalan Parliament approved a law to have 50 percent of foreign movies dubbed or subtitled in Catalan, despite concerns in Hollywood about higher distribution costs.
More recently, the language debate has centered on whether professors should demonstrate fluency in Catalan to teach in one of Catalonia’s universities. Another controversial law resulted in 152 fines last year against shopkeepers who had failed to label their establishments in Catalan.
Although Mr. García Ruiz noted that similar sanctions had been imposed for breaking Spanish-language regulations, such regional legislation has fueled concerns that the separatist drive in Catalonia has also raised intolerance within a region that has long been a major recipient of immigration. Some Catalan municipalities also made national headlines recently by banning women from wearing burqas in public.
“Silly measures like fining shopkeepers in defense of our language or banning the burqa make us seem like exactly what we’ve never been, which is a closed society,” said Josep Ramoneda, a Catalan writer and philosopher.
The election Sunday is expected to result in low turnout, following a campaign marked by highly provocative advertising, ranging from one party portraying Spain as a bank robber to another launching a video game awarding points for shooting down illegal immigrants. Some politicians also anticipate voters’ abstention because the nationhood debate has eclipsed their more pressing economic concerns.
“The real problem for Catalans is how to reach the end of the month and cope with unemployment,” Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, the main candidate for the center-right Popular Party, said in an interview on Spanish television Tuesday. “Instead of more nation, we need better management.”
One of the political hot potatoes facing any incoming administration will be the aftermath of the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Catalan statute. While endorsing most of the charter, the court also set off a huge protest march in Barcelona by striking out some of its points and a legal claim to nationhood.
Still, Mr. Laporta and other separatists insist that the next tussle with Madrid must be over finances, in order to allow Catalonia to emerge quicker from the crisis. “The right to handle our own money is a priority,” Mr. Laporta said.