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Catalonia’s Election Yields a Crisis That Is Here to Stay

BARCELONA, Spain — Since taking charge of Spain six years ago, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has done his best to remain aloof from the gathering threat of secessionism in Catalonia.
Posted 2017-12-22T07:06:14+00:00 - Updated 2017-12-23T03:06:13+00:00

BARCELONA, Spain — Since taking charge of Spain six years ago, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has done his best to remain aloof from the gathering threat of secessionism in Catalonia.

He did not engage Catalonia’s leadership until it finally declared unilateral independence in October, prompting him to take direct control of the region. Before then, Rajoy seemed to hope that the problem would eventually fade, along with a Spanish financial crisis that had helped fuel the movement.

But after Catalonia’s regional election Thursday, in which separatist parties won a majority of seats in the regional parliament, it is now clear that the independence movement is not going away.

Spain is staring at a festering, long-term conflict, unfolding in a deeply divided region and driven by emboldened separatists whose demands could now be harder than ever to ignore.

“As a minimum, we’ve won the right to be listened to,” Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader whom Rajoy dismissed in October, said at a news conference in Brussels, where he has taken up self-imposed exile. “Whether you like or not the topic, you have to have a dialogue.”

Puigdemont called on the prime minister to end his emergency control over Catalonia immediately and allow him to start a new mandate as the region’s leader, even as he faces prosecution. He also offered to meet Rajoy in Brussels or another location outside Spain.

Yet even now Rajoy seems reluctant to take an approach to the Catalan crisis any different from the one that has pushed Spain nearly to the point of fracturing.

On Friday, the prime minister repeated his insistence that he was open to dialogue, but not with Catalan politicians who do not respect Spain’s Constitution.

Yet that is seemingly whom Catalans have returned to power in the balloting on Thursday. The separatists won 70 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament, narrowly maintaining the majority that they won in 2015. Together they received 47.5 percent of the vote but were bolstered by a proportional representation system that rewards their rural dominance.

Instead, Rajoy chose to emphasize the success of the anti-secessionist party, Cuidadanos, led in Catalonia by Inés Arrimadas. It received the largest percentage of the vote — 25 percent — but is still likely to be in the opposition.

Rajoy, speaking in Madrid on Friday, said he should talk with the winner of the elections, “and that is Ms. Arrimadas.” Rajoy’s own Popular Party came in last.

So the standoff continues.

Thursday’s outcome “completely defeats his idea that direct control over Catalonia and elections would really weaken the secessionist bloc,” said Sandra León, a Spanish senior lecturer on politics at the University of York in Britain. “We knew that these elections only had a slim chance of really solving the conflict,” León added. “But we now have instead got confirmation that the secessionist bloc is resilient and that Catalan society is completely polarized.”

That polarization extends beyond Catalonia to the seemingly unbridgeable chasm with Rajoy’s government, and it is fueling a crisis that threatens to sow instability not only in Catalonia but also throughout Spain’s entire politics and economy.

For Catalonia, a new round of turmoil, which now seems almost certain, could generate still more economic tremors, further undermining the secessionist claim that independence would increase the wealth of a region.

Since the conflict reached a boiling point in October, more than 3,000 companies have relocated their legal headquarters outside Catalonia, which accounts for nearly one-fifth of Spain’s economy.

On Friday, the Spanish stock market index fell 1.2 percent, while analysts warned of dwindling foreign investment in a region whose cosmopolitan capital, Barcelona, has become Spain’s tourism hub.

Politically, Thursday’s election could also shift the balance of power in Madrid, where Rajoy has been at the helm of a minority government since 2016, reliant on the support of the Ciudadanos party.

On Friday, Rajoy said that he was determined not to call national elections before 2020, when his mandate ends. He also underlined the support received from other governments in Europe, some of which are also fretting about regions pushing for more autonomy.

“There has been nobody in Europe who has supported the position of the separatists,” Rajoy said.

Albert Rivera, the national leader of Ciudadanos, told La Sexta, a television news channel, that the social divide in Catalonia and prolonged political crisis meant that “we have to ask what have we done badly as a country to get to this.”

But he also argued that “what has happened in Catalonia has a lot to do with the malaise of Europe, which is that nationalism and populism have gained strength.” With the strong showing of Ciudadanos in the election, Rajoy’s party will no doubt face a stronger challenge from its rival to be seen as the main flag bearer for Spanish unity.

“The competition in Spain is going to be structured more along national identity lines, which probably means a hardening of the position toward Catalonia,” said Lluis Orriols, a professor of politics at the Carlos III University in Madrid.

For the separatists, on the other hand, “it seems very hard to return in such conditions to a unilateral path, so their challenge is to agree on new ways to pursue their goals,” Orriols said.

Even if the separatist parties bury their recent disagreements to form a new coalition government in January, Rajoy could reapply his emergency powers and extend direct rule over Catalonia, if he judges that the new Catalan administration is set to violate the constitution.

The separatist parties also face an uphill challenge to take office because most of their leaders are facing prosecution for already flouting Spain’s Constitution, including in October when they held an independence referendum that had been declared illegal by Spain’s government and courts.

Overall, eight of the 70 separatist politicians elected Thursday are either awaiting trial in jail in Madrid or in Belgium, including Puigdemont. On Friday, a Spanish judge widened the investigation to include more separatist politicians.

Rajoy defended his handling of the conflict, saying that his emergency powers were “applied in an intelligent manner,” without unsettling the administration of Catalonia.

Rajoy has been a government minister since the 1990s and has survived election defeats as well as a financial crisis, often by being cautious and waiting for others to fail. Still, Rajoy “must come to view an adversary who wins half of the votes in Catalonia at least as a legitimate interlocutor,” argued Sonia Andolz, a professor of politics at the University of Barcelona, who specializes in conflict resolution.

“Negotiating isn’t a sign of weakness,” Andolz said.