ANALYSIS: It's time for Pedro Sanchéz to be bold and take a risk on Catalonia

Matthew Bennett
Matthew Bennett - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: It's time for Pedro Sanchéz to be bold and take a risk on Catalonia
Pedro Sanchez celebrates at the PSOE headquarters on election night. Photo: AFP

Pedro Sanchéz has options have his win at the polls but can he get people working together in the same direction after seven long years of bitterness?


Would Pedro Sánchez include a Catalan separatist in his new left-wing government?
The Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) won last Sunday's general election without an overall majority, despite increasing its MPs in parliament by 45% from 85 to 123. Pedro Sánchez could try to govern alone with parliamentary support. The Deputy Prime Minister, Carmen Calvo, said on Monday that the party would try to govern alone".
A Brussels- and business-friendly centre-left option with Ciudadanos would add up to 180 seats but Inés Arrimadas ruled out supporting or voting in favour of Sánchez on Monday too.
Pablo Iglesias would like to see a coalition with the PSOE, but a two-party left-wing deal, assuming Compromís in Valencia agreed to take part, would only add up to 166, still 10 short of a majority.
Is there another coalition option that would be both coherent with what Spaniards as a nation voted for and a bold attempt to fix the Catalan separatist problem? There might be. Let's take a look at the numbers.
Lots of Spaniards voted on Sunday. 75.75 percent turnout was the sixth highest in the fourteen general elections held since 1977.
Taken as a whole, Spain did not vote for more of the right (PP, Ciudadanos and Vox) but for more of the left (PSOE and Podemos) and more regional nationalists, and not just in Catalonia and the Basque Country.
The left-wing block added 855,000 votes and 43 percent of the vote; the right-wing block added just 40,000 votes and lost 3.45 points in vote share; and the regional nationalists, taken together, gained 797,000 votes and 3.30 percentage points.
1.6 million votes went left and regional.
In seats, that translated into a loss of 22 MPs for the right-wing block and gains of 10 and 12 seats for the left-wing and regional nationalist blocks respectively.
Within the regional nationalist block—which included more seats for parties in Catalonia, the Basque Country, the Canary Islands, Navarra and Cantabria—one party stands out: Republican Catalan Left (Esquerra), which won 383,000 more votes, 1.26 more percentage points and six more seats in Congress.
The party's leader, Oriol Junqueras, is currently on trial for rebellion at the Supreme Court, possibly facing decades in jail if convicted. Four other defendants—Carme Forcadell, Raul Romeva, Dolors Bassa and Carles Mundó—are also members of Esquerra.
This makes any political calculations extremely delicate. Separatists want to see their leaders freed and will press for a pardon if they are convicted in a few months time. It is a power that the Spanish government holds, as long as certain requirements are met first, but any such clemency would cause political meltdown across large swathes of the rest of the country.
The right-wing block has disappeared in the Basque Country, with zero seats between the three parties. In Catalonia, Ciudadanos only held on to its five seats and the PP dropped from six to one, with another one for Vox.
All three right-wing parties were offering some version of another suspension of home rule and the recentralisation of powers. Sunday was a general election and not a referendum but Spaniards effectively cast a ballot on Catalonia too.
In terms of fixing the mess, Spain has now tried Rajoy's politically uncreative but consistent "no" option and, over the past few months, Sánchez's "dialogue" option, whatever that really meant.
The separatists have tried their unilateral declaration of independence, which they were never prepared for in reality, and Spaniards have just rejected a harder suspension of home rule.
The separatists still want a vote and Spain still cannot allow one because of the Constitution. Some realistic creativity is required.
What if an emboldened Sánchez embarked on a broad project of constitutional reform and included an Esquerra minister in his new coalition government with Podemos? He could even put him (or her) in charge of the territorial question.
Other parties would doubtless want to include other things as well: electoral reform is normally on that list and Sánchez said during the campaign he wanted to include constitucional protection for public pensions.
Territorial reorganisation would be one aspect of any such reform, and whatever the outcome of the process, it would at all times have to be constitutional, so Esquerra would have to give up on the unilateral option.
The legal path to one day allowing a vote on Catalan independence would be long and difficult but it has existed in the Constitution since 1978, and it has not been tried.
The Esquerra minister would have to work towards developing a realistic plan that convinces all Spaniards—instead of alienating them—that allowing a vote in Catalonia (and perhaps other regions) might be a good idea, and it would have to happen within the limits of the Constitution.
The plan would have to be put to the vote across the whole country, according to the very stringent current requirements contained in Article 168, which include a total of four votes in parliament—all needing a two-thirds majority—a general election and a referendum.
It would require a lot of hard work, politically and legally.
The PSOE has been pushing a "federal Spain" option for several years, despite the Spanish system of regional administration—the autonomous communities—often being described as a de facto federal system anyway.
The plan would be risky for Sánchez and risky for Junqueras, but it might give Spain a four-year parliament, coherent with what the country voted for as a whole on Sunday and it would be a bold, realistic attempt to deal with the Catalan separatist problem.
The right would hate it, of course, and fight tooth and nail against it, every step of the way, and they would have every right to do so. Many on the left would also oppose it and the ultimate outcome of the attempt would be uncertain, but the process would be democratic, it would be subject to all of the current requirements in the Constitution and it would get people working together in the same direction after seven long years of bitterness.

Matthew Bennett is the creator of The Spain Report. You can read more of his writing on Patreon, and follow him on Twitter. Don't miss his podcast series with weekly in-depth analysis on Spain.




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