The Catalan regional government in Spain has called elections for Nov. 25. The theme for the poll has been set by regional president Artur Mas as self-determination – the question on voters’ minds will be whether Catalonia wants to stay as it is within Spain or take on more powers to administer its own assets. The regional election will effectively be a referendum on the political future of Catalonia, and neatly sidesteps Madrid’s objection that referendums should cover all of the Spanish territory.
The political power of the regional governments in Spain is often underestimated. Regional parties have frequently sustained national governments in Madrid, in coalition with either of the two main national parties, Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular or Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba’s PSOE. Regional parties have always influenced national policy. Still, the national model established during the country’s transition to democracy in the 1980s has failed to bridge the divide between regionalists and centrists. If anything the effect has been the opposite. The political system has preserved a distinction between regional parties and centralist national parties – and nationalists on both sides have fought hard to preserve differences.
The Catalans and Basques consider themselves different from the rest of Spain. They are economically more successful, more pro-European Union and have distinct cultural roots. Galicia, Andalucia, Asturias and other regions have distinct economic and cultural traits – and all have their own political identity. What has held the regions together has been the umbrella provided by the two main national political parties and their coalitions with regionalists in the Madrid government.
However, Rajoy is the victim of his electoral success: his majority government, ironically, is weaker for not including regionalist partners. The Catalan government sees the dissatisfaction with Madrid’s handling of the crisis as an opportunity: it may give the regionalists enough of a boost at the polls to force Madrid to hand them more autonomy, in other words, control of taxes. If Catalonia had control over its own taxes, the argument goes, the region would not have needed a bailout.
Rajoy’s choices are limited: he either refuses Catalan demands for more autonomy and risks enflaming Catalan nationalist sentiment, or agrees to increased autonomy, and risks enflaming Spanish nationalist sentiment.