04 November 2017

Catalonia: Massive Miscalculation On Both Sides

As you might have noticed, things are rapidly getting out of hand in Catalonia.

And instead of telling us why this is happening the corporate media has so far given us just the sound and fury.

From what I can see, it looks like this whole crisis was triggered by a massive miscalculation by Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia's President.

And now Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, is doing the same.

Here is my take on the crisis.

Puigdemont's Big Bet

Until this confrontation with Catalonia, Mariano Rajoy was a very unpopular Prime Minister in every region of Spain. His austerity measures destroyed the country's economy and made millions of people unnecessarily miserable.

On top of that, his People's Party (PP) has been embroiled in a huge corruption scandal.

You see, a couple of decades ago, a man by the name of Francisco Correa set up a network for the purpose of bribing PP officials in exchange for government contracts. He called his network Gürtel, which means belt in German as Correa means belt in Spanish.

An unbreakable code.

The case was picked up in 2009 by Baltasar Garzón, the magistrate known for his grandstanding and high visibility cases.

Gürtel folks managed to get him suspended as a judge using an unrelated matter and the case languished for a while. It moved from judge to judge and finally, the trial began in 2016.

Correa was quickly found guilty and was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

The former treasurer of PP, Luis Barcenas admitted in court that with the commissions paid by the Gürtel network a party slush fund was created. He had a parallel bookkeeping system.

To give you an idea how much money was involved, Barcenas is accused of having €48 million in Swiss banks in his own name.

During his 2013 deposition, Barcenas confessed that he gave Rajoy envelops full of cash, though in open court he retracted that allegation.

In July 2017, Mariano Rajoy became the first Prime Minister in Spanish history to testify in a trial. The court refused his offer to testify through video link and made him sit in court.

Unsurprisingly, Rajoy denied any knowledge of a slush fund or the Gürtel network.

Now, add to Rajoy's woes the fact that in the December 2015 elections, his party lost 64 seats and 16 percent of the votes, their worst showing since 1989. Currently, he has no parliamentary majority and he has to get everyone's approval to pass any legislation.

I believe that this rather bleak picture was at the heart of Carles Puigdemont's strategy. He assumed that Rajoy was so unpopular and weak that he could actually get huge concessions from him.

He figured that like Scotland, an independent Catalonia would be able to get EU membership and things would continue as before. And he would be the president of an actual country.

While it is true that Spain would hold a veto for any new EU member, I suspect Puigdemont must have thought he could successfully negotiate a deal with Rajoy given the latter's corruption predicament.

The problem for Puigdemont is that he had an equally weak political position.

Catalan politics has a dizzying array of parties and ever changing alliances.

In the last elections in 2015, the two pro-independence umbrella groups, Junt pel Si (Together for Yes) (JxSi) and Catalunya Si que es Pot (CatSíqueesPot) (Catalonia Yes We Can) fell short of a majority in Parliament.

JxSi needed the support of Candidature d'Unitat Popular (CUP) (Popular Unity Candidacy) but they didn't like JxSi leader and former president Artur Mas. He had his own serious corruption history.[link in French]

After almost four months of squabbling, in January 2016, moments before the deadline for fresh elections, Carles Puigdemont emerged as the compromise candidate for President.

The referendum and independence declaration stunts were designed to strengthen his position as the clean pro-independence politician.

As we know his bluff backfired spectacularly.

Besides violence and turmoil, "since October 1st, more than 1,500 companies, including almost all the big ones, have moved their domicile outside the region, and tourist bookings have dipped."

In other words, his gamble destroyed the region's economy and standing.

Now he is a fugitive in Brussels and his former cabinet members are languishing in Spanish jails.

Rajoy's Heavy-Handed Response

Mariano Rajoy used the artificial crisis created by Puigdemont very adroitly.

He baited him at every turn, threatening him with a series of escalating measures. Initially, I did not get his over-the-top reaction and often violent moves.

After all, a clear majority of Catalans were not in favor of independence. And if he let things run their course the independence movement would have fizzled out.

But it subsequently became clear that they were designed to leave Puigdemont with two equally bad choices: back down and lose face or declare independence and lose power.

At the same time, Rajoy went around to denounce Catalonia as the spoiled kid of Spain. It wasn't difficult: the region's economy was doing better than the rest of the country and they enjoyed a privileged position attracting the ire and jealousy of other regions.

In that sense, thanks to Puigdemont, Rajoy made Spaniards forget about his corruption and his austerity policies. The more intransigent he appeared with Catalonia the more popular he became elsewhere in the country.

Hence the electoral violence, the removal of Catalan autonomy and lately, the jailing of pro-independence politicians.

As a final touch, he got France and Germany declare that they would not recognize an independent Catalonia. And the EU Commission remained silent dashing an independent Catalonia's hopes of ever joining the Union.

It worked nicely. Puigdemont went all in and lost.

What's Next?

It looks to me that Rajoy overplayed his hand with issuing arrest warrants for sedition and treason for Puigdemont and jailing prominent Catalan politicians. These are the people in custody:

Oriol Junqueras, former deputy vice-president
Joaquim Forn, former interior minister
Raül Romeva, former external relations secretary
Carles Mundó, former justice minister
Dolors Bassa, former labour minister
Jordi Turull, former government presidency councillor
Josep Rull, former sustainable development minister
Meritxell Borras, former culture minister

And Puigdemont is in Belgium facing extradition.

Since he also called fresh elections on 21 December, Rajoy exposed himself to a very tangible possibility of Catalan people voting with their emotions.

Like most linguistic minorities (Bengalis in Pakistan or Quebecois in Canada) Catalans are fiercely protective of their heritage and cultural identity. And they might react unexpectedly, not to say irrationally, if Rajoy continues to humiliate their politicians, threaten them with long jail sentences and take over Mossos d'Esquadra.

The issue for Rajoy is what options he had if Catalans convincingly voted for pro-independence parties in these elections? Abolish autonomy and run the region from Madrid?

I seriously doubt that this is feasible at this point.

And even if Catalan voters chose pro-union parties in December, the aftertaste of Madrid's violent tactics, reminiscent of Franco era, will linger on for a long time and will likely poison the region's relations with the central government.

So, it seems to me that Rajoy's strategy of painting Puigdemont into a corner might have yielded the same result for him.

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