Spain is trapped in political instability. To understand why, look at Catalonia

Spain heads to polls with Catalan independence still one of the most divisive issues among parties in Madrid

Jailed pro-independence leader Oriol Junqueras (right) shakes hands with president Pedro Sánchez in the Spanish congress (by Javier Barbancho)
Jailed pro-independence leader Oriol Junqueras (right) shakes hands with president Pedro Sánchez in the Spanish congress (by Javier Barbancho) / Alan Ruiz Terol

Alan Ruiz Terol | Barcelona

September 18, 2019 02:25 PM

As Spain braces itself for its fourth general election in just as many years, it’s worth looking at Catalonia and the independence movement to understand why parties in Madrid have not been able to form a stable government after a 5-month political deadlock.

Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s acting president and leader of the Socialist party, spoke on Tuesday night to confirm that he falls short of the support needed to be reelected as head of the executive by lawmakers in Parliament. 

He blamed his right-wing rivals for the stalemate: "For the Spanish government to not depend on pro-independence parties, their abstention was needed." 

Yet even when pro-independence groups are kept out of the equation, parties in Spain have been fighting over their different approaches to the Catalan independence crisis and how it should be addressed.

This will certainly be one of the central and most divisive issues in the upcoming electoral campaign ahead of the new election on November 10.

The failure of the left

When the Socialist party won the last general election on April 28, nobody really doubted that Sánchez would be reelected as president, with the only question being what role left-wing Unidas Podemos would play - coalition partners in government, or parliamentary allies in Congress?

It ended up being none of the above. Forming a government is easier said than done, and negotiation was soon poisoned by mutual mistrust. Their different stances on the Catalan conflict didn’t help.

The Socialists rejected a coalition government alleging "important differences" in their approach to "state matters" (in other words, Catalonia).Spanish president Pedro Sánchez and Unidas Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (by Roger Pi de Cabanyes)

While Unidas Podemos have defended the need for a self-determination referendum, the Socialists have always dismissed such a possibility as unconstitutional. 

They also have different approaches to the imprisonment of independence leaders who organized a referendum despite Spain’s opposition in October 2017: the leader of Unidas Podemos Pablo Iglesias has called for their release, calling them "political prisoners", while Sánchez says the matter is up to judges’ criteria.

The Catalan trial verdict, a government crisis foretold

After two years in pre-trial detention, the Catalan leaders will know their verdict in October, and lengthy prison sentences are expected. The announcement is set to have great political implications, with major protests expected throughout Catalonia. 

The Socialists view the verdict’s announcement and its consequences as the perfect storm in a shared government with Unidas Podemos, some of whose members have even declared themselves in favor of Catalan independence.

Instead, the verdict will come out a few days before the electoral campaign kicks off, with the Socialists and Unidas Podemos free to defend their position in front of their would-be voters.

"Parties that want to destroy Spain"  

On Tuesday night, Sánchez also looked to his right when looking for culprits behind his failure to form a government: Ciudadanos (Cs) and the People’s Party (PP).

While Unidas Podemos called Sánchez out for taking too strict of a stance on Catalonia, conservative parties accused him of being too amicable. 

PP and Cs repeatedly claimed Sánchez had "hidden pacts" with "parties that want to destroy Spain."  

The rise of Vox, the first unequivocally far-right party to enter the Spanish parliament since the transition to democracy, was partly fueled by their harsh stance on Catalan independence. Party leader Santiago Abascal called Sánchez a "traitor" and accused him of "accepting Catalan independence".

A troubled relationship

While conservative parties accuse Sánchez of being too close to pro-independence parties, their relationship has been anything but easy.

Pro-independence parties helped Sánchez come to power in 2018 in a vote of no confidence that ousted the PP government led by Mariano Rajoy following a corruption scandal.

With Sánchez sitting at the head of the Spanish government, relations with the Catalan executive seemed to improve after years of rising tensions. But talks addressing the independence crisis were short-lived. When negotiations collapsed and pro-independence parties rejected the Socialists' proposed budget for 2019, Sánchez called a snap election hoping for a parliamentary majority that would allow him to govern without relying on Catalan parties.

Sánchez now hopes to achieve on November 10 what he couldn’t obtain last April.