THE OBSERVER

A landing strip

We are in a new stage in which the plane carrying the Catalan government is running low on fuel

At the height of the Catalan independence bid it was commonplace to compare it to two locomotives about to crash head-on, before nautical similes became the norm, which in turn gave way to a metaphor involving the ascent of Everest, which led some to warn of the lack of oxygen, while others decided to head for the top with an excess of enthusiasm and lacking the preparation needed to summit and survive. Now we are entering a new stage in which the plane carrying the Catalan government is running low on fuel, the pilot is no longer in command and the crew is debating whether to mutiny or attempt a landing at the hands of the co-pilot.

The second general election for Spain’s Congress of Deputies has ushered in a new phase following a disastrous election campaign which was a fiasco for the PSOE, since it failed to improve its bargaining position in the hope of forming a government, as it intended. Instead the election bolstered Vox’s position, forcing the PP’s hand. Realising that the PSOE’s old guard would question his leadership and call for a debate on the need for a broad coalition [with the PP], Pedro Sánchez immediately announced the signing of a letter of intent with Unidas Podemos. Pablo Iglesias renounced his position on Catalonia in exchange for access to the Moncloa. Nevertheless, Podemos have increased their influence thanks to their ability to engage in dialogue with the major players on the political agenda. Catalonia’s Jaume Asens [of Podemos], the man who recommended Boye to Puigdemont and who accompanied his friend Toni Comín to exile, has become an interlocutor capable of talking to all the political parties concerned, which is no small feat these days.

Over the coming weeks we will see if there are any developments in the crisis which began following the Supreme Court’s verdict and if the plane which represents Catalan politics makes it to a landing strip. Esquerra Republicana will have to take the plunge and decide if it wishes to occupy the middle ground and if it is able to accept the contradictions needed to forge agreements and to govern. First they will sound out the rank-and-file, as they are aware that a section of their voters looks up to JxCat’s epic discourse and presidents Puigdemont and Torra, who have given up on the PSOE and have seen how JxCat has increased its share in the recent general elections under Laura Borràs’ leadership.

Sánchez is well aware that he needs Esquerra to abstain [to be voted in] and he seems ready to provide them with a landing strip in the form of negotiations,. While today it is nothing but a headline, it may gain enough momentum for everyone to save face, thus paving the way to complex yet vital conversations to explore ways to extricate the country from this morass, regardless of the degree of confidence in the eventual outcome.

ERC’s lack of flexibility at other key times, such as in October 2017, when it forced Puigdemont not to call elections, is shifting to a more pragmatic approach which excludes from the equation their coalition partners in the Catalan government, who insist on snubbing Sánchez while they rush to rebuild their political niche. JxCat and the PDECat are aware of their internal chaos. To quote a government official, "oil and water don’t mix", meaning before calling an election, internal coherence must take hold of the post-Convergència political space [in reference to Convergència Democràtica, JxCat’s predecessor], where nowadays opposing ideological positions coexist within the parliamentary group.

In the coming weeks it is likely that some of the political prisoners, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez in particular, will be able to exercise their rights, and that they will be granted some leave in a few months’ time. Meanwhile, the negotiations on the budget in Catalonia seem to be making progress, and ERC’s more positive approach to Podemos/Comuns hints at agreements on fiscal policies which in turn suggest a cross-party agreement on the Catalan government’ budget. The government’s coalition partners are holding budget talks with the Comuns in order to buy time, but they are well aware that the next challenge will be the Catalan elections, in which they will compete with one another, though subsequently they are likely to continue to cooperate. That is why they failed to establish a common position regarding the court’s ruling in the case of the Catalan leaders, which requires agreements on future strategies, though they have not had any major differences. One example of the difficulties they face is the fact that the parties failed to agree on a statement rejecting the Supreme Court’s verdict until ten days after it was announced, while JxCat and ERC had been making amendments to their pact separately before it was finally put to a vote.

ERC appears to be cozying up to the Comuns, while JxCat may be rocked by the upcoming process of internal re-evaluation as it looks for new leadership and adopts fresh positions while rebuilding itself. If, that is, their members accept the policy changes and they continue to remain loyal to an overall strategy based on the legitimacy provided by Lledoners [the facility where the seven male pro-independence politicians and civil society leaders are imprisoned].

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