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Catalan Independence Bid Looms Over Spain's Coalition Efforts
If it appeared for a moment that Catalonia's drive to secede from Spain would implode along with the political fortunes of its leader, it has not turned out that way.
After Artur Mas, the public face of the Catalan independence movement, stepped down as the region's leader over the weekend, his successor, Carles Puigdemont, immediately vowed to stay on course and break from Spain.
That means the issue of Catalan independence will not only remain atop Spain's political agenda, but also be a major obstacle in the room as Spain's politicians haggle over a national government after inconclusive elections in December that underlined the fragmentation of Spanish politics.
Catalonia's status is now an issue that will be impossible for the leaders of Spain's four main parties to avoid, and it may be the critical issue that pushes together or divides any number of potential coalition partners, determining what kind of government Spain will get and when.
For the conservative prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, whose Popular Party won the most votes in December but fell short of a majority, the weekend's events have a double edge.
Both Mr. Mas and Mr. Rajoy — the two central antagonists in Catalonia's long-building dispute with Madrid — saw their popularity plummet after making austerity cuts and failing to take responsibility for corruption scandals in their parties.
Mr. Mas came to be regarded as a political liability and an obstacle to coalition talks in Catalonia. Nationally, many are regarding Mr. Rajoy the same way, and he may now face added pressure to follow Mr. Mas's example and get out of the way to avoid new national elections, which few seem to want.
But a reinvigorated Catalonia also gives new ammunition to Mr. Rajoy, who has long presented himself as the defender of Spanish unity.
As he seeks to persuade other parties to allow him to continue in office, Mr. Rajoy is expected to wield the argument that Spain needs a coalition strong enough to defeat Catalonia's separatist push.
"Rajoy will surely try hard to convert a revived Catalan challenge into an argument to force together a Spanish coalition, but I'm less sure that it will work," said Josep Ramoneda, a Catalan political columnist. "The example of Mas could instead give reasons to reach the conclusion that any coalition first requires changing the leader."
On Monday, Juan Luis Cebrían, the president and co-founder of El País, Spain's leading newspaper, called on the right-wing Popular Party to force "the honorable withdrawal" of Mr. Rajoy.
"The right should demonstrate that it is working for the good of Spain and not for the continuity of a leader whose credibility has been burned by his own perplexity, responsible in no small measure for the disastrous political evolution in Catalonia," Mr. Cebrían wrote in an editorial.
The calculations for the leaders of Spain's other main political parties who are engaged in the search for a workable national government may be no easier, however.
Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist leader, made clear on Monday that he would like to form a coalition with two upstart parties — Citizens and Podemos — and consign Mr. Rajoy and his party to the opposition.
"I want to have an understanding as much with Podemos as with Citizens," Mr. Sánchez said. "We're united by change."
Mr. Sánchez is looking to emulate the unlikely recent turnaround in neighboring Portugal, which he notably visited last week. There, António Costa, the Socialist leader, eventually became prime minister, with the support of more radical-left parties, after similarly inconclusive elections in October.
But Mr. Sánchez faces significant obstacles to forming his three-way coalition, including Catalonia. He and his Socialist Party have so far tried to fudge their position, backing Mr. Rajoy's firm stance toward Catalonia, while saying vaguely that they would prefer that the matter be left to a broader constitutional overhaul. That is not a position likely to hold up much longer, especially as Mr. Puigdemont and other Catalan separatists seek to fast-track Catalonia's independence.
Meanwhile, Mr. Sánchez's two potential coalition partners stand solidly on opposite sides of the issue.
Citizens, a Catalan-based party, is against secession. Podemos, which has transformed itself from a left-leaning protest movement to a political party in about two years, is the only party that supports allowing the Catalans to hold an independence referendum.
It is not a pledge that Podemos can now back away from easily, as it helped make the party the biggest vote-getter in Catalonia during the national elections.
Mr. Sánchez is also in an uncomfortable position within his own party, his leadership's having been weakened by the Socialists's worst showing in a national election.
"The Socialists hold the key to the governability of Spain, but also have a fragile leadership and the most at stake," said Jaime Pastor, a professor of politics at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Madrid.
"The Socialists could guarantee our stability by joining a grand coalition" — meaning joining with Mr. Rajoy — "but that could also open the door for Podemos to take over the left."
As difficult as the coalition talks are, however, the resolution of Catalonia's crisis will now place more pressure on national leaders to quickly form a coalition, too.
Short of that, they risk a prolonged period of instability for Spain, which the revived Catalan secession drive and the tension it has generated with Madrid will only add to. Mr. Puigdemont, the new Catalan leader, has taken up where Mr. Mas left off.
In his first speech on Sunday, he told regional lawmakers that his government would put in place a plan to set up the structures of an independent Catalan republic within 18 months, including an autonomous tax agency.
Even before Mr. Puigdemont had been formally voted into office, however, Mr. Rajoy warned him that Spain has "more instruments than ever to defend our unity."
Although Mr. Rajoy's administration has political and legal tools to block the Catalan separatists, their renewed challenge, not least, is likely to start raising concerns about Spain's economic governance.
"What's happening in Catalonia is likely to make the economic lobbies raise the pressure soon on politicians to agree on a coalition that guarantees at least some sort of stability for Spain," said Mr. Pastor, the politics professor.
[Source: By Raphael Minder, The New York Times, Madrid, 11Jan16]
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