Catalan trial: Will Spanish Socialists survive snap polls?

Catalan parties voted against a national spending measure, ensuring snap polls that could mean right-wing gains.

Madrid, Spain – The Spanish government is expected to announce snap elections after the minority Socialist government failed to pass a national budget during a Wednesday vote.

Votes against the budget came from parties across the political spectrum and totalled 189 of the 350-seat Congress of Deputies, ensuring an early end to the legislature. The polls are expected to take place in mid-April.

The spotlight rested on Catalan nationalist parties who announced last week they would not support it after the government’s refusal to negotiate Catalan self-determination.

The tension between the ruling Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) and the Catalan nationalists is based around the trial of 12 Catalan leaders in connection with a failed 2017 independence bid.

The Catalan leaders on trial, including former regional Vice President Oriol Junqueras and nine other former government ministers, face as much as 25 years each on charges of rebellion, disobedience and embezzlement.

The Spanish Supreme Court has been accused of 'politicisation' [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera] 
The Spanish Supreme Court has been accused of ‘politicisation’ [Creede Newton/Al Jazeera] 

Catalan nationalists had hoped to hold negotiations with PSOE about self-determination, including the possibility of a state-recognised independence referendum.

But Maria Jesus Montero, the Spanish minister of the treasury, told reporters on Tuesday the government “doesn’t want nor is it able to negotiate outside the walls of the constitution”, which does not recognise any Spanish region’s right to secede.

In Madrid, the trial’s political fallout weighs heavily on the minds of residents.

Xose do Covelo, a waiter at a restaurant near Madrid’s Atocha train station, told Al Jazeera he was aware the trial “will have national consequences” for the foreseeable future.

Covelo didn’t have an opinion about Catalonia’s secession, but he liked to watch the news: “For me, it’s like a play. We don’t know if the prime minister will stay or go, nor Catalonia.”

Complicated political terrain

Catalonia held an independence referendum in October 2017 viewed as illegal by the Spanish government. That same month, the restive region unilaterally declared independence from Spain.

The central government stripped Catalonia of its autonomy and called new elections for December 2017, hoping that the polls would put a pro-union coalition in power.

A right-wing unionist party won the most seats but separatists still managed to secure a ruling coalition in the regional government.

PSOE holds 84 seats in Spain’s Congress of Deputies, roughly half the number needed for a majority. The centre-left party has a tenuous alliance with a left-wing coalition headed by Podemos that holds 67 seats.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of PSOE has been in power since June 2018, after conservative former Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy failed a no-confidence vote.

The rest of PSOE’s confidence votes come from pro-independence parties in the Basque region and Catalonia, like the Catalan Republic Left and Catalan European Democratic Party, who hold a combined 17 seats.

Last Monday, the pro-independence parties threatened to oppose the budget unless Sanchez made concessions on Catalonia’s right to self-determination.

The shadow to the right

If the spending measure isn’t passed, Sanchez plans to call elections in mid-April, hoping it will mobilise left-wing voters, Spanish media reported.

The ruling coalition has strengthened Spain’s social welfare system, which was gutted by years of austerity measures implemented by the right-wing People’s Party (PP), which ruled from 2011 to 2018.

Observers said the dictatorship between 1939 and 1975 inoculated Spain against the kind of far-right groups that have made electoral gains across the continent.

Still, a right-wing resurgence is possible. The far-right Vox party, which has been called Islamophobic and antifeminist, won 12 seats in the 2018 regional elections in the southern region of Andalusia, helping PP and right-wing Citizens Party form a coalition that unseated PSOE after over 30 years of uninterrupted rule.

Vox, PP and Citizens called a protest against Sanchez’s rule in Madrid on Sunday that saw at least 45,000 attendants.

According to official polls conducted by Spain’s Centre for Sociological Studies (CIS) released on January 31, Vox has surged in the polls.

Vox would win 6.5 percent of the vote, CIS said, up from 3.7 percent in December. Coupled with PP’s 14.9 percent and Citizens’ 17.7 percent, a right-wing coalition is conceivable.

Sebastian Balfour, an emeritus professor of history at the London School of Economics who specialises in modern Spain, told Al Jazeera the PSOE government’s fall could lead to “the parties of the centre-right and right, including the far-right Vox” winning in general elections.

However, PSOE would win nearly 30 percent, with Podemos garnering another 15.4 percent.

Those numbers didn’t bother PP’s leader, Pablo Casado, who said on Tuesday that “if it’s decided to call elections, they will be welcome”.

Sanchez’s government is “dead and doesn’t know it”, he said.

Source: Al Jazeera