Artur Mas, the Catalan president, was both clear winner and biggest loser in regional elections on November 25, leaving his march towards statehood up in the air and ushering in years of messy strife with Madrid.
"The next independent country within Europe", as separatist posters across this stateless nation had billed Catalonia, will have to wait, and the region's 7.5-million inhabitants risk being thrown into a bitter, confrontational internal debate.
Mas's Convergence and Union nationalist coalition lost a fifth of its deputies in the 135-seat regional Parliament, but its 50 deputies are still twice as many as any other party has. No one else can form a government and Mas can, in theory, choose between three partners to prop him up. The clearly separatist Catalan Republican Left party (ERC) doubled its representation to 21 seats and is his most likely partner as he prepares for another four years of minority government.
The ERC will try to stiffen Mas's separatist spine, but it must battle against those in the coalition who would rather put the issue on the back burner. The socialists and the local branch of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy's People's Party could also each provide enough deputies to guarantee him a stable government, but would not give him the backing he wants to drive the sovereignty issue forward.
The surge in support for ERC was proof of growing polarisation. It was mirrored by the rise of the anti-separatist Citizens party, which tripled its number of deputies from three to nine. Both results are a sign of a new and difficult social reality in Catalonia and how that polarisation may spread beyond day-to-day politics.
In L'Hospitalet, a mostly working-class part of greater Barcelona, people whose families migrated from elsewhere in Spain in the 1950s and 1960s complained that Mas was seeking to divide the population into good Catalans, who supported independence, and bad ones, who did not. Already neighbours were hanging out different banners – of Catalonia, Spain or southern Andalusia – in a miniature war of flags.
In an interview, Mas said Catalonia would win independence by peaceful means or not at all. But on election night he said he had not won the clear majority he had asked for in order to invest him with the authority to lead Catalonia towards independence. Having failed that test, he must now pass another: keeping Catalans bound together even as they argue about how much – and how – they want to remain Spaniards.
In the meantime, Mas must deal with the unpleasant reality of governing a region that is short of money. In his interview he made it clear this meant more cuts to and no relief for many traditional Catalan gripes, such as paying for toll roads.
Quite how he squares this with the leftwing ERC is another mystery. The sight of ERC trading cuts for separatism will do little to win it long-term support. It has a chance to show where its priorities lie. – © Guardian News & Media 2012