Can Podemos win Spain’s next general election?

In memoriam Raymond Carr (1919-2015)

I last spoke here in 2008; so much has happened in Spain since then that the past, paraphrasing L.P. Hartley, does seem like a foreign country where they do things differently.

This year will be a hectic one for the Spanish electorate. It kicked off in March with elections in Andalusia, which were won by the Socialists who have ruled their fiefdom for 33 years. More significantly, these elections confirmed the change in the mould of politics in post-Franco Spain, dominated at the national level by the Socialists and the Popular Party since 1982.

Two new upstart parties, the anti-austerity Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos, took away votes from both the Socialists and the conservative Popular Party and gained 15% and 9%, respectively, of votes in the Andalusian election. The Socialists and the Popular Party gained between them only 62% of the Andalusian votes, down from 80% in 2012. They still managed, however, to win 80 out of the 109 seats. The Socialists held on to their 47 seats, despite prominent party members being embroiled in a mega corruption scandal that is under investigation involving the ripping off of hundreds of millions of euros of public funds.

The Andalusian election will be followed by elections in 13 of the 17 Spanish regions on May 24 as well as local elections, a snap election in September to elect a new parliament in Catalonia, which is moving ahead with its push for independence, and a general election probably in December.

If the opinion polls are to be believed Spain’s two-party system since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975 is set to take a beating in a four horse race. Podemos (which means “We can” – reminiscent of Barack Obama’s slogan “Yes, we can”) is forecast to win the general election, although its support is now waning,

In order to better understand the current political situation, you need to know something about the current state of play in Spain’s economic crisis triggered by the contagion from the subprime mortgage crisis in the US and its impact on Spain’s property boom. The number of housing starts in Spain in 2006, at the height of the illusionary boom, was 865,000 – more than Germany, France and Italy combined. The massive property bubble burst in 2008 – house prices have fallen by more than 35% since then. The number of housing starts plummeted to 35,000 last year. Today, Spain has around 500,000 unsold new homes – roughly the equivalent of two years’ shortfall in the UK- as against one million when the crisis broke. While this country has a dearth of housing, and acutely so in Oxford, Spain has a glut. Perhaps a deal could be struck between the two countries, under which Spain would ship its empty homes to the UK in return for the UK returning Gibraltar to Spain.

A typical example of the property fiasco was the Residencial Francisco Hernando near Madrid, which was intended to triple the population of Seseña in the dry plains of Castile with 13,500 flats. Billed as the Manhattan of La Mancha, the home region of Don Quixote, only around 2,500 had been sold by the time the property bubble burst. Mr. Hernando, the developer, was as deluded as Don Quixote.

The credit-fuelled construction madness was not only confined to the building of houses. Too many airports were also built during the decade-long economic fiesta when the country lived beyond its means. Take the case of Castellón, one of several ghost airports. Carlos Fabra, a Popular Party cacique, opened the airport in 2011 even though it did not have all the permits to operate. Amazing as it may sound, he justified this on the grounds that “anyone who wants can visit the runway, the terminal and the control tower and walk around them, something they could not do if aircraft were taking off.”

There is a 24 metre high copper statue to Fabra at the entrance to the airport. The Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy had lauded Fabra in 2008 as “an exemplary citizen and politician”, words he lived to regret after becoming prime minister at the end of 2011. Ryanair will begin to operate the first scheduled flights in four years from Castellón in September. Fabra is serving a four year jail sentence for tax fraud: his case took a staggering 10 years to come to trial, epitomising another problem – the snail’s pace at which the politicized judiciary moves.

Credit was cheap, thanks to Spain belonging to the euro zone. At one stage interest rates were even negative as Spain’s inflation was higher than the cost of borrowing, encouraging people and companies to borrow as if there was no tomorrow. The one size fits all monetary policy of the European Central Bank was not appropriate for Spain.

With the collapse of the property sector and massive unemployment, loan defaults soared. The non-performing loans of all of Spain’s banks jumped from a negligible 0.7% of total credit in 2006 to a peak of 13.6%, and that figure excludes the toxic property assets of bailed out banks placed in the “bad bank” known as Sareb, which made a loss of €585 million last year.

Many of Spain’s 42 savings banks, known as cajas, – were mortally wounded by the bursting of the property bubble. Regionally based, not listed on the stock market and run by boards packed with political appointees, they fell over one another to make loans. Their number has been reduced to eight today. The collapse of Bankia, the fourth largest bank and the product of the merger of seven ailing cajas, led to a €42 billion EU bailout, which was exited last year.

When the lopsided economy, excessively concentrated on bricks and mortar, went into recession in 2009 jobs began to be shed almost as quickly as they had been created. Those of you who know your Spanish history will remember that the influx of silver and gold from Spain’s colonies in the 17th century ruined the economy, as it lulled the country into a false sense of financial security, stoked inflation and caused the currency to appreciate. The latter day and illusory variant of this wealth was the construction sector.

Spain’s construction sector was also the equivalent of the massive discovery of North Sea oil by Holland in 1959 that led to the expression Dutch disease. Over dependence on the booming construction sector lured labour away from other potentially more sustainable sectors such as manufacturing, fuelled domestic demand and so sucked in imports and eroded competitiveness and hence exports.

The jobless rate soared from a post-Franco historic low of 8% in 2007 (a high rate by UK standards but in Spain regarded as full employment) to a peak of 26% in 2013 and today has inched down to around 23%. Four Spanish regions out of a total of 272 in the European Union are among the 10 regions with the highest unemployment rates. Of the 3.5 million jobs lost since 2008, 1.7 million came from the construction sector alone. You may well ask what holds Spain together. The short answer is the extended family and the informal economy.

As the economy roared along, so more and more students dropped out of school at 16 when they completed their basic obligatory education to work in construction. In 2009, the early school leaving rate peaked: 31% of those aged between 18 and 24 in Spain had left school at 16, more than double the European Union average. The Spain’s rate was on a downward trend until the year 2000. The figure is now down to 22%, still very high, as there it no option but to keep on studying.

The salaries of unskilled labour rose at a much faster rate than those of skilled workers during the boom. If education does not pay why stay on at school when you could drop out, earn a good wage with no skills needed and buy a car by the time you were 18?

When the crash came the early school leavers were among the first to lose their jobs.

Not only is unemployment still very high, but also around one-quarter of those aged between 15 and 29 are not in employment, education or training. These people – many of whom dropped out of school for the construction sector – form a “lost generation”. They are so poorly qualified that their prospects of finding meaningful employment are slim, and the creation of a more knowledge-based economy is something of a pipedream.

Construction-related corruption has been rife among politicians, especially at the municipal level with re-zoning and building permits, fertile ground for greasing palms. It is no coincidence that the regions with the most intense construction booms, such as Valencia, were the ones where corruption flourished the most. More than 800 town halls (10% of the total) today are under investigation and several thousand people have been accused in corruption cases. In 2013, Spain slipped 10 places in the annual corruption perception ranking of the Berlin-based Transparency International to 40th position out of 177 countries, still much better than Italy. Spain’s score of 59 was six points lower. The nearer to 100, the cleaner the country.

Spain finally fell into line with the rest of the European Union at the end of last year when its first ever Transparency Law came into effect. The new law – almost 40 years after the end of the Franco dictatorship – only operates at the state level (it will be extended to municipal and regional levels, where most corruption occurs, this December).

The construction boom lured more than 4 million foreigners to Spain between 1998 and 2008. No other country in Europe has received so many immigrants in such a short space of time. When I first came to Spain in 1974 I was one of 165,000 foreigners. Today, I am one of 5 million, and that figure excludes naturalised Spaniards. Spain’s foreign-born population represents around 11% of the total population, almost the same as the UK, but Spain, to its credit, does not have a UKIP style party.

The Popular Party, which ousted the Socialists at the end of 2011, has implemented the severest austerity measures in Spain’s post-Franco democracy. It has raised income tax and VAT rates, in order to reduce the budget deficit, and injected more flexibility into a still rigid labour market. As in this country, spending cuts are weakening the welfare state. The annual rise in pension payments is no longer linked to inflation and the retirement age is gradually being put back from 65 to 67. This is a sensible reform: Spaniards are living longer (the average life expectancy is 83 years, one year more than we Brits).

The economy is finally growing – by around 2.9% this year, higher than the UK though the pre-crisis GDP level has yet to be restored – but the jobless rate will not drop below 20% until 2017. The Roman Catholic charity Caritas distributed food, clothes and help to 2.5 million people (one in 20 Spaniards) last year.

Now for the politics. It is not surprising that there is a lot of tangible anger in Spain: at corruption, at the crony capitalism of amigotes, at the established political class (an extractive elite to use a term gaining popularity), at growing inequality and at the impact of the economic crisis. As for enchufismo and nepotism (the negative side of the otherwise admirable importance given to the family), the head of the Tribunal de Cuentas, the Court of Auditors, had to explain himself to a parliamentary committee after it was discovered that around 100 of the 700 employees were related to the Tribunal’s current and former senior management and to its trade union representatives. In another case, the PP’s cacique in Orense, José Luis Baltar, was disqualified from public office for nine years after he personally appointed 104 people to the Diputación Provincial which he headed for 25 years and which is now run by his son. If Spain were a meritocracy, the chairman of Madrid’s failed bid to host the Olympic Games in 2020, a post where speaking English is vital, would not have got the job. He responded to a question in English last September by the International Olympic Committee at the crucial meeting to decide the winning country with the words, “No listen the ask”, a peculiar way of saying he did not hear the question put to him.

If you think I am critical of my adopted country, you should listen to Spaniards. As the great poet Antonio Machado said, in the mouth of Juan de Mairena, “Hay que ser español para decir las cosas que se dicen contra España.”

One of the main defects of Spain’s democracy is the colonization by the two main parties of institutions, including the governing body of the judiciary and the Court of Auditors. This has deprived Spain of an effective system of checks and balances and led to a considerable degree of impunity.

When Chris Huhne, the former UK energy minister, resigned from the Cabinet and gave up his parliamentary seat, after he was accused and then found guilty of perverting the course of justice for asking his then wife to take three speeding points, Spaniards were gobsmacked to put it mildly. Nothing remotely approaching that happens in Spain and for far worse offences.

Political reform is badly needed, particularly of the closed-list system in elections that gives so much power to a party’s apparatus at the expense of accountability, and makes politicians sycophantic. Under the closed-list system, as opposed to the open list, voters vote for the whole list of a party’s candidates. Candidates are elected to parliament in the order they appear on the list (as decided by the party) until all the seats have been filled.

Podemos and Ciudadanos are channeling this anger. The latest opinion poll gives Podemos 22.1% of the votes if a general election was held today, the Socialists 21.9%, the Popular Party 20.8% and Ciudadanos 19.4%. Only three percentage points separates Podemos from Ciudadanos. As in Britain, Spain’s political landscape has changed considerably since the last general election at the end of 2011. Whether the opinion polls are correct we will not know until the day, but what is increasingly clear is that the elections will be a four horse and not a two horse race.

Podemos was born out of the grassroots movement of los indignados (the indignant one), which grabbed world headlines almost exactly four years ago when thousands of mainly young people occupied the Puerta del Sol square in the heart of Madrid and set up camp for a month (and, incidentally, inspired the Occupy Wall Street movement). Podemos’ name is reminiscent not just of Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan, but also a TV jingle for Spain’s European and World Cup-winning football team.

The most memorable slogan to come out of the movement of the indignant ones was that shouted in front of Spain’s parliament when protestors waved loaves of bread above their heads and screamed: “There isn’t enough bread for so many chorizos!” A chorizo is a swindler or cheat and not just a spicy sausage, often sliced and served in a bocadillo.

Podemos is a fascinating phenomenon and you should not draw too many parallels with its ally Syriza, which won Greece’s election in January. For a start, Spain’s crisis is nowhere near as profound as that in Greece, which is the nearest we have to a failed state in Europe.

Podemos became a political party in January 2014 and stunned Spain’s political establishment as well as itself by winning 1.2 million votes (8% of the total) in last May’s European election and five seats in the parliament in Brussels. Podemos captured voters from across the political spectrum, mainly from the Socialists and the United Left but also from the Popular Party, and all of them united by their disgust at a political, business and banking establishment that Podemos has successfully labelled la casta (the cast). For the first time in Spain’s post-Franco democracy, the Popular Party and the Socialists captured between them less than 50% of the total votes in an election.

Podemos is led by the 36-year-old pony-tailed and media-savvy Pablo Iglesias, a political science lecturer at Madrid’s Complutense University who is named after the man who founded the Socialist Party in 1879. His parents first met at a remembrance ceremony in front of Iglesias’s tomb in Madrid’s main cemetery.

The faculty of political sciences is well known for its long standing commitment to far-left ideology. Iglesias was a member of the Communist Youth Union of Spain, part of the anti-globalisation movement and an admirer of Venezuela’s autocratic and economically populist Hugo Chávez and other radical Latin American leaders such as Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia. He still lives in a modest flat in Vallecas, one of Madrid’s poorest areas, on a graffiti-daubed 1980s estate of apartment blocks. “Defend your happiness, organize your rage,” reads one graffiti slogan.

Iglesias wrote his PhD thesis on disobedience and anti-globalisation protests and was awarded a cum laude grade. He was deeply influenced by Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker who argued that a key battle was over the machinery that shaped political opinion. Iglesias also found inspiration in the works of the Argentine academic Ernesto Laclau who worked at the University of Essex and those of his Belgian wife Chantal Mouffe (now at the University of Westminster). Laclau and Mouffe argued that the socialist should no longer focus on class warfare, but seek to unite discontented groups against a clearly defined enemy, usually the establishment. One way of doing this was through a charismatic leader – and Iglesias is certainly a spellbinding orator, having honed his technique with a presenter’s course at the academy of the state television RTVE and some theatre work. As of January 2013 Iglesias has a programme called Fort Apache on HispanTV, a Spanish language TV channel operated by IRIB, Iran’s state-owned public broadcasting corporation. Fort Apache opened with Iglesias astride a Harley Davidson Sportster motorbike, placing a helmet over his head and – after a close-up of his eyes – slinging a massive crossbow across his back before roaring off. “Watch your head, white man. This is Fort Apache!” he warned in the trailers.

Iglesias has become something of a rock star. Everyone knows who is “el coletas” (the pony-tailed one).

Podemos advocates direct democracy. Its use of transparency websites (detailing all spending, including salaries), voting tools and online debate is already cutting-edge. Its Plaza Podemos debating site regularly attracts between 10,000 and 20,000 daily visitors. The party has cleverly listened to the voice of discontent in the street and repackaged it and transmitted it
to a wider audience.

Podemos’ economic programme began with radical demands for a 35-hour workweek, a guaranteed basic income for the needy, retirement at 60, laws to prevent profitable companies from firing people, a fairer distribution of wages, abolishing private hospitals in order to have a fully state-controlled health care system and a restructuring of Spain’s debt with its international lenders.

Realising that much of this is not practical and potentially alienating some voters, Podemos has engineered a U-turn and moved its economic policy toward Nordic style social democracy.

Juan Carlos Monedero, the party’s chief ideologue, refers maliciously to Spain’s transition to democracy as the “regime of 1978”, in allusion to the democratic constitution of that year. For Spaniards the term regime is associated with the Franco regime. As someone who lived through and reported on Spain’s remarkably smooth transition, between 1975 and 1978, there is no question that it has given Spain its longest period of prosperity, freedom and peace in its history.

Monedero, incidentally, has been implicated in tax abuses, which was particularly bad news for Podemos given its narrative presenting itself as the “clean” alternative to the old corrupt elites. Last week, in the first crack in the party, he quit the Podemos leadership, accusing it of sacrificing its principles in its U-turn toward social democracy.

Of course, the transition was not perfect. The deal negotiated by Francoist politicians and the democratic opposition left in place the bulk of civil servants, the judiciary and the security forces, as one would expect since the transition was negotiated and not a rupture with the past. There were very real fears at the time of a right wing backlash by the armed forces – indeed there was an attempted and bloodless coup in 1981 in an attempt to turn back the clock.

We should not forge that unlike say Chile and South Africa, which also moved to democracy, Spain’s transition came out of not only a dictatorship, which lasted 36 years, but also an horrendous civil war between 1936 and 1939. The blame for most of Spain’s ills cannot be laid at the door of the transition.

As well as the transition, the institution of the monarchy is also under scrutiny. The abdication of King Juan Carlos last year in favour of his son Felipe triggered demonstrations in favour of restoring the republic that was defeated in 1939 at the end of the Civil War. The republic had been declared in 1931 when Juan Carlos’s grandfather, Alfonso XIII, went into exile after municipal elections showed widespread support for a republic. Franco appointed Juan Carlos his successor in 1969 and he took over as head of state when the dictator died in 1975.

Spain has far more important problems to resolve than the form of its state. Furthermore, parliamentary monarchies are generally cheaper to maintain than republics. The budget of Spain’s royal’s household is £6.4 million, that of France’s Élysée presidential palace £100 million. A Felipe González or a José María Aznar, former prime ministers, would, as presidents, not be above the political fray in very partisan Spain as much as a Juan Carlos was or his son Felipe VI is proving to be. I know Felipe a little as he is the honorary chairman of the think tank for whom I work.

Pablo Iglesias broke with protocol when he met King Felipe last month during his visit to the European Parliament and gave him the DVD of the first series Game of Thrones. Iglesias said he chose this particular series because it depicted an “old world falling apart. The conflicting interests of the various families have plunged the kingdoms into misery, violence and sadness. In this panorama, new leaders, new armies, appear from beyond the established frontiers to make their challenge with new options, new ways of relating to a people tired of so many wars.” It was not a very subtle message.

Ciudadanos is a Catalonia-based centre-right party created nine years ago that came to the notice of wider Spain as of 2012 when it opposed the movement in the region for a separate Catalan state, which culminated last November with the holding of an illegal referendum. The party’s influence is beginning to spread outside Catalonia, particularly among those who previously voted for the Popular Party and are looking for an alternative. It did rather well in its first election in Spain outside its home region when it captured 9% of the votes in Andalusia, not a region that is particularly fertile ground for such a party.

Ciudadanos is a safe alternative to Podemos. Its 35-year-old leader Alberto Rivera summed up the differences between Ciudadanos and Podemos by saying that whereas his party wants justice, Podemos wants revenge.

The rise of Podemos would appear to suggest that Spain is moving radically leftward, but this is refuted by the ideological self-placement scale which over the last 20 years has hardly ever dropped below 4.5 where 5.0 is the center (10 extreme right and 0 extreme left). The average indicator was 4.4 in February (latest figure) compared to 4.9 in December 2011 when the last general election was held.

Spaniards, in my view, are conservative and not up for any adventures which is why I believe Podemos has hit a ceiling and Ciudadanos has not yet done so. The recklessness in power of Syriza is also doing Podemos no good.

Podemos did not do that well in the Andalusian election. With unemployment at 34% (10 percentage points above the national rate) and an early school-leaving rate of 29%, Podemos had a large pool of discontent upon which to draw voters. Surprisingly, however, only 64% of Andalusians bothered to vote, the third lowest turn-out in the region’s electoral history.

Rivera, the leader of Ciudadanos, is still only known by 77% of respondents, according to the latest Metroscopia poll, but in April he was the most approved political leader (53%), while Pablo Iglesias is known by almost everyone but only won a 29% approval rating.

Rivera believes that one of Spain’s main problems is that the country has not had a project that unites the country and moves it towards a shared goal since the previous Popular Party government of José María Aznar. Adolfo Suárez, the prime minister after the death of Franco in 1975, engineered the transition to democracy, Felipe González, the Socialist prime minister between 1982 and 1996, began the modernization of the economy and gained Spain’s entry into the European Union, and Aznar made Spain one of the founder members of the euro zone. Since 2008, first with the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and then as of the end of 2011 with the Popular Party’s Mariano Rajoy, Spain, says Rivera, has drifted rudderless, with party projects but not one for the country as a whole. As he recently wrote in El País, “The two establishment parties have been more concerned with saving the reputation of their obsolete organisations than in helping citizens.” This resonates with Spaniards who are fed up with the bickering between the Socialists and the Popular Party and their inability to put aside their differences for the good of the country.

Ciudadanos is pro-business. Its chief economic advisor is Luis Garicano, a professor at the LSE. The party would invest less in infrastructure and more in education and R&D. This is sensible. Being trapped in a monstrous traffic queue on the M3 and M25 last month for four hours when I drove from Exeter to Gatwick, because of accidents, after addressing the annual conference of Hispanists, brought home to me how superior Spanish transport infrastructure is to the UK’s. Spain, however, has spent far too much on public works – the source of much corruption – at the expense of education.

The party would take a tougher line on tax evasion and fraud, do more to train the unemployed, seek to reduce the differences between insiders (those with permanent contracts) and outsiders (those with temporary contracts) in the labour market and encourage migrants with certain skills to come to Spain. Ciudadanos proposes the introduction of a so-called single contract whereby workers would gain protection rights gradually, instead of the existing dual system of contracts with high and low levels of protection. Ciudadanos is also in favour of a greater separation of Church and State in Spain.

While the PP and the Socialists continue to enjoy the most support in rural areas and among voters over the age of 55, in towns and cities of more than 50,000 inhabitants and among younger voters it is a tighter race between the four parties.

The votes of those aged between 18 and 24 could be decisive. According to a study, fewer than 5% of voters in that age bracket support the Popular Party today compared to 30% at the last general election in 2011, and something similar, though less pronounced, has happened to the Socialist party.

Until the arrival of Ciudadanos, Unión Progresso y Democracia (UPyD) was the party that attracted those discontented with the political elite. UPyD, however, has failed to live up to expectations and did very badly in the Andalusian election where it won just 1.9% of the vote. Riven by personality differences and the authoritarian leadership of Rosa Diez, UPyD voters are moving in droves to Ciudadanos. The logic would be for the two parties to formally merge as ideologically they are basically in tune with one another. Each side blames the other for the failure to do this.

UPyD was founded in 2007 – one year after Ciudadanos – after Zapatero beat Rosa Diez in the primary to lead the Socialist party. She is thus identified with the discredited past, whereas Rivera is associated with the future.

The Socialists and the PP between them captured 73% of the vote at the last general election in 2011, down from a peak of 84% in 2008. According to the latest poll, they would get 43%.

If the voter intention polls turn out to be correct at the general election then no party would be able to form a government on its own and the options would be a minority government, a coalition or gridlock which is what worries many people. Spain has had two experiences of minority governments in the last 30 years, one in 1993 with the Socialists and the other in 1996 with the Popular Party, but never a coalition. I believe I am right in saying Spain is the only country in the European Union not to have had a coalition government.

You should not read too much into this opinion poll because the rules of the proportional electoral system need to be taken into account. A complex formula ensures that any party that does not reach 25% of the votes will be under-represented in parliament, while the rules ensure that regionalist parties are well represented at the national level. These factors could constrain Podemos and Ciudadanos. Most of their supporters live in big cities: if they cannot boost their rural vote they will not do as well on election day as the polls suggest.

The Popular Party hopes that the gradual upturn in the economy and job creation, albeit mainly precarious jobs, will swing voters around to the party at the polls. Like the Conservative Party here and its stance toward the opposition Labour Party, the PP’s simplistic electoral strategy will be to heap blame on the Socialist opposition for getting Spain into its mess and ask voters whether they want a repeat of the same. The Socialists, in turn, like the Labour Party here, will blame the PP for weakening the welfare state and endless austerity.

It would not be a bad thing for Spain to have a coalition government. Everything depends on the mathematics of the results. Three-quarters of respondents in an opinion poll last month said they were in favour of a national pact between the main parties – which is not the same as a coalition – and 77% welcomed the PP and the Socialists no longer dominating political life.

The most likely outcomes, in my view, would be the PP or the Socialists with Ciudadanos, rather than with Podemos, which I find this less likely. This could also be an option if the PP emerges por los pelos with the most votes and decides to go it alone with a minority government and seeks pacts on a case by case basis. Personally, I would like the PP and the Socialists to form a German-style coalition and be condemned to understand one another.

Lastly, I do not want to finish without alluding to the ongoing problem of Catalonia, Spain’s economic powerhouse, which unlike Scotland was barred from holding an referendum on the issue because it is unconstitutional. Nevertheless, the Catalan government defied the Constitutional Court and went ahead last November with a pseudo non-binding referendum, manned by volunteers, in which 2.3 million people voted out of 6.3 million eligible voters. 1.8 million people voted in favour of independence and 500,000 against. Supports of independence hailed it as a victory, although the voter turnout was only 37%. Artur Mas, Catalonia’s premier, faces charges related to the holding of this illegal referendum.

Catalonia, with its own language, history and culture, has long had secessionist aspirations, but they did not come to a head until a landmark ruling in 2010 by the Constitutional Court which struck down parts of a new statute setting out the relationship between Catalonia and Spain. The statute, which would have further bolstered Catalan autonomy, had been approved by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments, and was backed by a referendum in the region. Catalan nationalists felt betrayed and the independence movement took off. The push for a separate state has also been intensified by Spain’s crisis which has highlighted the perceived unfairness of Catalan tax transfers to the rest of the country and led, so pro-independence supporters say, to tougher spending cuts in the region than otherwise would be the case.

The central government in Madrid and Catalonia remain on a collision course. Mas has called an early election to be held in September which is intended to serve as a plebiscite on independence. This is a gamble. The last time he called an early election, it backfired on his centre-right CiU coalition which lost 12 seats. The more radical and historically pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia won 11 more seats and this time round is forecast to win the election. Mas had hoped to persuade the Republican Left to field a joint list of candidates, but it rejected the idea.

Catalan independence would put an end to Spain. Not only is its contribution, in terms of people and economic output, far greater than that of Scotland, but were it to secede from Spain it could have a domino effect, particularly in the Basque Country, traditionally the main focus of secessionist tensions in Spain.