Monday, October 23, 2006

Speak Catalan And Win Points!

Campaigning is well under way for the Catalan elections, due to take place at the beginning of November. The latest opinion polls are showing a slight advantage for the right wing nationalists of Convergència I Unió (CiU), who were probably the main beneficiaries of the prolonged debate over the new autonomy statute for the region. However, these polls indicate that there will be no outright winner of the elections, and a coalition government is again going to be likely. The power brokers in this situation could well be Esquerra Republicana (ERC), the leftist nationalist party. Esquerra got themselves into a contradictory mess in the referendum on the statute, and it looks like the dramatic increases in support that they have obtained in the last few years have now come to an end. Despite this, they are the third biggest party and could opt to support either a nationalist administration led by CiU, or a repeat of the previous three party coalition with the Catalan socialists and the more left wing Iniciativa per Catalunya.

CiU are so far the winners of the award for the silliest electoral proposal, their leader Artur Mas has said that he wants to introduce a points system for immigrants in Cataluña, where demonstrating knowledge of Catalan culture and learning the language would be rewarded with privileges when dealing with the administration over issues such as residence permits. He did state that essential services would not be included in the proposed system, but whether this is the case or not it is clear that the proposal leads to the creation of categories for immigrants. Those who don’t demonstrate enough interest in “integration” will be classified as bad immigrants and punished for this lack of interest. Which category Samuel Eto’o falls into is not clear, given his recent refusal to answer a journalist’s question in Catalan, on the other hand he scores enough goals for his team to escape further punishment. Now that the autonomy statute is out of the way, this kind of proposal forms part of the rivalry between the nationalist parties and the pressure this creates to constantly come up with new proposals that show a greater commitment to the national cause.

The issue of political intimidation has also surfaced in the campaign, although it has been greatly exaggerated. The Catalan leader of the Partido Popular (PP), Josep Piqué, and Angel Acebes (Interior Minister under Aznar), were jostled and generally given a rough reception on arrival at a campaign meeting. The PP always tries to make as much as possible of such incidents, to present an image of being the innocent victims of intolerant nationalists. The incident was not so serious, and the same media that gave it so much attention were strangely quiet when Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira, leader of ERC and a favourite hate figure for the Spanish right, was barracked by a group of neo-nazis a few days later. The PP in Cataluña has very low support, around 7%, a fact which puts in danger its claim to be a nationwide party. Piqué avoids association with the more right wing national leadership wherever possible, and for that reason is detested by many of the more right wing supporters. He knows perfectly well that adopting the positions favoured by the leadership in Madrid would probably result in an even lower percentage of the vote in Cataluña

A victory for CiU will be a blow for the national government, it was an important victory when the Catalan socialists broke years of CiU domination in the regional government at the last elections. Coupled with the fiasco over the selection of a candidate to be mayor of Madrid, defeat in Cataluña could affect PSOE morale in the run up to next year’s municipal elections in the whole country. Unless the polls change significantly, it will be a tight race followed by some very complicated behind the scenes negotiations to form the next government.

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