Ben Margulies – Spain: Does the Catalan Espionage Scandal pose a Danger to the Sánchez Government?

Spain seems to be blessed with a political stalemate giving the minority government an unexpected, but necessary stability during the current Covid and economic crisis.

Ben Margulies is a Political Scientist in the UK

It is not yet clear how the COVID-19 pandemic – which has claimed more than 28,000 lives in Spain – will shape that country’s politics. So far, the pandemic has not altered the most important political trends of the last decade. Spain’s two-party system has not reassembled itself, as five parties continue to claim upwards of 5 percent of the vote in polls. Nor have Spain’s centre-periphery tensions resolved themselves; the July 12 regional elections in the Basque Country saw Basque regionalist and nationalist parties win two-thirds of the vote, while elections in Galicia on the same day saw the Bloque Nacionalista Gallego (BNG) come in a strong second with nearly a quarter of the vote.

There is no current secessionist project in either of these two regions. Only Catalonia’s relationship with the centre has deteriorated that far; in October 2017, Catalan authorities held an unauthorized referendum on the subject. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan premier, tried to declare independence based on the result a few weeks later; the central government in Madrid, then formed by the conservative Partido Popular, suspended the autonomous government of Catalonia. The Catalan nationalists, in turn, supported the Socialists’ (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) vote of no confidence in June 2018; Catalan votes helped elect PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez prime minister, and he in turn promised a dialogue with the Catalan nationalists. Two inconclusive national general elections in 2019 again forced Sánchez to seek the aid of the Catalans; the largest Catalan party, the centre-left Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), abstained on Sánchez’s vote of investiture, allowing him to remain in office in a minority coalition with the left-populist Unidas Podemos.

The Madrid-Barcelona dialogue began only in February 2020, and the next plenary session between the central government’s component parties and the Catalan parties is not due until August. However, a new scandal may threaten the already extremely delicate negotiation process. Researchers affiliated with the University of Toronto found spyware on the mobile phones of two leading Catalan politicians, including Roger Torrent, the president of the Catalan regional parliament. In mid-July, El País, Spain’s newspaper of record, and The Guardian broke the story. Soon after, El País, citing anonymous sources, reported that the Spanish intelligence service, the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones (CNI), possessed such spyware. El País also noted that Spanish intelligence services have monitored the Catalan independence movement before, citing their acquisition of draft secessionist laws during the 2017 crisis.

The Spanish government, the Interior Ministry and the former head of the CNI all deny any espionage. The ERC is calling for parliamentary inquiries in Madrid and Barcelona; Torrent and Ernest Maragall, the other hacked politician, are filing a criminal complaint the former head of the Centro Nacional de Inteligencia. However, Torrent himself has called for negotiations to continue regardless.

Why continue talks? To begin with, no one has confirmed that either Spanish intelligence or police agencies were responsible for the spyware. Catalan nationalist leaders may also be unsure whether to blame the Sánchez government. Earlier this year, the Interior Ministry fired the head of the Guardia Civil (the gendarmerie) in Madrid, after the official sent a report critical of government policy on protests to an investigative judge. In a country less than 40 years removed from its most recent coup attempt, Catalan leaders may not be sure whether the relevant security services were actually acting under government direction.

Another reason that Torrent and his colleagues may prefer to continue talks is that the ERC and other Catalan parties lack leverage. When Sánchez was seeking the votes to become prime minister in 2018 and again in 2019, Catalan deputies played crucial roles, voting yes in the first instance and (in the ERC’s case) abstaining in the second. But once in office, Spanish prime ministers enjoy significant institutional protections. The Spanish constitution requires that a vote of no confidence name, by an absolute majority, a replacement prime minister. Because Sánchez was more favorable to Catalan demands than his Partido Popular predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, he was able to form a majority to replace him. But now the three right-wing parties form the bulk of the opposition, and these are virulently hostile to Catalan independence. The Catalan parties have no natural allies to form an alternate majority.

The opposition parties do not have to agree on policy to block government legislation, including the presupuestos generales del Estado, the budget. But the Spanish Constitution does not require the government to pass a budget to stay in office; if parliament does not pass a budget, the previous year’s budget rolls over into the next year. This would be a political and economic problem, given the need to fight the COVID-19-induced recession, but it would not be a constitutional one.

Furthermore, the most moderate of the Spanish right-wing parties, the liberal Ciudadanos, has sought to encourage transversal support for the budget precisely to deny the ERC any leverage. Though Ciudadanos also opposes dialogue with Catalonia (they call this “the table of shame”), the party may prefer not to blockade the government in the legislature if such obstruction would empower the Catalan nationalists. Although the budget is not constitutionally necessary, it is needed because it will be distributing EU anti-recession relief to regional governments, including Catalonia’s and those run by the opposition right.

The right-wing opposition parties are not in the best position to challenge the government either. The three right-wing parties are also well behind the Socialists in the polls. Ciudadanos has not recovered from its collapse in the November 2019 election, which saw it fall from 57 seats to 10; polls suggest it would not likely exceed 10 percent of the vote were an election held now, and its performance in the Basque and Galician elections was poor.

The Partido Popular is stronger (a July 15th poll put it at 21 percent), and it won an outright majority in Galicia. But that victory demonstrated the continued strength of a moderate wing led by the Galician regional premier, Alberto Núñez Feijóo. The PP’s national party leader, Pablo Casado, is notably more conservative and militant; he has accused the Socialist-led government of treason and illegitimacy for negotiating with Catalan leaders, moving his party towards the populist radical right just as a real radical-right party, Vox, emerged onto the national stage. Casado chose the candidate of the joint PP-Ciudadanos list in the Basque Country; his campaign said a vote for the Socialists was one for Bildu, the left-wing Basque nationalists conservatives associate with ETA terrorism. Casado’s gambit failed; the PP-Ciudadanos list did poorly, though much better than Vox. (The pandemic has seen Vox lose some ground in the polls, perhaps because the Catalan issue is on the backburner.)

So, in the short term, the Catalan espionage scandal, though shocking, probably will not do much to alter the status quo in Spanish politics. The overwhelming urgency of fighting the pandemic makes it hard to justify frustrating the central government. The Catalan parties are not in a position to stop cooperating with the Sánchez government, and are incapable of toppling it. The right is divided and relatively weak.

However, should the scandal continue past the pandemic, or should new revelations emerge, the Catalan parties may find it harder to continue talks. There are three major Catalan parties, and the ERC is the most willing to talk with the central government, meaning it can be outflanked by its more militant competitors (the centre-right Junts per Catalunya and the radical-left Candidats d’Unitat Popular). Catalan regional elections are due by the end of next year, which may bring pressure on the ERC to a head.

Should talks break down, this may in turn benefit the right, especially Vox, which profits from hostility to Catalan demands for independence or greater self-government. The scandal might also erode the cohesion of the Sánchez government, currently a coalition between the PSOE and the leftist-populist Unidas Podemos coalition. Podemos was targeted by a right-wing police dirty-tricks squad during 2015-16, and the party supported the ERC’s call for a parliamentary inquiry.

The collapse of the coalition would be the worst-case scenario; the PSOE would be unable to govern alone, forcing new elections. Even if the coalition government holds firm, he could still face a hostile right and alienated Catalan parties. These would not be able to remove him, but they might be able to thwart his legislative agenda, especially if Ciudadanos becomes uncooperative. A likely result of either scenario would be another round of early – and inconclusive – general elections.

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