Pressure to End Spain Impasse Grows After Catalan Breakthrough

MADRID (Bloomberg) -

Pressure on Spanish political leaders to find a way out of their post-election deadlock rose after Catalonia moved closer to forming a government dedicated to splitting from Spain.

The regional assembly in Catalonia, Spain’s biggest economic region, will hold an emergency session later on Sunday to elect a new leader following the decision of acting President Artur Mas to stand aside. Mas said his decision to quit and nominate Carles Puigdemont, the mayor of Girona, would free the way to form a pro-independence government.

The probable end of a near four-month stalemate in Catalonia gives fresh urgency to politicians in Madrid to resolve their own impasse that resulted from inconclusive elections last month. With Catalonia accounting for about 20 percent of Spain’s output, acting Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy may be able to use developments in Barcelona to strengthen his appeal to other party leaders to forge a coalition aimed at holding the country together.

“This should help negotiations in Madrid and accelerate the formation of a new government,” said Jordi Munoz, a political science professor at Barcelona University. “It adds pressure for some kind of grand coalition.”

The eleventh-hour accord between Mas’s Junts pel Si (“Together for Yes”) group and the anti-capitalist party CUP gives the seats needed to form a coalition of pro-independence forces in Barcelona and avoids the need to call new regional elections.

“If there was a way to avoid elections, out of my patriotic sense I had to choose it,” Mas said at a news conference in Barcelona on Saturday. “At this decisive moment, ways have been found to unblock things that it seemed couldn’t be unblocked.”

“Next stop independence!” Oriol Junqueras, president of the Esquerra Republicana party, Mas’ partner in Junts pel Si, said on his Twitter account. “The future is ours.”

Catalonia is a key piece of Spain’s political jigsaw as parties at the national level seek alliances to build a majority government in Madrid. The prospect of Catalan independence is more than just a political threat the Spain’s integrity: revenue raised from the 7.5 million Catalans is critical to the Spanish state’s ability to fund its activities and service its debt.

The secessionist challenge could put pressure on the Socialists to answer Rajoy’s call for a broad-based coalition to protect Spain’s unity and economic recovery, according to Antonio Barroso, a London-based political analyst at Teneo Intelligence. The Socialists led by Pedro Sanchez have so far dismissed any possibility of entering an alliance that would allow Rajoy to stay on as head of the government.

“The game of chicken between Catalonia and Madrid is going to get worse because they will want to push for an independent state,” Barroso said by telephone. “It’s going to get messy.”

Rajoy’s acting government called on Catalan leaders to abandon their plans to separate from the rest of the nation and stop “creating new tensions,” saying that the legitimacy of Catalan institutions comes from Spain’s constitution. The next national government should have a broad parliamentary base to confront the secessionist challenge, it said.

Rajoy’s People’s Party took the most seats but lost its majority in the Dec. 20 election amid a rise in support for two insurgent parties. The PP returned 123 lawmakers to the Socialists’ 90 seats, with anti-austerity Podemos taking 69 seats and liberal Ciudadanos 40 seats.

Socialist leader Sanchez has said he’ll seek to put together a “progressive alliance” to topple Rajoy, but differences over Catalonia complicate his task. Podemos’s insistence on a referendum for Catalonia is unacceptable to Socialist leaders and is proving an obstacle to Sanchez’s efforts to forge an anti-People’s Party pact.

Albert Rivera, leader of Ciudadanos, which placed second in Catalonia’s elections with 25 seatsafter campaigning to remain a part of Spain, attacked the accord allowing the formation of a pro-independence Catalan government. Rivera, who is from Barcelona, described the deal as “pathetic” on his Twitter account.

Mas, who took over the regional Catalan government in 2010, failed to win the September regional vote outright, and was unable to secure the CUP’s support for his presidency in talks since then. The CUP indicated in a statement after Mas’s decision to stand aside that it would act in line with Junts pel Si “in a stable way.”

The September elections left Junts pel Si with 62 seats in the 135-strong assembly, making Mas reliant on the 10 lawmakers from CUP to secure a separatist majority. A minority of Catalan voters – 48 percent – backed the independence platform in the election, leading the central government in Madrid to claim Mas didn’t have a mandate to pursue his secessionist drive.

Puigdemont, the man set to become Catalan president, is a 53-year-old journalist by profession who became actively involved in politics in 2006. According to El Pais newspaper, in a 2013 speech he quoted Carles Rahola, a Catalan journalist executed by the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s forces, saying that one day “the invaders will be expelled from Catalonia.”