Spanish Premier Rajoy Ousted: What Does It Mean for Catalonia?

Today, Spain’s Congress of Deputies ousted long serving Premier Mariano Rajoy. Rajoy made international headlines throughout 2017 when his government led a brutal crackdown on peaceful Catalan demonstrators and voters during an independence referendum in which 92% of voters opted to form an independent Catalan Republic. After the vote, Rajoy refused to recognise the referendum and instead imposed direct rule over Catalonia before calling for new regional elections where once again pro-independence parties came out on top in Barcelona.

Domestically however, numerous corruption scandals led to Rajoy and his right-wing People’s Party being ousted from power in the first vote of no confidence against a sitting premier in modern Spanish history. Crucially, pro-independence Catalan parties helped to bring about Rajoy’s parliamentary downfall and many pro-independence leaders in Barcelona are already celebrating the downfall of their infamous nemesis.

A new Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez will now form a government led by his centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). While the PSOE tends to favour a less hard-line approach to Barcelona vis-a-vis the People’s Party which has often been accused of harbouring neo-Falangismo tendencies, by no means is the PSOE in favour of any part of Spain seceding. Instead, Sánchez is on record advocating for a federal model that would see regions like Catalonia receive more autonomy within Spain.

In this sense, hard-line pro-independence Catalans will likely feel less joy about the arrival of Sánchez than they are feeling about the long awaited ouster of Rajoy. However, an unintended effect of the new PSOE government could be a dwindling of support for independence among Catalans not fully committed to the cause of independence. In this sense, as Sánchez may be willing to make concessions along the lines of a federated Spain, some of the wind could be taken out of the sails of the independence movement whereas with Rajoy in power, Madrid’s uncompromising and brutal suppression of Catalan democracy led many to join the independence movement more as an act of rebellion against a right-wing Spanish government than because of long held views regarding independence.

Under the PSOE there remains a window of opportunity for political refugees from Catalonia, including ousted former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to return home without fear of arrest. While the Rajoy government issued European Arrest Warrants against the politicians who led the 2017 Independence Declaration, these warrants could be dropped under the PSOE although such a reality is still far from guaranteed.

Puigdemont who is currently living in exile in Belgium expressed his own feelings of caution in the following Tweet where he stated,

“If we wanted revenge, today we could be satisfied. But since we seek justice, we still can not celebrate anything. We have a long struggle and a long way to overcome the injustices, which are many and persistent”.

Puigdemont is correct to express caution as from the perspective of committed Catalan independence activists, a struggle against Rajoy which was a direct clash, has now become a struggle which will be based on trying to maintain pro-independence momentum in the face of a new government in Madrid that expresses in more moderate terms, a policy not entirely dissimilar from that of Rajoy. While the new government may well give concessions to Catalonia and other independence minded regions, independence remains a red line even for the new government.

Ultimately, the question for Catalans is whether they seek to attain some sort of enhanced federal autonomy under the PSOE or whether Catalans intend to challenge Sánchez to accept independence or else resort to the same strongman tactics of the ousted Rajoy.

No matter what one’s feelings are on the Catalan question, today’s change of government in Madrid still leaves much to be answered.

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