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Fragmentation: The Tribalisation of Politics

‘Homo economicus’ is dead. Long live ‘homo tribuarius’!

That’s not really something to celebrate, but it’s certainly true that in most democratic countries economic self-interest is no longer the most important factor in voters’ choices. Tribalism of various sorts is taking its place, and that is not an improvement.

Take three quite different countries that are all stalled in the middle of political transitions that would have been done and dusted in no time twenty years ago: Spain, Israel and the United Kingdom.

Spain has just had its fourth election in four years, and the stalemate is worse than ever. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez went back to the polls in the hope of increasing his
centre-left PSOE party’s seats in parliament enough to make the arithmetic work. He had no chance of winning an overall majority, of course, but maybe with a few more seats and a more willing coalition partner….

Not a chance. He went back to parliament with a few less seats, and so did his skittish intended coalition partner, Unidos Podemos. They have now swallowed their pride and agreed on a coalition, but they still need 21 seats from elsewhere for a majority, and it’s hard to see where that will come from.

This is not how things used to be. A couple of decades ago the PSOE and its centre-right rival, the People’s Party, used to sweep up 80% of the vote, leaving just scraps for the ‘minor’ parties. In last April’s election, the two historic ‘major’ parties only got 48% of the votes between them.

Or consider Israel, where two elections this year failed to any set of political parties – out of a total of nine – with enough common ground to build a coalition government that works. The two ‘major’ parties together got only 51% of the votes.

Binyamin Netayahu’s Likud party tried and failed to form a coalition government. Benny Ganz’s Blue and White Party is still trying, and there is talk of a power-sharing ‘grand coalition’ between the two biggest parties, but otherwise Israel is probably heading for a third election within months.

Even if there is a deal between Likud and the Blue and White Party, the resulting government would be prone to fall apart at the first bump in the road. As that perspicacious political observer Donald Trump said on Monday, “They keep having elections and nobody gets elected.”

And then there’s the United Kingdom, stuck in the Brexit swamp for over three years and still looking for the exit. The two big traditional parties, Labour and the Conservatives, managed to win 80% of the vote in the last election, but subsequent defections from both the big parties made a decision on what kind of Brexit it should be (if any) impossible. Why is this happening?

In Britain, the Labour-Conservative disagreement used to be basically economic. Labour sought to redistribute the wealth, the Conservatives tried to defend the existing order, and most people made their choices according to their position in the economic pyramid.

That was never entirely true, of course. Some intellectuals in posh houses voted for Labour, and the Conservatives always managed to attract some working-class votes by stressing racial, sectarian and ‘values’ issues. But most people did vote for their economic interests.

Not now. The Conservatives are the pro-Brexit party, but 42% of their traditional voters supported ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. Similarly, one-third of traditional Labour voters backed ‘Leave’. Never mind the economy; the referendum was driven by English nationalism. Or tribalism, if you prefer.

You can find similarly indecisive outcomes all over the place. The two traditional ‘major’ parties in Germany got only 54% of the vote in the last election. In 2017, the Netherlands went 208 days without a government. In 2018 Sweden went four months ‘ungoverned’ before a coalition was finally formed.

You can’t blame these outcomes on ‘the internet’, although that certainly makes it easier to spread disinformation. You can’t just blame it on ‘proportional representation’ voting systems, either: the UK has a simple winner-takes-all (or ‘first-past-the-post’) system. You probably can blame it on a rising level of anger everywhere, but then you have to explain the anger.

The one common denominator that might explain it is the growing disparity of wealth – the gulf between the rich and the rest – in practically every democratic country.

Since the 1970s, income growth for households on the middle and lower rungs of the ladder has slowed sharply in almost every country, while incomes at the top have continued to grow strongly. The concentration of income at the very top is now at a level last seen 90 years ago during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ – just before the Great Depression.

We could fix this by politics, if we can get past the tribalisation. Or we could ‘fix’ it by wars, the way we did last time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“Even…elected”; and “That was…interests”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Catalan Dilemma

The demonstrations, some of them violent, are still going on in Catalonia a week after Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced nine separatist leaders to between nine and thirteen years in prison for sedition. This was the last thing Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez needed three weeks before a national election in which his Socialist Party was already losing ground to right-wing nationalist parties.

Catalan separatists are convinced that the evil ‘Spanish state’ as a whole is conspiring to crush their movement, but the Court had little choice because those leaders deliberately broke the law. They held an illegal independence referendum two years ago in which few people except the separatists voted, and used that ‘victory’ to proclaim independence.

Opinion poll always show that a majority of people in Catalonia don’t want independence, but 92% of those who participated in the referendum voted for it. It was cynical manipulation which exploited the fact that the anti-separatist parties in Catalonia all told their supporters not to vote in an illegal poll.

The bid for independence failed when Madrid dissolved the regional parliament and removed the separatists from office. In the subsequent provincial election in December 2017, the pro-independence parties got 47.7% of the vote, so the separatists would probably have lost a real referendum by the same margin.

Yet it was the separatists who formed the next provincial government too, because they enjoy strong support in rural constituencies where almost everybody speaks Catalan. As in most countries, the system gives more weight to rural voters, so the separatists won five more seats in parliament than the pro-Spain parties and are still in power.

The real problem for the separatists is that about half the people in Catalonia are Spanish-speakers who have no interest whatever in seceding from Spain. Some are relatively recent arrivals, but most were born in Catalonia, the children and grandchildren of migrants from other parts of Spain who were attracted by the booming economy.

It’s still one of the richest parts of Spain, and – again as in most developed countries – some of its tax revenues are transferred to help poorer regions of the country. This is bitterly resented by most Catalan-speakers and partly explains the drive for independence, although the most powerful factor is simply ethnic nationalism.

How can ethnic Catalans achieve their goal in a democratic way, however, when half the voters by definition are not interested in it? The only way is somehow to define Spanish-speakers as not really full citizens of Catalonia, and although they never say that in so many words that was their unspoken justification for the manipulation they practised in the 2017 ‘referendum’.

Josep Borrel, Spain’s foreign minister, but himself a Catalan, recently offered a lethal analysis of this attitude: “I think the root of the problem is that the independence movement denies the ‘Catalanness’ of those people who aren’t in favour of independence. When you…claim that only those who think like you are ‘the people’, that’s a totalitarian attitude.”

‘Totalitarian’ is too strong a word, but there’s no doubt that this opinion is widely shared among Catalans, and that it makes Spanish-speakers keep their heads down. You’d never think, looking at the half-million-strong crowds of protesters who have been thronging Barcelona’s streets in the past week, that more than half the city’s residents are actually Spanish-speakers who oppose independence.

On the other hand, you cannot fail to feel some sympathy for the Catalan nationalists, for as recently as 1950 the great majority of the city’s residents were Catalan-speakers. You also cannot ignore the history: Catalans are not oppressed now, but the only language used in the schools and in all official communications in Catalonia under the Franco dictatorship, right down to the 1980s, was Spanish.

None of this has been forgotten by the Catalans, who at one time even feared that their language might be lost. An independent Catalonia might have restricted the arrival of so many Spanish-speakers if such an entity had existed 75 years ago, but it’s too late now.

Those Catalans who respect democracy but want independence therefore face an insoluble problem, and it’s only Spain’s refusal to permit a real referendum that spares them from having to face up to the conflict between these two values. But the Spanish constitution talks of the ‘indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation’ and does not permit any region to hold a referendum on independence.

This is hardly surprising in a country that has had four civil wars in the past two centuries, but it effectively guarantees that the unrest in Catalonia will continue indefinitely.

So far it has been almost entirely non-violent, but the traditional pro-independence civil society groups, the Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural, are now being outflanked by Tsunami Democratic, a more combative and secretive group. (It was they who occupied the airport last week.)

They are almost all young, they are at home with apps and social media, and they are up for a fight, but Catalonia is still a pretty peaceful place. Long may it remain so.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 10. (“Yet…power”; “It’s…nationalism”; and “Totalitarian…independence”)

Spain and Catalonia

It’s been a busy week in Spain. On Tuesday twelve Catalan leaders of the attempted secession from Spain in 2017 went on trial in Madrid, charged with rebellion, sedition and the misuse of public funds. And on Wednesday the Spanish government fell when two small Catalan nationalist parties voted against its budget, essentially to punish it for not stopping the trial.

But Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government couldn’t have stopped the trial at this point: Spanish courts are independent. And the ‘Catalan Twelve’ are certainly guilty of something, although it isn’t ‘rebellion’, which in Spanish law involves a violent uprising. They are guilty of cheating, but there isn’t any law against that.

Sanchez’s now defunct government would almost certainly not have brought such extreme charges against the Catalan would-be martyrs. (Oriol Junqueras, former vice-president of the separatist regional government of Catalonia, faces a possible 25 years in prison.) But the charges were brought under the previous right-wing government of Mariano Rajoy, and Sanchez couldn’t just cancel them.

Sanchez’s Socialist Party, which took power last June, depended on two small Catalan separatist parties for its majority. It has fallen because the Catalans felt he had done too little to prevent the trial of the ‘Catalan twelve’. The trial will continue, and the snap election that must now follow will be held in an atmosphere of super-heated nationalism. The separatists probably don’t mind.

We are already being treated to a feast of nationalist rhetoric cloaked in the idiom of democratic rights over this trial. Former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who declared Catalonia’s independence but chose to go into exile rather than face trial when the gambit failed, declares that the trial is “a stress test for the Spanish democracy.”

As the trial began Jordi Sanchez, one of the twelve, tweeted: “I am going in with my head held high, convinced that self-determination is not a crime.” The trial is really about “the right to self-determination and the democratic principle,” said defence lawyer Andreu van den Eyde. But all this talk of high principle is quite beside the point.

What actually happened in Catalonia in 2017 was that Catalan nationalists, unable to win a convincing majority for their project of independence, decided to skip the bit about a convincing majority. They did control the regional government, so they declared a referendum on independence in which only those in favour of separation would vote.

Such a referendum was illegal under the Spanish constitution, which forbids secession, so the pro-Spanish parties would boycott the referendum. They would HAVE to boycott it in order to stay within the law. Whereas all those who wanted independence – almost half the population – would defy the law and cast their votes.

That’s exactly how it worked. Every opinion poll for years had shown that Catalonia was split right down the middle, with around 45% for independence, 45% against it, and 10 % undecided. Just 45% of the population voted in the referendum, and 90 percent of them voted for independence. Those who didn’t vote could now be dragged out of Spain without further ado. Hurrah for democracy!

For the secessionist leaders, it was a two-way bet. Just possibly, the rest of the world would fail to notice how the vote was rigged, accept it as a democratic exercise, and recognise their claim. Just possibly, too, the Spanish state would be so weak that it would fail to defend the rights of the half of Catalonia’s population who wanted to stay in Spain.

Or, more likely, the Spanish government would intervene to stop this attempted kidnapping and arrest those who had led it. They could then be portrayed as pro-democracy martyrs. That would be almost as helpful to the nationalist cause, and it’s what is happening right now.

To be fair to Catalan nationalists, most of their fellow-citizens in the region who oppose independence are Spanish-speakers, descended from people who immigrated from other regions to share in Catalonia’s industrial prosperity. A majority of Catalan-speakers do back independence.

How can you choose to disregard the views of the Spanish-speaking half of the region’s current population in order to sneak your independence project through? By believing that they are not entitled to a view because they are not real Catalans. Of course, you never say it quite like this in public.

These views persist, and the ‘Catalan problem’ will not go away. Neither will the ‘Basque problem’, which involves almost identical dilemmas on the other side of Spain. It’s the classic problem facing long-established ethnic and linguistic groups that have become minorities, or just barely majorities, in their own lands. There is no ‘fair’ solution, just endless unsatisfactory compromises.

The new Spanish government that emerges from the forthcoming snap election, whatever it is (nobody knows), won’t be able to solve the problem either. The most it can do, if it’s sensible, is to commute any prison sentences imposed on the ‘Catalan Twelve’ and deny them martyrdom.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“We are…point”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Catalonia Again

I’m sitting here trying to write an article about the election in Catalonia on Wednesday, because there’s nothing else to write about. It would be more interesting if the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party for the past 23 years, elects a new leader who is not Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, but the results on that won’t be in until tomorrow.

Apart from that there’s nothing except more stuff about Donald Trump’s Russian links. So it has to be Catalonia – and the problem is that I don’t care what happens in Catalonia.

One more smallish group defined by some tiny distinction of religion or language or history wants to break away from some other, bigger group – ‘Spaniards’, in this case – that is defined by slightly broader and more inclusive distinctions of the same kind, and I simply couldn’t care less.

Maybe, after all the nonsense that happened in the past six months – big demos for independence, an illegal referendum that was designed to provoke the Spanish state into over-reacting (and succeeded), and various pro-independence leaders jailed or going into voluntary exile to avoid arrest – a majority of people in Catalonia will be so fed up with the turmoil that they vote to remain part of Spain. But I don’t think so.

Maybe a majority will be so enraged by Madrid’s blundering over-reaction that they vote for their independence from Spain, and actually get it.

Then most of the larger companies in Catalonia will move their headquarters elsewhere (several thousand have gone already), and they will have a new currency nobody trusts (because they will no longer be in the European Union), and the people running the place will be the single-issue fanatics who managed to put this issue on the agenda in the first place. They don’t seem to have many ideas about what to do next.

As H.L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” But I don’t think the Catalans are going to vote decisively for independence this time either.

Instead, they are going to split their votes in a way that leaves no clear majority for or against independence, and makes it hard even to form a coalition government. (What is happening in Catalonia this month is actually an election, not a referendum, although everybody is treating it like the latter.) So we can look forward to months, years or even decades more of the same.

On a somewhat larger canvas, this is exactly what is happening in the United Kingdom, too. Just as the Catalans complain that they are paying too much tax to the Spanish government, which transfers it to poorer parts of Spain, so the ‘Little Englanders’ complain that the UK pays too much to the European Union (which spends a lot of it raising standards in the poorer parts of eastern Europe).

Just as the Catalans (and especially younger Catalans) are far less different from other Spanish citizens than the separatists imagine, so the English (and especially the young English) are far less different from other Europeans than the Daily Mail-reading older generation of English nationalists imagines. It is the ‘narcissism of small differences’, in Sigmund Freud’s famous phrase.

But just as the Catalan mess is guaranteed to run on for years, now that it has reached this stage of obsessiveness, so will the British mess. If the UK actually leaves the European Union, the British will be much the poorer for it, and the nationalists who foisted it on the rest of the population will spend the next generation blaming the wicked Europeans for their own mistakes.

And if, by chance, the British end up not leaving (rationality doesn’t often win, but occasionally it does), then the country will spend the next generation contending with a non-violent insurgency waged by the disappointed nationalists.

Obviously, not every separatist movement that appeals to nationalism is wrong. The anti-colonial struggles for independence in the 20th century were fully justified and necessary because the injustices were great and the gulf between rulers and ruled was immense. The American war of independence in the 18th century was justified because great questions about human rights and democracy were at stake.

But when all parties concerned subscribe to democratic values, it generally makes more sense to stay together and try to work out the differences. Separatist pro-independence movements in democratic countries tend to be driven by the ambitions of politicians who want to be bigger fish in a smaller pond.

As former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien put it (in a broken half-English sentence calculated to insult his fellow French-Canadians who were the separatist leaders in Quebec), they want to drive up “dans un gros Cadillac avec un flag sur l’hood” (in a big Cadillac with a flag on the hood). Enough said.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“But just…nationalists”)