February 15, 2019 / 12:04 PM / 7 months ago

Breakingviews - Spain’s snap election could harden Catalan divide

A demonstrator waves an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a march towards Casa Llotja de Mar where Spain's cabinet meeting will take place, in Barcelona, Spain, December 21, 2018.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Spaniards face an uncomfortable choice between political paralysis and separatist confrontation. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Friday called a snap election for April 28 after the country’s parliament refused to support his budget. His right-wing opponents, if victorious, could provoke a flare-up in tensions with Catalan secessionists.

Sanchez grabbed power last year after a corruption scandal toppled the government of Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The Socialist leader, whose party has just 84 of 350 seats in parliament, secured the backing of the leftist Podemos. But on Wednesday his spending plans were voted down by Catalan separatists, whose support he needed.

The Socialists are Spain’s most popular party, with 24 percent support based on average figures collected by the Poll of Polls website. But Sanchez could finish first and struggle to get much done: his party and Podemos would currently get about two-fifths of the vote and a similar percentage of seats under Spain’s roughly proportional system. That would leave the prime minister once again scrambling around for support from unreliable regional parties.

There’s an alternative. The Conservative party under new leader Pablo Casado has formed an alliance in Andalusia’s regional government with anti-separatist Catalan party Ciudadanos and far-right Vox. The party leaders stood side-by-side at a Sunday demonstration of 45,000 people opposing the socialist government’s conciliatory Catalan policy. Together they could muster just over 50 percent of the vote, potentially enough to form a government.

That would mean tighter fiscal policy: Casado has criticised Sanchez’s perceived profligacy, even though the proposed budget was relatively modest. Tax hikes or tighter spending could help reduce Spain’s structural deficit from around 3 percent of GDP.

But a Casado government would also take a hard line against Catalan separatists. He’s accused Sanchez of “high treason” for opening discussions with secessionist parties, and called for direct rule over the region from Madrid. That would prompt a backlash from the pro-secessionist parties that govern Catalonia, risking a repeat of the mass street protests and police crackdown after the northeastern region’s 2017 vote. Spain’s central bank reckons economic growth will already slow to 2.2 percent this year from 2.5 percent in 2018. Heightened political tensions would come at a bad time.


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