In tribute to Artur Mas

There were times during the past week when I really thought the Catalan independence process had come off the rails. The language with which CUP was being criticized for maintaining its decision not to support Artur Mas as President of the Catalan government was vicious; a ploy which seemed to me to be primarily designed to make it clear to the electorate that CUP, and CUP alone, were to "blame" for them having to go yet again to the polls in early March. All the rhetoric was about new elections. Yet elections only made any sort of sense if those in favour of independence were confident that they would at least retain, if not enhance, their majority. But there was no evidence that they would, that's why I hoped that an agreement would be reached.

Now that things have been resolved, I don't really want to point any fingers of blame. But I think it might be helpful to look at things from the point of view of the players involved.


For CUP the situation was always clear. If they had been prepared to see Artur Mas as President, then they would almost certainly have joined with CDC and ERC in the Junts pel Sí coalition in order to fight the September elections. One of the reasons why they did so well in that election (increasing their representation from 3 to 10 seats) was surely because a good part of the pro-independence electorate shared their point of view. How could they be expected to abandon the main policy plank on which they had won those seats? Yet they were put under tremendous pressure to do just that.

To their credit, they did consider it. They went to their activists, more than three thousand of them, and debated the matter democratically. Narrowing down the options one by one, they eventually ended up with an exact tie between those who could hold their noses and accept Mas as President and those who couldn't. One more vote, and Artur Mas would have made it.

Because things were still unresolved after the meeting of 27 December, the matter was referred to a smaller executive committee, who decided against endorsing Mas as President by a margin of 36 to 30 (with 2 abstentions). Following that decision the leader of their parliamentary group, Antonio Baños, resigned, saying that achieving independence was more important than anything else. I have a good deal of respect for that viewpoint. I think that if any blame can be attached to CUP, it was that they didn't take advantage of the exactly even split among their membership to modify their position. They could perhaps have allowed their 10 MPs a free vote. But even that might not have helped; 5 votes for and 5 against would still not have been enough to get Mas elected.


For Junts pel Sí the situation was, quite obviously, all CUP's fault. How could any reasonable party with only 10 MPs hold a coalition of 62 MPs to ransom? Surely they should just give up their demands and let the majority have their way. But that was a rather blinkered way of looking at things. The reality was that Junts pel Sí, even though it was the largest party, was not a majority in a parliament of 135 MPs; and it wasn't just CUP who didn't want Artur Mas as President, but every other party too ... it's just that they had different reasons for not wanting him. For the PP, PSOE and Ciutadans, Artur Mas was the arch-demagogue who was threatening to break up Spain; but for CUP, wanting independence was Artur Mas's only positive feature, their problem with him was that he was right-of-centre, and therefore pro-austerity, and that his party was tainted with corruption.

What made the situation worse was that, even though all this was obvious from the moment the results of the election on 27 September were announced, nobody showed any inclination to sort the problem out. Instead, everyone just put the problem on the back burner for two months in order to concentrate on the Spanish election of 20 December, hoping that the result of that election would help clarify what to do. As it happened, it didn't clarify anything; but two months of inactivity allowed the positions of both sides to gradually harden, and with the loss of any flexibility to come up with a clever solution it became an "all or nothing" confrontation.

Despite what they might say, I would say that Junts pel Sí never really offered any sort of compromise to CUP. But there are understandable reasons for this. Junts pel Sí was a coalition put together solely to fight the September election as a plebiscite on independence. The main political partners were CDC and ERC, who agreed to split the list between them on 60:40 basis with Artur Mas as President (there were other minor parties and civic groups involved too) but in every regard other than their commitment to independence CDC and ERC are fierce rivals. For example, they fought the Spanish election of 20 December as separate parties.


For ERC the temptation to want to "revisit" the Junts pel Sí agreement would have been huge. CUP would certainly have accepted the ERC leader, Oriol Junqueras, as a more acceptable President than Artur Mas. Also it would be easy to justify the switch on the basis that Catalan public opinion has clearly swung to the left since the Junts pel Sí coalition was put together. As evidence for this, ERC increased their number of seats in the Spanish parliament from 3 to 9 in the December election, while CDC fell from 10 to 8. But the poll was topped, with almost a quarter of the vote, by En Comú Podem (Podemos, the Greens and the EUiA) who won 12 seats. Even the PSC-PSOE got a greater share of the vote than Artur Mas's party.

I think Oriol Junqueras deserves enormous credit for resisting this temptation. He and ERC never wavered from their position of sticking to the Junts pel Sí coalition agreement. But there is a good pragmatic reason for not wanting to upset the relationship between ERC and CDC. Between them, they have to govern Catalunya for the next eighteen months or so during the transition to independence; something that will not be easy given their political differences. Any breakdown of trust between them could make Catalunya ungovernable, and breaking the agreement would be seen as a breach of trust. Additionally, Junqueras isn't doing this for entirely altruistic reasons, it will probably make ERC the front runners for the first elections in an independent Catalunya in 2017.


For CDC the problem was that there was no obvious alternative from within the party to Artur Mas, and no real incentive to look for one. They have had more than enough heartache splitting from their long-standing partners UDC over the issue of independence.


So, in the end, it all came down to one person: Artur Mas himself. The events of the last few days have given us some pointers as to what was going on in his head.

For me, the obvious solution was to have accepted that he could not have the lead position in steering Catalunya to independence, but that he could have a lead position. Immediately after the September election, CUP proposed a "corale presidency" that would include Mas alongside one or two others. That wasn't technically possible because the parliament is legally required to choose one head of government, but it could have been done either on a rotating basis or with a "figurehead" president and two or three vice-presidents who actually wielded the political power.

But that clearly wasn't acceptable to him. It seems that he wanted to be the one and only President or nothing. I can't blame him for that. It's a matter of individual temperament and personality. However I will say that it was very big of him to stand down in the end. He deserves huge credit for doing so ... and all the more so because he, personally, has paid the biggest price.

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