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The Maastricht Diplomat

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Playing the people’s game on the Mediterranean

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

By James Mackle

There is always a sense of excitement the news junkie feels when gazing at electoral euphoria in the Mediterranean. Something about the chants, the heaving masses and the armada of flags reminds us of the time politics was not such a dirty game, only more dangerous. Electoral euphoria in the Lowlands consists of suited spin doctors nodding in satisfaction in darkened rooms. The politicians themselves usually appear less confident, as even if they have won they realise how quickly a coalition between the losers could leave them in the political wilderness.

There was something deeply disturbing about recent electoral and referenda exercises in Greece and Catalonia though. Here was supposedly unified popular will under the unlikely hero, Greek PM Alexis Tsipras, rejecting redundant eurocratic austerity with massive ‘Oxi’ (“No!”) banners behind him. On the other side of the Mediterranean, a few months later, another referendum was being exercised, in the form of a regional election. Indeed, Artur Mas, Catalonia’s Minister-President, had handed in his resignation to force the Catalan people to the ballot box. By allying with fellow separatists and forming a joint list (Junts pel si – Together for Yes), he had hoped that this should give their list enough votes to be able to declare Catalonia unilaterally independent. Sure enough, Catalonia’s highest turnout since the fall of Franco’s dictatorship gave his list a majority with fellow separatists CUP.

One has seen many point to the outcomes of popular expression, deploring the unfair nature of the treatment of Greece after their popular consultation, or the ongoing tough stance of Manuel Rajoy, Spain’s conservative and fiercely uninteresting Prime Minister, who is ready to continue to ignore Catalan demands for autonomy. However, both popular consultations were not as they seemed.

If we are to believe Greece’s now ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, Tsipras knew a referendum would not help his negotiating stance. This was meant as a political stunt of the finest execution. By creating a Yes/No referendum on the EU memorandum, and positioning both his party and his unpopular ultra-nationalist partners, ANEL, on the No side, he created a clear dichotomy from those who stood up for Greece’s immediate national interests, and those who were to be labelled as establishment stooges of the Troika, Merkel and the suits of Brussels. No surprises then, when Tsipras predictably collapsed his tower of anti-austerian values, following the realisation that creditors usually decide what you get to do with their money. He would still re-emerge as the only credible voice in a new general election that hit the final nail in the coffin of Greece’s old establishment parties. He even managed to rid himself of the noisy left-wing of his party, presenting themselves under a new electoral banner. They failed to meet the electoral threshold.

In Catalonia, masterful politicking was also at work. Artur Mas, Catalonia’s Minister-President and leader of the Convergencia party, had ditched his centrist liberal cartel partners for current coalition mistress Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left). The two hegemonic powers of Catalan politics entered government promising to overturn “Castilian austerity”, only to lay waste to hundreds of public sector jobs in Catalonia. At the same time, they were still presiding over a dangerous increase in Catalan public debt that would leave an independent nation in ruins before it could even stand up.

Yet their decision to merge into one list for a regional election, in order to present it as a unilateral ‘Yes’ to independence, ultimately paid off. The waves of displays and mass demonstrations of Catalan nationalism and popular unity were tapped into. These popular demonstrations are rarely seen in other separatist regions of Europe, including Scotland, Flanders and Northern Italian nationalism. Mas and Esquerra remained in power after the vote, while losing the overall popular vote. This ultimately avoided the headache of unilateral independence for them. Catalans woke up with a hangover, to find that their vote for change had put the same faces in power with the same problems for 4 more years.

The only political actor who had the cojones to denounce this stunt was the fresh-faced Ines Arramalda. Despite tripling her anti-separatist party’s, Ciudadanos, electoral score, she called for new regional elections, with proper debate over the actual competences the regional government already exercises. No doubt there was also some form of long-term political conspiring behind her decision, with her party rising nation-wide. Ciudadanos is positioning itself firmly as the “No” to independence movements that still carries political weight all over the Iberian country. With a general election called for the 20th of December, Ciudadanos had showed up the traditional bipartismo (two party, centre-left-centre-right system) of Castilian politics, leaving Rajoy’s Partido Popular and the PSOE whistling in the Mediterranean wind with scarce seats to celebrate in Catalonia. If this translates itself nationally, Christmas won’t be a happy one for the two heavyweights of Spanish politics.

If we are to end this bipartismo, which was a phenomenon not just in Spain, not just in Greece, but all over Europe throughout the 90s and 2000s, is it really through the same false dichotomies and amalgamations seen in these referenda? Amalgamations, of course, related to deep rooted and sensitive political issues. Tsipras and the ‘No’ camp were accused of being pro-Russian and betraying ‘European’ values by their detractors. Those in favour of the memorandum were caricatured as Nazi collaborators, who lacked patriotic values or a supporter of international capital. In Spain, parties like Ciudadanos who think of post-nationalism, are put on the same level as Franco and the Falangist Right by Catalanists. Those talking of furthering Catalan autonomy were dismissed as traitors to Spanish solidarity, despite deep social reforms accompanying their programmes for independence. Trenches once abandoned are merely dug up again, and sections of society are now even further than each other than ever in these countries.

For all the euphoria then, the stunts have not resulted in national unity, in discourse or democratic debate, only in exposing new divisions in their societies. These new societal fault lines are more relevant and closer to the average person’s politics, compared to the various strands of liberalism bipartismo currently offers. But the only thing that remained constant was the same expected result, and the same faces in power. So before you go out to acclaim the latest politician’s victory, maybe ask yourself why he or she sent you to the ballot box in the first place.

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