On 21 May, 13 weeks and five days after the February elections in which his party ERC had come second to PSC/PSOE, with third party Junts only one seat behind, 38-year-old Pere Aragonès was elected President of the Catalan Generalitat, thereby narrowly averting the imposition of fresh elections due to the inability to elect a government from that parliament.
Aragonès immediately stated that he was committed to a Scottish solution viz a legal independence referendum for Catalonia negotiated with the central government. This is an exceedingly puzzling assertion given his evident knowledge that the current Spanish coalition government led by Pedro Sanchéz of PSOE, with crucial support from ERC deputies in Madrid, has repeatedly proclaimed that there are no circumstances in which it will agree to this, whilst the main opposition PP party is even more vehement in its rejection of such a scenario.
As the deadline for new elections loomed, the two main non-parliamentary groups pressing for independence – the ANC and Òmnium – both first pleaded, then cajoled, and finally threatened the main parties with voter ostracism should they continue to fail to form a coalition government.
As of now, only the most purblind of independence supporters have time for this mutated repetition of the previous government; which latter's weakness was palpable. In this two-party government of ERC and Junts, where previously the latter provided the president, the former now does so, based on the change in party strengths on 14 February.
After its histrionic UDI in October 2017, Catalan nationalism had three obvious options: violent confontation, passive civic resistance or capitulation with a greater or lesser degree of humiliation. It was evident, within hours at most, that the first was not on the cards. It took only a matter of days to clarify that the second was equally untenable. But the third option has taken till now to fully crystallise. Yet the coalition government, whilst it only exists due to a de facto capitulation to Madrid, continues de verbo if not quite de jure to deny this reality.
When the consequences of their abortive gamble on UDI started to become apparent, many politicians involved raced to clarify their involvement, not a few highlighting that it was only a political negotiating ploy and was never meant to be taken seriously in any legal sense. In response to this, Professor Clara Ponsati of St Andrews, who had never before been active in party politics and who was essentially a last minute technocratic substitute in the rôle of education minister in the then government, but who has since proven to be perhaps the most uncompromising of all the nationalist politicians involved, appeared to confirm this thesis at least in part when she said that: 'It was a poker game and we were bluffing'.
Her opinion of the deal to form this current government was forthright when Junts undertook a particularly specious plebiscite of members immediately before signing it: 'Were Junts party members to vote in favour of this document, no group in the Catalan Parliament will continue to uphold the results of the 1 October referendum'.
One small gesture by Aragonès, at once symbolic and tangible, will quickly highlight this truth. Under the previous Junts-ERC coalition government, the elected President Quim Torra refused to occupy the actual office reserved for the President arguing that the exiled President Puigdemont, resident in Brussels and facing extradition to Spain, would have his rôle and his struggle undermined by such a move. No such scruples have been intimated by Aragonès.
In the game of political chicken leading up to the deal, most commentators agree that at first glance Junts has emerged victorious, splitting the Catalan ministries 50:50 and securing for itself the plum economic portfolio. In any circumstances, a major rôle in post-Covid Catalonia it is still more so. Should the recovery funds from Brussels to Spain be shared out on a per capita basis, by no means a given, Catalonia would receive roughly £19.3bn. This compares with a 2021-22 Holyrood budget including '£8.6 billion of COVID‑19 Barnett consequentials'. Yet, within hours of Aragonès's election, Junts sprang its first major surprise when the hot favourite for this post, Elsa Artadi, who comes from the economically liberal wing of the ungainly Junts coalition, announced that she was not a candidate for the job. This allowed a technocratic alternative, who is not even a party member, to undertake this crucial post.
Only a few days later, a second major figure in Junts, Josep Rius, who like Artadi is close to exiled President Puigdemont, also stated he would not serve in the new government. To cap these decisions, party secretary Jordi Sànchez, who unlike Puigdemont was sentenced to nine years in prison by a Madrid court in October 2019, when he had already served two years on remand, made clear that the baton has passed to a new generation in Junts, intimating a decision to reduce the hitherto central rôle which Puigdemont has played since 2017 from Belgium.
Now the full panoply of cognitive political dissonance is on display in Barcelona with three different independence parties, the previously mentioned pair plus CUP, scoring an easy parliamentary victory of 74:61 in the vote to elect Aragonès as President and for him to form a government but with total confusion reigning as to what, if any, further steps they will take to achieve independence.
In addition, though CUP will not participate in the government, they undertook in early negotiations with ERC to guarantee their support for Aragonès as President though not specifically for his government. Then ERC signed its coalition agreement with Junts, an ideological combination very roughly as if the SNP first struck a side deal with the Scottish Greens and then negotiated a formal coalition with Alba. Coherent, it isn't.
This three-way split is also made unstable by a clause in ERC's agrement with CUP to submit its goverment to a confidence motion after only two years of the four-year parliamentary term. However, this barrier might yet prove less important than it first seems given that Spanish parliamentary procedures demand such motions must actually vote in a new named President and government rather than just ejecting the previous one.
In the immediate future, Spanish PM Sánchez must decide whether to grant a pardon to the Catalan politicians jailed as a result of the 2017 referendum. Failure to do so will make continued support from ERC in Madrid well nigh impossible. Then he must try to square the circle of finding a political fudge which will allow him to satisfy ERC's demand for a legally-binding independence referendum whilst keeping to his oft-repeated promise not to so do. The most recent suggestion from Madrid that the magic bullet will take the shape of a referendum for a new Home Rule Statute in Catalonia seems quite striking in its naivete, not least because a referendum is already a legal prerequisite for any adjustment in the current status quo.
Yet, central as Madrid is, it is surely in Catalonia itself that the true drama will play out. Although both parties continue verbally and vehemently to deny it, the bitter pill of capitulation has indeed now been swallowed whole by the current Catalan government. What remains to be seen is how independence-minded Catalan voters, who went to the polls on 14 February and voted by a 52% margin in favour of independence from Spain, will respond to this sudden acceptance of realpolitik from their elected representatives.
The future of Catalan politics, and of Spanish politics too, will almost certainly depend on how many of them echo Professor Ponsati's unflunching assertion that 'We were bluffing'.
Jim Scott is a retired Glasgow-born teacher who spent most of his career in England. He first visited Spain in 1973 and has been resident in a 'Catalan heartland' since 2005