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The bifurcation strategy

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Originally published in Spanish. ‘La estrategia de la bifurcación’. Lola García. La Vanguardia.

13th May 2018

Apparently, Quim Torra’s speech as aspiring Catalan president presages a bigger clash with the central government, following the wake set by Carles Puigdemont from abroad. Also, in theory, Rajoy’s cabinet, spurred by competition from Ciudadanos, won’t let the new Catalan administration slip anything by it and, although the invocation of article 155 is sunsetting soon, they will remain ready to invoke it again without hesitation or delay on the slightest illegal misdeed. But nothing is for granted in this new stage. When it comes to dealing with politically dealing with the Catalan conflict, everything remains to be done, probably because nothing was done well before.

Torra’s speech was seen as incendiary by many. Despite empty appeals to dialogue -a word fondled immodestly-, the president-to-be insisted on building a republic that so far remains virtual, proclaimed but not recognized by any international actor, prolonging the process with a new goal: the project to write a Catalan Constitution. The rhetoric is heated, understandably, when he refers to the situation of jailed secessionist leaders, but theatrically hyperbolical when he describes the aims for this term that appears short-lived. Self-criticism is non-existent. The upcoming municipal elections are presented as a new plebiscite. And “making republic” is the new mantra.

But let’s look at the small print. What are the actual commitments that Torra took yesterday? In reality, very little in terms of rupture. Or at least when comparing it with the last months of the previous term. On paper, that’s for sure, nothing that breaks the law. Nothing that can end up with the president or members of his cabined in front of a judge. What was the main promise that Torra made yesterday? A proposal for a Constitution for Catalonia. He stated that they will hold consultations with society at large, associations, institutions, citizens… and, starting from scratch as if we were in an ideal world, they will make an outline of what the fundamental law of the republic will look like. But Torra didn’t commit to discussing that constitution project in parliament. In fact, he mentioned the assembly of elected members (secessionist mayors and aldermen) as a political discussion forum and the council of the republic in Berlin or Brussels. Neither did he mention at any point a set of articles to be submitted to a vote in the Catalan parliament or in a referendum. The rest of the commitments, such as appointing a commissioner to assess the effects of article 155 or reopening Catalan delegations abroad, can be cast within the autonomist framework. Does this mean he will renounce to any disruptive pronouncements in parliament? Probably not. But rulings from the Constitutional court will be obeyed.

The so-called “strategy of bifurcation has caught on in Junts per Catalunya. The idea is to keep a dissonance between actions and rhetoric. That is to say, the government’s discourse will be riddled of epic and defiant-sounding concepts. There will be actions that some will find provocative, but that doesn’t mean that red-lines will be crossed like it happened in the previous term. Puigdemont can travel this path for a few months until deciding if he forces an early election depending on how judicial proceedings develop during the fall, just like La Vanguardia published last Sunday and the former-president confirmed to La Stampa yesterday (establishing, by the day, an expiry date for his successor on the very day of his inauguration). Puigdemont’s wrestle with the state has worked out for him. He managed to question the actions of the Supreme Court and to destabilize the central government by interfering with the budget approval process. He’s not giving up on that.

The bifurcation strategy is not easily modulated. The more radical sectors within secessionism will press in one direction, but with a pending trial neither the jailed politicians nor the ones who fled the country can risk too much. But neither the Supreme Court nor Moncloa are in the mood for tactical subtleties. For example, endorsing a discourse like Torra’s, announcing the Catalan republic, won’t help the jailed representatives, even if none of that comes to fruition. (Torra, aware of this, suggested yesterday that those in jail bear no responsibility for the actions of the regional government). On his part, Moncloa can push for invoking article 155 again in a much harsher way than the first time if red lines are crossed. After all, PP doesn’t have much to lose in Catalonia and, on the other hand, it’s suffering a veritable hemorrhage of votes in favor of Ciudadanos.

Mariano Rajoy had sent some messages this week about being open to establish a dialogue with the new Catalan government, provided it’s not about an independence referendum, but Torra’s speech makes that quite difficult. There is no unanimous position within PP and the central government about who to deal with the Catalan conflict. Some disagree with the strong measures taken by Judge Pablo Llarena and believe that it’s necessary to attempt to dialogue. No European government is going to support secessionism, but there are many that wonder why Rajoy doesn’t make any proposals. And there is also a large group of PP leaders, María Dolores de Cospedal, among them, that claim for a harder stand and taking the chance to intervene in the Catalan education system by means of a deep intervention of the regional government. Torra’s language gives wings to this sector, in addition to Ciudadanos.

This short parliamentary term begins -if CUP allows it- with renewed mistrust between the Catalan and central governments. And it will be hard for Rajoy to muster the patience to “judge” Torra “by his actions”, as he stated on Friday, or that Puigdemont let the president restrict himself to keeping the “exceptionality” of the term exclusively “symbolic”, as he declared on Saturday. Even if they managed to do it, it remains to be seen is that is enough to begin to wash out, little by little, the mutual suspicion. The first steps do not bode well for hope.

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