The curse of polarised politics in Catalonia

As politics in Catalonia becomes increasingly polarised over territorial concerns, finds Sandra León, those parties and policies that don't speak to the issues of sovereignty and relations with Madrid are being squeezed out. 

Are elections about winning the centre? Not always. The Catalan election results show that appealing to the moderate voter does not seem a good idea when the population has become increasingly polarised around the issue that dominates electoral competition.  Despite some of the Catalan (mostly left-wing) political parties’ efforts to move the electoral debate towards ideological matters (such as austerity policies, increasing inequality or corruption), these attempts have been overwhelmed by a campaign billed as a plebiscite on independence. Certainly, during the last decade Catalan politics have been increasingly dominated by the debate on sovereignty and secession, which in turn has gradually crowded out the centre in the territorial dimension of party competition. 

It is difficult to disentangle which came first – political parties or public opinion - in driving the polarisation dynamics of Catalan politics. Figure 1 illustrates the evolution of Catalan public opinion’s attitudes towards nationalism.  Whereas in the mid-2000s the predominant definition of the nationalist sentiment was a moderated one (5-6), at present one every four Catalans identify themselves in the two extreme positions (9-10). The percentage of citizens who do not identify as nationalist (positions (1-2)) have also slightly increased over time, but polarisation has mainly come from the centrifugal drift (increasing nationalism) in public opinion.  
Figure 1. Nationalist attitudes in Catalonia (1991-2015). NA/DK not shown.
Nationalist attitudes in Catalonia (1991-2015). NA/DK not shown
Source: CIS series (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas)

A polarised context imposes a “go radical or go home” dynamic in electoral competition, so it becomes rational for political parties to move towards more extreme positions in the territorial dimension. This clearly illustrated by the drift towards separatism of Convergència i Unió. This coalition party ruled the Catalan government for twenty three years (1981-2003) and during the 2010-2015 period and was considered for a long time a quintessential moderate nationalist force (providing support to both left-wing and right-wing incumbents at the central government in exchange for further devolution). Yet since 2006 the party has shifted to open Catalan secessionism (forming part of the “Together for Yes” coalition for independence in the last Catalan election). This shift blew the party up and the coalition broke up in its two constituent parties (the pro-independence party, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) and the anti-independence one Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC). 
The impact of polarisation can also be tracked in the evolution of the Catalan Popular Party, which has also gone radical, but in the opposite direction. Since the mid-2000s the Party party has had an increasingly patriotic position ion the territorial debate that appeals to a sense of “Spanishness” and advocates an uncompromising stance against institutional reforms that could potentially appease secessionism in Catalonia. The polarisation of electoral competition is also associated to with the emergence in 2006 (and subsequent electoral success) of Ciudadanos (Citizens-Party of the Citizenry) in the last election, a party that strongly opposes Catalan nationalism.
The main loser in this polarised political game during the last decade has been the Catalan Socialist Party, whose moderate stance on the territorial debate has resulted in a steady decrease in electoral support (from 52 parliamentary seats in 1999 to 16 in 2015). Ironically, the Socialist Party has traditionally been the closest party to the median ideological voter in Catalonia, so the party gets its position right, but in a less important dimension of competition (ideology). 
The 2015 Catalan election shows that the Socialist curse can also be applied to some of the new competing parties. Figure 2 exhibits (pre-electoral) data on the most important problem of Catalonia for different groups of voters. Issues identified as the “most important problem” are classified in two groups: those related to the territorial debate (independence, regional financing, right of self-determination, relationship with the central government) and those that are not (unemployment, economic situation and corruption). Data show that there are three parties – Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC, that split from the CiU coalition, as explained above), Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP that includes the Catalan branch of Podemos) and the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) that attracts voters more concerned about non-territorial issues than about territorial ones. Yet this has not paid off in the ballot box, as ideology is virtually absent in current Catalan politics. The first two parties were competing for the first time in the Catalan election, with disappointing results: Unió lost all its 13 seats in Parliament and the electoral results of Catalonia Yes We Can were far below what most polls suggested. Likewise, although the Socialist Party has done better than expected, its results confirm the party’s steady electoral decline.
Figure 2. Most important problem of Catalonia by party support*

Most important problem of Catalonia by party support

Source: pre-electoral survey CIS ( September 2010. 
*Vote intention. 
Territorial issues: independence, relationship with central government, regional financing and self-determination
Non-territorial issues: unemployment, economic situation and corruption and fraud

In summary, the three Catalan parties - UDC, Catalonia Yes We Can and the Socialist Party- that have exhibited a moderate stance in the territorial debate in the last Catalan election (with proposals ranging from supporting a referendum to a constitutional reform) have succeed in attracting an arguably shrinking sector of the Catalan electorate: voters with moderate nationalist positions and who mostly care about problems that follow more closely the lines of an ideological debate. Unless the territorial debate becomes less polarised or these parties shift towards more radical positions, it is not likely they can put an end to the electoral curse of polarised politics.

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