In the Catalan Standoff, a Third Party Benefits

(Bloomberg View) -- Something good appears to be coming out of the fruitless, increasingly farcical stand-off between the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy and the Catalan separatists. But regardless of how hapless secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont seems, Rajoy isn't the winner. A third party, the centrist Ciudadanos, is the one making gains.

It has been clear since the Catalan parliament reconvened last month that the separatists' plan to reinstall Puigdemont as head of the regional government would hit a Spanish brick wall. As expected, the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled that he had to return to Catalonia from Belgium if he were to lead the cabinet, and there's an arrest order for sedition waiting for him there. That forces the separatists actually in Barcelona, which is still under Madrid's direct rule after last year's cavalier attempt to declare independence, to ponder what they want more: an end to direct rule or the symbolic appointment of Puigdemont. On Tuesday, they put off the confirmation vote indefinitely -- until Puigdemont gets an all-clear for the appointment from the courts.

On Wednesday, Puigdemont appeared to read the cards as going against him. On the encrypted messenger Signal, recommended by NSA leaker Edward Snowden, he sent some defeatist texts to a former minister in his cabinet, also in Belgium now -- just as a Spanish TV crew surreptitiously looked over the ex-minister's shoulder. "It's over," he wrote. "Our people have sacrificed me." 

Soon afterwards, he tweeted that the texts had been fired off in "a moment of doubt" and that he was determined to fight on. But, disappointing as it may be that we probably won't get to see the first real experiment of a large region being run from an exiled government over Skype, his initial instinct was half-correct. Puigdemont's candidacy is a dead end for the separatists if they want to get anywhere with their agenda; that much is true. But it's not really a victory for Rajoy anymore, who has exhausted his ability to score points by being intractable.

Bloomberg News has reported that Rajoy's lieutenants in the Popular Party (PP), which forms Spain's minority government, are getting restless and unsure about backing him just as important municipal and regional elections are coming up next year. Some key staffers have quit the government and media support for Rajoy seems wobbly. The prime minister has hung on through difficult times for the party, marred by corruption scandals and battered by two inconclusive elections in 2015 and 2016. But little new legislation is being passed by a frequently deadlocked parliament. Rajoy's grim doggedness isn't particularly useful to Spain. It has also failed to produce anything like a catharsis in Catalonia, even though Rajoy has fully employed his political and law-enforcement arsenal in the region.

Last month, Rajoy's party dipped noticeably in several opinion polls, yielding first place to Ciudadanos (sometimes called C's), the political force that won the plurality in December's Catalan election and that strongly supports Spanish unity. Set up in Barcelona just 12 years ago and considered, until 2014, a Catalan regional party, Ciudadanos has been rising steadily as a mainstream alternative to the two old parties that have ruled Spain since the return of democracy in 1978, the PP and the Socialists. It's in favor of cutting income tax and reducing some worker protections to cut unemployment, so it's been described as center-right, but it also has some distinct leftist roots and a commitment to increasing spending on education, health and social programs. 

Somewhat like French President Emmanuel Macron's La Republique en Marche party, Ciudadanos is a modern centrist party that makes an effort not to be pinned down to a place on the traditional left-right spectrum, and it sells political renewal and the absence of a corrupt history to voters who are tired of entrenched elites. That message is underscored by the youth and obvious political talent of leaders such as Ines Arrimadas, who heads the party in Catalonia. PP voters switched to her banners in December because they believed she could do more for the Spanish unity cause than Rajoy's colorless functionaries.

From the Catalan separatists' point of view, Ciudadanos is no better than the PP. It is in favor of shrinking even the existing regional autonomy everywhere in Spain, not just in Catalonia. Under them, one of the separatists' biggest symbolic grievances, the one concerning the nation's high-speed rail network's hub-and-spoke structure with the center in Madrid, will never be addressed, either: The party wants to cut investment in the network. 

But at least, unlike the PP, Ciudadanos is well-represented in the Catalan parliament. It has a more solid mandate to speak on behalf of Catalonia's large pro-unity population. That may make it as inflexible as PP -- but also a less convenient scapegoat. The separatists themselves may be forced to show more flexibility and move from theatrics to policy dialogue if they have to deal with a party representing their neighbors rather than distant, distrusted Madrid.

Ciudadanos doesn't have a clear lead nationwide -- indeed, one poll at the end of January put the PP ahead again -- but the party's confident rise since the Catalan election could be a signal that it's ready for more than just changing Spain's political landscape. A role for Ciudadanos in the next national government, whether it comes as a result of a snap election or the one scheduled for 2020, could be a new starting point for the Catalan debate -- if not the kind of new beginning the separatists would like to see. Perhaps they should already start talking to Catalan Ciudadanos leader Arrimadas about a truce and an eventual deal. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website

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