You could say it all started in Andalusia, but the true starting point has always been Catalonia. That's what led Pedro Sánchez to call a snap general election for 28th April: hypothetical talks with Catalonia which, for the moment, remain hypothetical. Precisely this dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments, which hasn't even had times to bear real fruit in resolving the conflict, will be put to the test at the ballot boxes. It's not the same thing to pick one side or the other when one of them includes the far right. And with the Catalan independence trial underway.
The quandary this election is clear: to move forwards or backwards, dialogue or regression, resolving or entrenching the conflict. Two options and two blocks. The first block is that of the confidence motion, a chaotic coalition which needs brave positions to make progress. The pro-independence parties won't set the bar for their support as low as last June. The second block, that of the PP and Ciudadanos parties who had no problems whitewashing the far right the moment they broke through in the Andalusian Parliament. Unlike in other European countries where centre-right parties cordon off extremists.
The three-way alliance in Andalusia, which was formalised with that photograph in Madrid's plaza Colón, is very clear about its plan: apply article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to impose direct rule on Catalonia, dismantle the autonomous state, suppress pro-independence leaders via the courts, intervene in Catalan-language public media and education, cut political parties subsidies for those that support independence and expel them at a minimum from the Congress in Madrid... Their declaration of intentions is very precise.
A plan which, if put into practice, would not only not resolve the conflict, but could entrench it even further. According to the latest barometer from CEO (the Catalan Centre for Opinion Studies), up to 78.7% of Catalans are in favour of the "right to decide their future as a country by voting in a referendum" (including 55.9% of PSOE voters, 44.5% of PP voters and 40.7% of Cs voters). Also according to CEO, 70.3% of Catalans don't consider the imprisonment and exile of the pro-independence leaders to be "just". Only 15.1% of the citizens of Catalonia, according to the survey, approve of the application of article 155 to Catalonia; 56.1% don't.
The influence of Catalan parties?
One open question, if Pedro Sánchez gets the votes to remain in power, is whether that will rely on the support of pro-independence Catalan parties or not. CIS (the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research) this week sketched out two options. The first, a pact with Ciudadanos. The second, to repeat the formula from the confidence motion. If everything goes well for PSOE, they could get there with just Unidas Podemos, maybe with PNV as well. In the least optimistic version for them, they would again need ERC and JxCat.
The Catalan conflict will hover over the whole Spanish election campaign. Pedro Sánchez will visit Catalonia the most, with events planned in four cities: Lleida, Tarragona, Badalona and Barcelona. Pablo Casado will do so twice: to Barcelona and Tarragona. Podemos will visit Barcelona twice, once with Pablo Iglesias and the other time with Irene Montero. Albert Rivera only has one event planned in Catalonia, in the capital. Vox will send its secretary general, Javier Ortega Smith, to Tarragona.
The political prisoners who are to head pro-independence candidacy lists won't be able to campaign. But it's likely that after the vote they will have to be involved in negotiations.
Sánchez: the Andalusian lesson
Pedro Sánchez, candidate for reelection, doesn't want to face the same fate as Susana Díaz in Andalusia: to have their voters stay at home. As such, his campaign will be focused on turnout. Campaign sources set their priorities: the urban vote and, more importantly yet, undecided voters. According to the survey, that's a bigger group than the supporters of any party, as many as 38%. There will be a message and a manifesto based on their "months in government and on the four years which are coming up", and on the social agenda they say was interrupted by the right wing and independence supporters. He aspires to govern alone, but in any case he'll have to get down into the mud to negotiate.
Casado: damage reduction
Pablo Casado knows he's going into the election to lose, but is hoping to at least save the furniture. The CIS poll predicts he'll lose sixty deputies. His main objective is to hang on to his status the largest of the right-wing parties. According to campaign sources, their process for choosing campaign events is based on going to where "it's most important to get the message to stick that Pablo Casado is a secure investment". They want to "explain that the division in the right-wing vote is what Sánchez wants" to remain in the Moncloa.
Iglesias: secondary role
The systematic crisis in Podemos will be the great problem for Pablo Iglesias, seemingly condemned to playing a secondary role, that of a subaltern. That will be his message: if not for them, Pedro Sánchez wouldn't have gone as far in certain social questions; a vote for Podemos will give them even greater influence on the government's agenda. The large majority of their events will take place on Spain's periphery, from Valencia and Catalonia to the Basque Country and Galicia.
Rivera: between Macron and Abascal
Albert Rivera is disorientated. In the European election, his party wants to be with Emmanuel Macron's liberals, in Andalusia they joined a government with the support of the far right, and they've been offering Casado the idea of repeating the idea in Madrid every day of the pre-campaign. For the moment, they don't want to know anything about Sánchez, that being where they've set up their cordon sanitaire, despite it being one of the options CIS gives a chance of success. Despite their personal differences, he's taken Inés Arrimadas, his most important asset, with him. They stand or fall together. His campaign agenda is still partly secret, but he'll be in Andalusia for Semana Santa and this Sunday he'll be in Errenteria in the Basque Country.
Abascal: breakout star
Santiago Abascal's Vox is, without doubt, the breakout star of this election. Never has a party with no seats in the Congress attracted such media attention. Its lead candidate will even take part in the five-way debate on the 23rd on La Sexta and Antena 3. His first victory has been to set the agenda, bringing up debates which no one else was having in Spain, like the "right" to bear arms. The unknown factor is their level of hidden vote. The far right is back on its own terms.