Moses, fallen

Tuesday 27 November 2012


I can't resist showing the image above, which comes from the front page of today's El Periodico de Catalunya, probably the most skilled newspaper published in Barcelona. As you can see (just about - it's a screen cut), it shows a workman clearing away election posters in the street, with images of the Artur-Mas-as-Moses poster piled at his feet. I find this a wonderful example of "one picture is worth a thousand words" ... because it sums up the result of the Catalan elections which took place last Sunday 25th November.


As I explained in my previous blog ( Promised Land ), Artur Mas had called early elections with the aim of surfing to victory on the vast wave of popular enthusiasm for an independent Catalonia which was raised by a massive street demonstration on the Catalan National Day of September 11th. Opinion polls seemed to suggest that this was at least a possibility - and it was rapidly clear on election day that there was a high turnout (around 70%, a record figure). However, the actual result was certainly not what Mas was aiming for. His party, Convergencia i Unió (CiU), lost many seats in the Parlament, falling from 62 to 50 out of 135. So, Mas's bid for an absolute majority has resulted in a significant loss of power. His maneouver has converted the relatively strong position of his previous government (where he could govern with occasional deals with a divided opposition) into the desperately weak position of the new government that he is attempting to form (where the opposition is much reinforced).


I do not intend to try to summarise in this blog the highly complicated political consequences of all this - and anyway most of you readers probably don't really want to know the details! But there are two comments worth making which should be of general interest - about the nature of populism and the nature of democracy.


The nature of populism is that it is the political use of powerful means for ill-defined, irrational ends. Mas's 'Moses ploy' was classic populism: he sought to exploit a spontaneous surge in public opinion through emotional manipulation. If his plan of surfing to victory on the independence issue had paid off, he would probably now be hailed as a master of political improvisation and leadership. As it stands ... El Periodico reports dark rumours of knives being sharpened in the ranks of his party.

     I actually find the election result encouraging, precisely because it suggests that populist tricks do not necessarily pay off. In essence, this election shows that in Catalonia the issue of independence is indeed of great popular interest - but the solution of the issue has been considered in a much more serious and thoughtful way. Put another way, the decision of Mas to consult the voters about the independence issue was a popular one (and arguably correct) - what was populist (and cheap) about his campaign was that it did not address the practical details of the issue in any coherent way. How exactly is independence to be achieved? the voters asked ... and in essence the response of CiU was "Don't bother about that - trust Moses". Many voters, encouragingly, applied critical thinking, and turned to parties which did appear to have some clear idea of what to do (rightly or wrongly). I would argue that this demonstrates that Catalonia has a relatively well-informed and thoughtful electorate - and that is the best defence against populism.


The nature of democracy is that it is a process, not a state - it is, and should be, unstable and dynamic. If this is accepted, then here in Catalonia we are in for interesting times, democratically speaking. The Catalan Parlament that has resulted from the elections is deeply divided. All positions for and against Catalan Independence are quite strongly represented, but none is capable of holding a dominant position. But isn't that what a healthy democracy should be ? Perhaps ... ?

     An optimistic interpretation of the situation would be that such a complex balance of power will result in high quality debate about the realities of the issue, eventually leading to a considered and unifying decision. A pessimistic interpretation would be that such a tangled balance of power (or - powerlessness?) will lead to petty political bickering aimed at scoring trivial points and achieving transient advantages.


We will see....


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