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Catalonia crisis a 'political win' for Rajoy as party sees popularity rise

  • Before the Catalonia crisis, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's popularity ratings were in the doldrums.
  • Over the last month, Rajoy's government has been uncompromising with Catalonia's separatists following the region's illegal independence referendum on October 1. Last Friday, Rajoy imposed direct rule on the region, sacking the local government and calling fresh elections for December.
  • The latest opinion poll suggests that Spanish voters are happy with Rajoy's decisive leadership.
Mariano Rajoy, Spain's prime minister, gestures as he speaks in the senate in Madrid, Spain, on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017.
Angel Navarrete | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Mariano Rajoy, Spain's prime minister, gestures as he speaks in the senate in Madrid, Spain, on Friday, Oct. 27, 2017.

Before the Catalonia crisis, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's popularity ratings were in the doldrums. But his leadership during the Catalonia constitutional crisis has given him and his Partido Popular (PP) a boost.

Over the last month, Rajoy's government has been uncompromising with Catalonia's separatists following the region's illegal independence referendum on October 1. Last Friday, Rajoy imposed direct rule on the region, sacking the local government and calling fresh elections for December.

The latest opinion poll suggests that Spanish voters appear to be pleased with Rajoy's decisive leadership.

A survey by Sigma Dos on October 31 showed that the popularity of the PP had risen since September, giving it a 5.4 percentage point lead above rival Socialist party PSOE, up from a 4.4 percentage point lead in September.

The poll also showed that support for the anti-establishment Unidos Podemos — an alliance of Podemos, United Left and other left-wing parties — had fallen significantly from a 19.5 percent share of the vote in September, to a 15.3 percent share in October.

A good crisis

Economists including Citi's Antonio Montilla believe that the Catalonia crisis has been good for Rajoy, so far.

"I think the Catalan crisis has strengthened Rajoy's position. His image among Spanish voters has recovered significantly in recent weeks relative to the negative perception of the heavy police response (during) the illegal October 1 Catalan self-determination referendum," Montilla said.

Although the pro-independence movement in Catalonia has been a thorn in the side of the Spanish government for decades, tensions came to a head in October when the Catalan government held a referendum on independence despite a ban by Spain's constitutional court and attempts by Madrid to stop the vote.

The vote took place regardless and there were violent scenes of Spanish police trying to stop voters from entering polling stations, leading to criticism of the Spanish government. Apart from staunch supporters of independence, public sympathy largely turned against Catalonia when a majority in its parliament voted to defy Madrid and declare independence.

Spain quickly responded by enacting Article 155 of the constitution, stripping the semi-autonomous region of its powers and imposing direct rule. The regional government was sacked and Rajoy called fresh elections for December 21.

Montilla said that the key reasons for the PP's boost in popularity were due to the Catalan side pushing ahead with a unilateral declaration of independence, a move not popular in Spain, and the ability of Rajoy to gather support from PSOE opposition leader Pedro Sánchez for the activation of Article 155, he said, an option that he said was usually seen as "politically toxic" in Spain.

'Political win' for Rajoy?

As it stands, Spain's chief prosecutor has called for criminal charges to be leveled against the pro-independence leadership for rebellion, sedition and embezzlement. Following the call for charges, deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont travelled to Belgium on Monday, saying that he was not trying to escape justice but wanted to put the Catalan issue at the heart of the European Union.

He refused to return to Spain following a court summons that required him to testify in Madrid on Thursday and a warrant for his arrest could now be issued. If Puigdemont and his colleagues are found guilty of the most serious charge of rebellion, they face up to 30 years in prison.

With the Catalan leadership dismissed and in disarray, Spain appears to have gained the upper hand over the separatist movement. Montilla said that Rajoy's position had "probably strengthened even further in recent days following the U-turn by the Catalan pro-independence leaders."

This, he said, was "likely to be understood as a big political win for the central government and especially for Rajoy."

Before the crisis erupted, however, the PP party had seen its popularity declining, beset as it was by allegations of corruption and political deadlock. Last year, the country was effectively left without a government for much of the year due to the failure of Rajoy's party to gain a majority in the 2015 election and form a coalition government. This led to a second election in June 2016 and Rajoy's eventual re-election as prime minister only after a parliamentary vote, preventing a third election from having to take place.

Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC that the triggering of Article 155 and calling early elections as soon as December 21 was a good strategic move by Rajoy "because it has increased the divisions inside the separatist movement and demobilized them." However, he noted that the PP's problems had not gone away, noting that the Sigma Dos poll "shows the PP basically at the same level it has been during the last months."