The Popular Party (PP) and the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, now face a choice: to behave as a mere machine of power, looking only to win the 2015 elections at any price - even at considerable cost to the prestige of our institutions of government - or to moderate their behavior so as not to discredit these institutions.
The observation of previous PP behavior does not suggest reasons for optimism. For years now, Spain's principal conservative party has invariably opted for immediate electoral profit. That is, by picking causes that might bring their voters out, though this caused division in society and discredit to the institutions created in the 1978 Constitution. José María Aznar was not the only or even the principal schemer behind this strategy, at least in his first 1996-2000 mandate, when he took some care not to provoke social division. It took clearer form when Aznar and Rajoy chose to utilize the antiterrorist struggle as an element capable of causing a rift in society. They did so after the March 11, 2004 Islamist terrorist bombings, when they chose to downplay their own government's error (participation in the Iraq war) by casting doubt on the competence of the police and the democratic honesty of their political opponents - portraying both, out of mere electoral interest, as collaborators with terrorism. So did Rajoy when, in parliament, he accused a prime minister of Spain of "betraying those killed" by terrorist violence.
The great choice now facing the leaders of the PP is whether or not to turn the debate on Catalonia into a new cause of division, as a way of garnering votes, even at the cost of rearming the most bigoted sort of Spanish nationalism and of sinking the Catalan regional government further into the grasp of secessionist forces. The PP's total immobility may lead to a radicalization of Catalan secessionism, in which the breakaway option will be associated more with the left-radical Catalan nationalist parties ERC and CUP than with the still-vacillating center-right nationalist CiU bloc of premier Artur Mas. A scenario of division that would be costly, but surely convenient to the PP's power machine, ever ready to let the state's institutions pay the cost of the messes it makes.
The great choice now facing the leaders of the PP is whether or not to turn the debate on Catalonia into a new cause of division,
It ought to be still possible for those in the PP who know the history of Spain to think twice and oppose a "Catalan" strategy that would seek to put the Generalitat in the hands of the radical secessionists, with the mainstream Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) and CiU severely debilitated. A strategy that would seek to make the Socialists so fragile in Catalonia as to be unable to regroup for years throughout Spain would also leave the Catalan institutions in the hands of ERC.
The result of such a policy would have many dangers. Perhaps the apprentice sorcerers of the PP believe that the only card remaining to them - the only electorally profitable divisive issue - is the "national" battle cry, given that the economic and employment situation will see no appreciable improvement in the coming months, and that even the "Catholic" factor, so beloved of Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, has lost force under a pope who seems more inclined to dialogue than confrontation on such issues as abortion and gay marriage. But not even this belief, fostered by the apprentice Karl Rove within the PP, could justify a strategy so risky, and so costly, to our institutional framework.
Perhaps, in spite of everything, the PP will take this course. Let us hope that, by then, the voters will have learned the tricks of electoral arithmetic, and will not let themselves be caught in traps so oppressive as the proposition that, to discourage Catalan secessionism, the best thing to do is to reinforce chauvinist Spanish nationalism. We know which way these things lead.