With just four days to go before Catalans go the polls in a snap election called by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) and Ciudadanos are fighting for the unionist vote in the region. PSC leader Miquel Iceta called Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera “a two-bit democrat” after the latter stated that any unionist vote that does not go to Ciudadanos will be a wasted vote. Ciudadanos supports an alliance of “constitutionalist” parties, meaning those that uphold the Constitution instead of preaching secession from Spain. But the Catalan Socialists may be eyeing a leftist coalition instead, one that might include the pro-secession Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Catalunya en Comú-Podem (Commons) coalition, forged by the party of Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau and Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos. Similar three-way left-wing “tripartito” governments have existed in the past, but it is unclear whether the current political divide over independence would make that possible.
Inés Arrimadas, 36, has slept poorly, barely had any breakfast, and has just emerged from a tense interview on Catalunya Ràdio, the Catalan public radio station. The pace of the campaign race is taking a toll on the leader of Ciudadanos’ Catalan branch. But the candidate who, growing up, always said she wanted to be an archeologist (“like a female Indiana Jones”) smiles professionally at the camera as she starts to take questions.
Question. Polls are showing that Ciudadanos has a real shot a victory. Do you trust those forecasts or are you wary of them?
What nationalists do is point the finger at you, but we will not be silenced
Answer. Polls should serve to show that it is possible, that it is not wishful thinking. It would send a very clear message to Catalonia, to the rest of the Spain, and also to the world, that there isn’t, in fact, a pro-independence social majority in Catalonia.
Q. The surveys also show that it will be impossible to govern Catalonia without reaching deals with other parties.
A. First let’s see how the seats are distributed. I am hoping for a cross-party government with other constitutionalist forces. And if we finally need to resort to the Commons, to the the folks from Podemos, then I will ask them to abstain so there can be a political change in Catalonia. Our idea is clear: if we govern, our priority is going to be social policies, not the secessionist process.
Q. What you’re saying sounds difficult because both the Catalan Socialists (PSC) and the Commons have already said that they will not allow you to become the next regional premier.
A. The fewer seats these parties get, the less they’ll be tempted to revisit the “tripartito” concept [three-party alliances that governed between 2003 and 2010]. The most important thing is for the constitutionalist parties to add enough seats. Socialist voters will not understand it if their leader tries to forge a “tripartito” with pro-independence parties. And if the numbers are very clear, they will be less tempted to do so. A vote for Ciudadanos is a clear vote for a new political period. This is the only party that can defeat the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and Puigdemont [the former premier, currently in Belgium, who now heads a platform called Junts per Catalunya].
Q. Following the elections, a period of talks will open up and concessions will have to be made. How much are you willing to yield?
A. I know how to negotiate, talk and yield. I don’t know whether other forces will be willing to do so or whether they will stick to their “no is no” position, like [Socialist leader Miquel] Iceta appears to be doing. I want to be the next Catalan premier, but not at any price.
Q. In a scenario in which Iceta comes in after you in number of votes, would you be willing to back him as the next premier, with the ultimate goal of getting pro-independence forces out of power?
A. In an exceptional situation such as this one, the decision of who gets to head the alternative to the pro-independence movement will not be made by Iceta or by myself, but by the Catalan people. We have to listen to the ballot boxes. If Iceta becomes the most-voted constitutionalist force, then I will support him to head a constitutionalist government, but not to lead a government with ERC again. And I would like Iceta to say the same about me. Right now, however, a lot of Socialist supporters don’t really know whether their vote will serve to let ERC secure a deputy premier in the next government.
Q. Do you foresee the possibility of a repeat election?
If you don’t combat nationalism intellectually, if you just let it act, the end result is always the same: separation and conflict
A. I hope not. If Ciudadanos is the most voted political party and there are enough seats going to non-secessionist parties, I am convinced that our voters would not forgive us if we failed to reach an agreement.
Q. If secessionists manage a majority, what should be done about Article 155 of the Constitution?
A. Article 155 is designed to call new elections. I hope this situation will expire on December 21, and that it does not become necessary to apply it again because the next government is violating the law again. But if secessionist forces govern, they will go back to doing the same thing again.
Q. Would you support an extension of Article 155?
A. Article 155 is applied when a government repeatedly violates the law. If these folks go back to doing just that, everything will repeat itself like a déja-vu.
Q. Ciudadanos has opened up the debate about public schools in Catalonia. Do you think we can talk about a general situation of pro-independence indoctrination at school?
A. We shouldn’t say it’s happening at all schools, because that would be unfair, but nor should we treat it as anecdotal or isolated cases. There is a clear intention by the Catalan education department to use the education system to convey political messages, and that cannot be allowed in a democracy.
I want to be the next Catalan premier, but not at any price
Q. What would you change in terms of the education system?
A. There is a lot of talk about indoctrination, which obviously is an important subject, but beyond that, we are the Spanish region with the most makeshift classrooms and where family income has the greatest impact on children’s grades.
Q. I was talking about indoctrination.
A. The change would be in an education department that understands that schools should be left out of politics. Our proposal is to create a nationwide body of independent inspectors to ensure that there is no political meddling at schools.
Q. You often say that nothing good has come out of the independence process. Have you learned any lessons from what the pro-independence camp has done all these years?
A. It is a historical lesson. If you don’t combat nationalism intellectually, if you just let it act, the end result is always the same: separation and conflict. One thing that secessionist governments have done well is explaining and communicating. They are masters at propaganda.
Q. What kind of self-criticism should constitutionalist parties be making?
A. The parties that hold the most responsibility in this are those who have reached deals with nationalist parties in the past [a reference to the Popular Party and the Socialists]. They never went out there to defeat the nationalists. But we’ve never been shy about it.
Q. You like to say that you want to be a premier for all Catalans. What’s your plan for the two million people who are currently convinced that independence is the way forward?
A. The first thing I offer them is respect, whereas we, on the other hand, have been insulted by Puigdemont. The second thing I offer is to tell the truth. Puigdemont promised independence and instead got Catalonia stripped of its self-government. He promised secessionists something that he did not give them. Thirdly, I will focus on social and economic policies, which is what unites us. On the independence front, I offer the same thing that Puigdemont offered: nothing. Puigdemont gave them neither independence nor a real referendum. All his promises were a lie.
Q. Do you think that in future, some kind of leniency will have to be shown to the leaders of the independence movement?
A. We support eliminating all forms of political privileges. We want to eliminate aforamientos [partial immunity from the lower courts for some elected officials] and pardons for crimes like misuse of public funds. Regular people do not get their bills forgiven, so I don’t want pardons for politicians. I am surprised that Iceta is talking about pardons [for politicians in pre-trial detention over a rebellion investigation, including ERC leader Oriol Junqueras]. First, because there has been no conviction yet. This smells to me like he is planning a new “tripartito” by telling ERC: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll pardon you’.”
Q. Is it just a feeling or do you have hard data?
A. I have no data, but there is a two-time precedent. To talk about pardons now is an indication that they are working on a tripartito. I hope not, I hope to see Mr Iceta by my side in a constitutionalist government.
Q. How are you dealing with the insults and harassment during this campaign?
A. Secessionist parties are very nervous about the very real possibility of a Ciudadanos victory. We are the target of all their attacks, and this is evidence of what we’ve been through these last few years. What nationalists do, in the end, is point the finger at you, but we will not be silenced.
English version by Susana Urra.