With less than a week to go before the Catalan regional elections, EL PAÍS spoke with Miquel Iceta, the candidate for the Catalan branch of the Socialist party (PSC), about his strategy to stabilize the region, which has been deeply divided by the secessionist push. The vote was called by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy using emergency powers under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution – a move that came in response to the passing of a unilateral declaration of independence in the regional parliament on October 27.
Iceta, 57, arrives late to the interview after a long day that will continue until late into the night. He is taking a pain reliever a for a cold which he hopes will go away for the final leg of the campaign. Iceta is convinced that he can govern Catalonia alone with the right political strategy. For that, he is betting on his own talent and willingness to reach out to other parties.
Question. Let’s begin with your idea that leaders of the independence movement should be pardoned. You have later said that this idea is premature.
Answer. It was premature from the start, and I only mentioned it in response to whether I was in favor of an amnesty. But yes, if they are convicted I would consider asking for a pardon.
Q. Do you not see another path to what you believe must be reconciliation?
A. I see myself in the delicate position of being a premier trying to reconcile a divided society, one that has gone through a very serious trauma and wants to heal its wounds.
You have to offer an alternative project that the majority of Catalans will be reasonably comfortable with
Q. It is hard to accept that those who tried to unilaterally break with Spain should go unpunished after what they did.
A. Do you think they have got away without punishment? First, one has to take into account that the justice system must act and hand down a sentence. And second, for a pardon, an admission of guilt is required, and a judge needs to make a statement. The origin of this conflict is partly political, and using politics we can try out mechanisms to reduce the damage. I will consider all options. It is a mistake to think that everything will be over if the constitutional parties win on December 21.
Q. Did you want to raise this issue preemptively knowing it would arise sooner or later?
A. Yes, just as we did with constitutional reform or funding. It is not enough to say no to independence. You have to offer a different project that the majority of Catalans will be reasonably comfortable with.
Q. Can you see why it could be said that the justice system is being dealt a bad hand?
Q. Because it could be argued there is no point in investigating if the case will end up in a pardon.
A. That could happen in any situation. How many pardons are asked for and awarded each year? What I find strange is that someone would find it odd to think this way.
Q. Do you believe a PSOE government would be more favorable to conceding a pardon than a Popular Party (PP) government?
A. No, no. The question is how are we going to heal our wounds and return to democratic normality. What if the verdict is not guilty? Sure, it is premature, but people should know that if I am the Catalan premier I will move heaven and earth to heal these wounds. I don’t think that the conflict should continue for 20 more years.
Q. What other initiatives are you considering?
A. Making a risky political bet. We are saying to the secessionists that they have failed and now we have to show them that the path of dialogue can achieve results. But as we cannot keep making that promise indefinitely, I tell them: “You have failed. If two years from now I haven’t been able push forward a negotiation agenda with concrete objectives, I will not continue to say that this is the way forward.” Detractors of independence have to offer an alternative that will get results, and to do that it is imperative for state institutions to understand and support this route. If not, there is no way out. It is a challenge not only for the next regional premier but also for Spanish political leaders and the prime minister of Spain.
Q. You have presented yourself as the only person able to mend bridges and govern the Catalan regional parliament. How is this be possible, if the polls say that the PSC will come in third or fourth place?
I see myself in the delicate position of being a premier trying to reconcile a divided society
A. First, I want to win the highest number of votes. Second, the premier will be whoever reaches a parliamentary majority, whether he came in first, second or third at the election. Consensus will be reached between Catalanist, center-left parties. Secession is not an option, but neither is a refusal to budge.
Q. You speak of a center-left Catalanist government. How do you hope to achieve this?
A. My idea is that we reach a deal to get the premier voted in, but the premier then governs without a coalition. A coalition is not going to work and the whole world knows it. I want a regional government with credibility that will open negotiations with the Spanish government. If we don’t do this, the political situation in Catalonia will remain deadlocked and society divided in two blocs.
Q. This is the famous Borgen [a political drama TV series] or Danish route …
A. Not exactly. In Borgen, the governments are in a coalition but right now in Catalan politics I don’t see that being possible.
Q. What support do you have be voted in as the next premier?
A. Today, none. No one wants to commit their support. I have said that we are not going to make any pro-independence politician the next premier, nor do we want a conservative leader either. Either it is going to be a pro-independence premier, or it is going to be me. I don’t see another way out.
Q. The Commons [the Catalunya en Comú-Podem coalition, forged by the party of Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau and Spain’s anti-austerity party Podemos] parties believe the only way out is a pact with ERC and PSC.
A. The ERC is reformulating its platform, but its idea is still to create a Catalan republic. A three-way government is not going to happen.
Q. Inés Arrimadas from Ciudadanos says that if you receive more votes than her and there is the possibility of forming a government of constitutional parties, she would support you as the new premier. Would you do the same for her if she receives more votes?
A. I don’t believe that her program would be the solution for the next stage in Catalan politics. Ciudadanos’ rhetoric does not reach out across the aisle enough to staunch the wounds in Catalan politics.
Q. Yet you want to be premier with the support of PP and Ciudadanos. Is that not a pipe dream?
A. No, although it may be very difficult. The consensus is going to come from center-left Catalanism, but my idea is to create a broader-spectrum government. A coalition government would be ungovernable. If what’s most important to the constitutional parties is to have an anti-independence premier, I think I am the most likely candidate.
If I am premier I will move heaven and earth to heal these wounds. I don’t think the conflict should continue for 20 more years
P. The other scenario is that the pro-independence parties win again.
A. Of course, that is what a lot of polls have indicated.
P. What would happen then with Article 155?
A. Article 155 must only be applied if there is a breach of the law, which is why it has been applied in the first place. With the naming of a new premier, Article 155 doesn’t make sense. But if this new premier continues down the path of breaking the rule of law, the state will act to restore law and order once more.
P. Do you think the independence push is dead?
A. The demand for independence is not over. The uncomfortable relationship with the Spanish government continues. What has come to an end is this chapter. That’s why the independence movement, with half the regional government in prison and others in Brussels still to face charges, has to absorb what has happened and redesign its project. When I speak of healing wounds, there also has to be an effort to empathize and understand the other. Not to share their ideas, but rather to understand their problems, which are complicating political stability in Catalonia.
P. Should the leaders behind the Catalan independence push give up their political careers?
A. I would leave politics, but that is something they have to decide themselves. Imagine that on the night of December 21, they obtain a majority. If they are reaffirmed at the ballot boxes, why would they leave?
English version by Melissa Kitson