Artur Mas: The Long Distance Race of the Party Errand Boy

Looking back, the start of Artur Mas's career is a warning of things to come. When the lift company that grandfather Mas had founded and integrated into the network of Spanish companies in 1924 was declared bankrupt in 1979, the young Artur Mas took a deep breath and faced the attacks of the unions and main shareholders, and for two years tried to save the company by looking for foreign markets. He failed. His father was forced out of the consortium and Mas was offered a transfer to Madrid.

It was at this point that he suffered an attack of family pride and refused. Not only had the consortium taken over his grandfather's company but he also had to consider Helena Rakosnik, who he hadn't married yet but who already had a permanent teacher's job and was earning more than he was. Artur Mas decided to stay in Catalonia and in 1982 began the long-distance race that would eventually make him the country's most successful politician.


Mas's father took him to see Francesc Sanuy, who was Catalan Minister of Commerce and Tourism at the time, and who he had met at the Fira de Barcelona, the city's trade fair and exhibitions venue. Just like any parent would, Mas's father told the minister that his son was bright and intelligent, and Sanuy mentioned that the Generalitat was looking for people with management skills to help stimulate small company exports abroad.

You have to bear in mind that in the rest of Spain at the time, it was only large companies that had any dealings with foreign markets.

Mas had studied Economics and spoke French and English very well. Furthermore, he already had experience of trying to stimulate foreign trade for the group of companies that had belonged to his grandfather. He was initially given a trial five-month contract but went on to spend the next four years visiting trade fairs of all kinds in his Opel Corsa and representing the Generalitat in organisations such as the Fira de Barcelona and the Chamber of Commerce.

When people say today that Artur Mas has very good relations with the country's business community, they often forget that he entered politics through this route, as the Generalitat's representative in dealings with local companies. It's for this reason that he has always been able to draw on support that wasn't available to rival candidates and that he will hopefully take advantage of now he needs the backing of the wealthy classes.

But let's go back in time. The months following the bankruptcy of his grandfather's company affected young Mas badly. The workers had occupied the factories in Poblenou for three months and the negotiations between the unions and the Mas family had been difficult. Mas had come up against a problem that would influence him for the rest of his life. He believed that the unions had pressurised so much that they had destroyed Catalonia's industrial and productive framework. This view lies behind many of his actions once he began working for the Generalitat from 1982 onwards.

In 1986 Mas was promoted to General Manager of Foreign Development and so, aged only 30, became the youngest general manager of any of the Generalitat departments. He already had a career in politics in mind but as he admits, he never thought he'd get very far, not even as far as minister, because he didn't come from the right background. He imagined he would be involved in politics for a few years and then end up becoming a manager of a company.

The truth was that Artur Mas was the son of someone who made lifts in Poblenou. He was considered upper middle-class in El Maresme, which meant he only just made it into the middle-class in Barcelona. The Mas family hadn't made money by being involved in politics, but rather by investing in it. They'd always done what most Catalan families of their kind had always done: gone about their business without making too much fuss about it. How on earth could Mas possibly compete with Joaquim Triadú i Vila-Abadal? Or with Joan Maria Pujals, who might not have been born rich but charmed everyone with his charisma? 

There's a rumour that the historic CDC leaders joked about his obedient, school-teacherly character. Even now he still uses expressions like " We must do our homework". They also weren't impressed that he dressed like a department store manager. Mas himself recounts that Jordi Pujol called him Andreu Mas for a long time, not because he didn't like him but it was his way of showing the old guard that Mas had no chance of climbing the leadership ladder.

However, it is precisely his reputation as a good manager, the ideal second-in-command, that opened many doors for him. When Josep Maria Cullell decided to present a candidacy for the municipal elections to the Ajuntament de Barcelona of 1987, it was Artur Mas he went in search of.

They lost the elections and Mas left his job with the Generalitat and took up a post at the private company, Tipel, in order to have more time to dedicate to his responsibilities as a Barcelona city councillor. It is well-known that he worked excessively hard during his time on the Ajuntament, basically because Cullell was a layabout.

Much is said and written about Mas's time at Tipel but the truth is that little is known about it. The newspaper El Mundo made an accusation, repeated by ERC, that Mas ruined Prenafeta's company. The company, though, didn't belong to Lluís Prenafeta but rather his cousin, Isidre Prenafeta, who Mas had met through the Fira de Barcelona.

Artur Mas joined the management team of Vilassar Internacional, the group's investment company, at a time when the company was doing very well but wanted to spread its risks by investing in other values. Mas was the person responsible for broadening the investment base, and took the company into the shopping mall sector, for example.

Four years after joining the company, Tipel was in a sorry state, some say because of competition from China, some say because of some unfortunate investments in Russia, some say because of Mas. What is known for certain is that the sale of holdings in Vilassar Internacional managed to get Tipel out of debt, and that given the state the company was in, Mas decided to commit himself to his work at the Ajuntament.

First Disappointment on the Ajuntament de Barcelona

It was while working on the Ajuntament de Barcelona that Artur Mas developed his political muscle. He was cut his teeth opposing Pasqual Maragall's Olympic triumphalism, first as

a councillor, combining his responsibilities with his work at Tipel, and later, after Josep Maria Culell left the Ajuntament because Pujol gave him a minister's job, as Leader of the Opposition.

We're talking about the years 1993 and 1994, when Maragall really couldn't bear him. The socialist mayor was a complete disaster when it came to accounting and Mas was pernickety to say the least. In fact, in private conversations Maragall always referred to Mas as the "torracollons" (ballbreaker). He also hated Mas because he always defended the traditional sharing of power in Catalonia: PSC in control of the Ajuntament de Barcelona and his own party CiU in control of the Generalitat, and consequently, the government of Catalonia.

Whilst at the Ajuntament, Mas made his first attempts at creating a reputation within the party, particularly during the eternal negotiations over the Carta Municipal, the special law that would increase the powers of the Ajuntament de Barcelona.

Relations between Maragall and Pujol were as dreadful as they had always been. Pujol boycotted the negotiations so that the Ajuntament couldn't become a counterforce against the hegemony of the Generalitat, and throughout the affair, Mas suddenly became Pujol's most valued soldier, passing messages from one side of Plaça de Sant Jaume to the other. 10 years later, when Maragall and Mas were negotiating the Estatut, the old socialist still criticised Mas for campaigning so hard on behalf of his party.

In this environment, first working hard to cover Cullell's back, and later standing up for Pujol's policies, the next round of elections to the Ajuntament arrived in 1995. After 8 years of hard work, Mas was convinced that he would lead the candidature but the CDC executive decided to present Miquel Roca, one of the party's early leaders and a media star throughout Spain, instead. Once again Mas had to take a deep breath and put up with disappointment this time from his own party.

True to form, he behaved like a perfect second-in-command and over time developed an excellent relationship with Roca, who following the dreadful results already had one foot outside politics. Furthermore, the political decision must have made sense to Mas as, out of all of CDC historic leaders, Roca was always the one most capable of maintaining good relations between Barcelona and Madrid.

The Birth of the Convergència Circle

The truth is Pujol wanted to see the back of Roca and, for this reason, left him in the political backwater of leading the opposition in the Ajuntament. Later that year, he called Mas and made him Minister of Public Works in a ministry that was something of a wasp's nest. Josep Maria Cullell had resigned over traffic of influence and his successor Jaume Roma also resigned after it was found out that he had adjudicated public works in return for a chalet in Canovelles.

Pujol didn't want any more scandals and his errand boy was clean as a whistle. Rumour has it that Mas went as far as stopping work on his new kitchen at home just to make sure that there could be no possible suspicions surrounding his nomination as minister.

Joaquim Forn says that Mas worked hard to impose order on the ministry, but once the bureaucratic clean-up had been done, found that it was an excellent job because in those the Generalitat had plenty of money. It was Mas who pushed for the Eix Transerval, the transversal arterial highway connecting the Pyrenees to the Catalan Central Depression, and he also drew up the plans for the Barcelona Metropolitan Area. Mas resolved many problems for Pujol without causing any.

By 1995, the manager who didn't expect to get anywhere in politics was now a minister and along the way he had forced Roca, who was the only person in the party who could challenge Pujol, into effective retirement. But the errand boy would climb higher and later in 1995, with the support of Felip Puig, Mas became President of the CDC Federation in Barcelona.

 It was at this time that Mas made friends with a group of young politicians who were all in their thirties, who all gave him their full support: Joaquim Forn, Oriol Pujol, Francesc Homs, Germà Gordó, David Madí and Jordi Villajoana as well as Pere Esteve, who was a little older than the rest. Mas still has a close relationship with all members of the group except Pere Esteve, who died in 2005, and Oriol Pujol, who was involved in the MOT bribery scandal.

From this moment on, with full support of the group, Artur Mas began his meteoric rise. In 1997, Pujol gave him responsibility for the Ministry of Economy and Finance. For the first time, Mas had the chance to name his own team, and immediately took on David Madí as cap de gabinet, basically his right-hand man.

With Madí's talent for exploiting the media, the Ministry of Economy and Finance became a bit like FC Barcelona when Joan Laporta first became president of the club. All the members of Mas's team were young and full of confidence. They enjoyed having power and had a lot to prove. They even made Cristóbal Montoro, who was then Secretary of State for the Economy, come to Barcelona to negotiate the budget and unknown the PP, they contacted TV3 so that they could run a story on how Montoro had had to back down.

Mas really took off under Madí and began to believe in himself. Only to a certain extent, though, because he carried on having a sandwich for lunch in the main hall at the ministry, where his predecessor, Macià Alavedra, had held banquets.

It is also during this period that Mas began to realise that he had real possibilities of being chosen as Pujol's successor. On the one hand, it was Pujol himself, who made Mas doubt himself because he was obsessed with winning the mayorship of Barcelona and wanted Mas to stand again. There's an old law that goes as follows: when a Convergència politician loses the Barcelona municipal elections, he has basically just signed his own death sentence. So as Pujol wanted to get rid of Joaquim Molins, in the end, that was who he sent as candidate against the socialists in the municipal elections of 1999.

On the other hand, in 1998, Pujol asked Mas if he would be interested in occupying the position of Conseller en Cap, effectively First Minister. Pujol's strength was beginning to weaken and he needed others in his team who could take some of the pressure off him.

The Shadow of Jordi Pujol

1999 was a decisive year for Artur Mas. Nobody believed it would ever happen but Pujol finally announced that he was standing for the last time as candidate for the Presidency of the Generalitat in the autonomic elections. Mas occupied the second position, after Pujol, in the list for Barcelona and Duran i Lleida, in a fit of pique, stood at number 8, just so everyone knew how upset this faithful servant of the people was.

The rows between Mas and Duran in order to grab the limelight during Pujol's last term of office are some of the most pathetic episodes to befall the federation. In the end, Mas came out on top for a number of reasons, but the main one was the effect on Unió of the Cas Treball corruption case, which rumour has was leaked by Felip Puig precisely in order to help Mas. In 2003, the eternal errand boy finally became the federation's candidate for the presidency and relations between Mas and Duran entered one of their best periods, basically because they were nonexistent.

Many Convergència party members say that even after Mas became Conseller en Cap in 2001, it was still only really his in-group that believed in him. Not even members of his own party credited him with any personal value, and the opposition regularly referred to him as the "laboratory candidate".

It was under these circumstances that Pujol saved a final bullet for him. This was the official presentation of Mas as candidate at the celebrated rally at the Vall d'Hebron, where the crowd ended up shouting "giants, giants, giants" to a magnificent Pujol, whilst Mas stood in the background completely overshadowed by the legendary leader whose shoes he was supposed to fill. The errand boy looked just like a stop gap, but as he had done so many times, Mas took a deep breath and got on with doing his job as best he could.

What happened next is well-known. In 2004, Maragall became President of the Generalitat and CiU embraced the idea of a fiscal pact, similar to the Basque Country and Navarre's economic concert. Mas coped with the contradictions within the federation as best he could but once the Estatut was agreed on he came up against of political and media opposition. For example, this was when Ramon Tremosa, Antoni Soy and Elisenda Paluzie presented the Economists for NO manifesto. Mas took on the role, which had been occupied by Carod-Rovira, who in turn had taken it over from Arzalluz, of the anti-Spain moaner, who was hated by Madrid. This was the situation just a few years ago.

"It's difficult to know what he's thinking"

Today the party errand boy seems to have got the better of everyone. Admittedly, he had help from Pujol in seeing off some of his rivals, and others, like Felip Puig, just had too many enemies within the party, or, like Joaquim Triadú, were independents and so had too little direct support within the party. The truth is that winner was the eternal second-in-command, the person who had always been loyal to Pujol and was the least annoying choice for the rest of the party.

 Circumstances have changed over the years. We have changed. Artur Mas has gained in political resistance and communicative expression. But the fact of the matter is that when he says he isn't the leader of anything and that he is just serving the people of Catalonia, he is just talking like the errand boy he always was.

"He doesn't even like losing at parchís," says Joan Maria Piqué of him. If you ask his press chief to define him with one word, "Competitive" is the reply you get. As far as the political analyst, Jordi Graupera, is concerned Mas's main defect is that it's very difficult to tell what he really thinks. The economist Ramon Tremosa, who is now an MEP, says he goes over absolutely everything 100 times. Joaquim Forn, one of the Convergència leaders in Barcelona, coincides on this and says that although there may be more persuasive politicians, he prepares everything to perfection and "this gives him a great deal of strength when negotiating".

One day we'll find out how he managed to impose the unitary list and make Oriol Junqueras cry, who knows whether he couldn't take the pressure, whether he didn't trust Mas or whether he realised that Mas was in a better position and that he needed him.

Something else that everyone mentions is that Mas personally answers all his emails and when there's a death in the family, he always makes a personal phone call. People say he suffers. Since the age of 42, he hasn't eaten salt but despite this hypertension and sensitive soul that his friends and colleagues confirm, at the age of 59, he still hasn't managed to come across to the general public with good humour and empathy.

Even during the last election campaign, when all bridges had to be burnt, he didn't manage to shake off that the coldness with which so many cartoonists caricature him. At the meetings, Raul Romeva and in particular Eduardo Reyes are passionate and emotional, but when Mas stands at the lectern, he always goes back to his normal rigid state. "We've done our homework," he said at one of the meetings at Martorell.

If Jordi Pujol is Charles de Gaulle, Artur Mas isn't Pompidou, the number two who was warming up for years in preparation for coming out to defend the Republic. Mas has never been a political animal but he did emerge from a very amoral world, the Catalonia of the 1980s and a large part of the 1990s, and he didn't get involved in any of the dirty dealings. The worst that can be said of him is that he possibly knew that his father had undeclared money in Liechtenstein and decided to turn a blind eye.

Artur Mas is a man who started out explaining to Senyor Manel from Terrassa that he should export shirts and ended up explaining to Josep Vilarasau what he could and couldn't do within the Savings Bank Law (Llei de Caixes).

He's a man with a notable capacity to get over major setbacks, and even now he's still the sandwich-eating errand boy he was when he started out. He's stays that way partly because he's prudent and timid by nature and partly because, in this country with a large conservative and gutless middle-class, he knows it's the only way to win.


This is a loose translation of an article by Anna Punsoda (@AnnaPunsoda) published in Catalan in El Critic under the title Artur Mas "La cursa de fons del noi d'encàrrecs"

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