Why I'm supporting Artur Mas

... not just this week but for the next 18 months as well

by Simon Harris December 2015

Since the elections to the Parliament of Catalonia of September 27th, Artur Mas's position as President-elect of the Generalitat of Catalonia has been called into question, particularly by the far-left CUP party. Furthermore, this Thursday President Mas is required to appear before the Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Catalunya to explain his actions and involvement in the organisation of the proxy referendum on Catalan independence, which went ahead on November 9th 2014 despite having been suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

As an elected representative fulfilling his democratic mandate from the Catalan people, President Mas, and also Education Minister Irene Rigau and former Vice-President Joana Ortega, will receive full support not only from pro-independence supporters but also from the majority of poltical forces in Catalonia.

Also I'm convinced that the distribution of power will be different in the Junts pel Sí than it was under Convergència i Unió, and other members of the candidacy, such as Junqueras, Romeva and others, will be assigned important roles within the government. For this reason, Artur Mas should be invested President of the Generalitat so that the business of building the Catalan Republic can begin as soon as possible.


Early Impressions

Under normal circumstances Artur Mas and his party, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), would never get my support. Although I had a grudging admiration for Jordi Pujol's obvious political intelligence, I never had much time for Convergència i Unió in the 1990s, and their snobbish brand of Catalanism was something I never identified with.

When Artur Mas took over leadership of the coalition in 2003, I had no reason to change my opinion as there was no reason to think that anything important about CiU had changed. To be perfectly honest, I was taking little interest in politics at the time so I was prepared to accept that the personality-less technocrat automaton that he was portrayed as on the Catalan political skit programme Polònia was a fair reflection of the man.

As the character developed over the decade, the automaton gradually became more human but not necessarily more likeable. Whenever it came on set, passers-by would shout "Guapo!" (Handsome!) and despite the good looks, the overall impression was of a superficial politician lacking in content and personality.

After two terms of pretty poor Tripartit government, CiU finally won the elections to the Parliament of Catalonia in November 2010. Artur Mas was elected President of the Generalitat with the help of the Partido Popular and imposed severe austerity measures in order to deal with the economic crisis. A year later I became involved with the Indignats anti-austerity movement and Artur Mas and his CiU government were one of the main targets of our criticisms and demonstrations.

It isn't surprising then that the CUP, who were very active in the Indignats movement, view Artur Mas and Convergència with some suspicion.

September 2012

When the Catalan independence movement held its first massive demonstration in Barcelona on September 11th 2015, I wasn't very surprised that Mas didn't attend. I vaguely remember hearing that his excuse for not taking part was that he was president of all Catalans no matter what their opinion on independence, but it sounded like a typically evasive answer of a right-wing politician to me.

I only began to get a sense of how important Artur Mas really was when I opened La Vanguardia newspaper the following day and saw the Toni Batllori Ninots cartoon, which showed Mas standing on a railway platform next to a train full of people with "Catalonia, New European State" written on the side. A disembodied hand was pointing to the empty driver's carriage. "Come on!" read the speech bubble.

I knew that, in his public statements in the days following La Diada, rather than using the word 'independence', Mas used euphemistic terms like national transition, national fulfilment, the right to decide and sovereignty. It appeared that his statement to the Catalan people that "your demands are my demands ... your voice is my voice ... your desires are my desires" on the night before the demonstration was just empty political talk.

I wasn't fully aware at the time of the importance of the tax agreement known as the fiscal pact, which had been passed by a majority in the Parliament of Catalonia earlier in the year and which Mas was due to discuss with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy the following week. The Catalan proposal of a tax relationship with central government similar, to the one enjoyed by the Basque Country and Navarre, met with complete rejection from Rajoy and Mas's response was that "a historic opportunity had been lost".

Five days later, in the General Political Debate in the Parliament of Catalonia on September 25th, Mas announced that he would be bringing forward elections so that the Catalan people could decide whether they were in favour of independence for Catalonia or not.

Can Mas Be Trusted?

Mas's behaviour in the period between La Diada and the rejection of the fiscal pact not only explain both why some in the pro-independence movement are suspicious of him but also why I have become such an admirer.

In Catalonia, not taking part in La Diada and his reticence to utter the word independence was interpreted by many to mean that Mas wasn't really committed to Catalanism. The fact that he finally decided to lead the Catalan independence process is often put down to political opportunism at best and, at worst, is seen as a way of covering up his government's incompetence in their handling of the economic crisis.

In Madrid, many analysts believe that Mas planned his visit to Moncloa to discuss the fiscal pact with Rajoy in order to have a pretext for calling early elections and begin his irresponsible project to divide Spain. Paradoxically, the fact that President Mas is perceived as being the leader of the process both in the rest of Spain and by the international press is viewed with annoyance and perhaps a degree of jealousy by pro-independence supporters in Catalonia, who quite rightly see the movement as grassroots-inspired.

Yes, I Think He Can

To this day President Mas hasn't taken part in a Diada demonstration and he still prefers the word 'sovereignty' to independence. I think these are tics of a true conservative and keeping a distance from grassroots activism has enabled him to maintain impartiality he needs to take difficult political decisions. His moderate image also goes down well abroad because it means that the Spanish government cannot claim that the independence movement is led by dangerous revolutionaries.

Mas's use of the word sovereignty rather than independence reveals a very meticulous character, who is almost obsessive in his use of precise language. He has often said that in today's interdependent world, in which Catalonia would ideally form part of the European Union, there is no such thing as a truly independent state, so whilst not as emotionally appealing as the idea of independence, it is the sovereignty of Catalonia that he is working for.

Having done quite a lot of research into Artur Mas over the last few months, I have absolutely no doubt about the sincerity of his, admittedly conservative, Catalanism. Way back in 2007, his disagreements with Duran i Lleida began when he tried promote the Casa Gran del Catalanisme, which was an ambitious project to bring all the different political tendencies of Catalanism together under one roof, which as things have turned out doesn't seem massively different from the Junts pel Sí candidacy that won the recent elections.

If you go on YouTube and search for 'Artur Mas - Una Pregunta para Usted' you'll see the future President of the Generalitat prior to the 2010 Catalan elections, which first brought him to power, facing questions from a studio audience. At one point one of the members of the audience asks him if he is in favour of an independent Catalonia and after avoiding the question by saying that the President of the Generalitat has to represent all Catalans whether they're want independence or not (haven't we heard that somewhere before?), finally when pushed he admits that as a citizen he would vote in favour.

Furthermore, at both ceremonies, in 2010 and 2012, where he is sworn in as President of the Generalitat, the President of the Parliament asks him "Do you solemnly swear to faithfully fulfil the obligations of the position of President of the Generalitat of Catalonia with loyalty to the King, the Constitution, the Statute of Autonomy and the institutions of Catalonia?" and he simply replies "Yes, I promise complete loyalty to the people of Catalonia." I think there's no doubt about where his loyalties lie.

Regarding accusations of possible political trickery and an excessive desire for leadership, I'd say that he is a very canny politician, who plays his cards very close to his chest in order to achieve his objectives and he is leading a country at a time when it is in desperate need of firm leadership so it's hardly fair to criticise Mas for doing his job

Promises Kept

The first time I watched a full TV interview with President Mas was one he did with Josep Cuní for the current affairs programme 8aldia in late October 2012, just a month before the elections. Josep Cuní is sometimes quite an irritating and self-opinionated presenter, who likes the sound of his own voice, but he actually is an excellent interviewer because his guests relax and show aspects of themselves that are out of reach to other journalists.

I immediately warmed to Artur Mas and he came across as bright, intelligent, honest and self-critical, particularly when talking about his government's performance and the difficulties of dealing with Madrid. He also had a twinkle in his eye and an obvious sense of humour. Despite disagreeing with him on many aspects of social and economic policy, I agreed with his analysis of the difficulties and way forward for Catalonia and found him extremely likeable.

Throughout the interview Mas explained why a democratic mandate through elections was needed following La Diada demonstration and the failure of the fiscal pact. He also laid out the procedure for taking Catalonia towards sovereignty by democratic means. A referendum would be requested from the Spanish Congress. If this was rejected, a Catalan Law of Consultations would be passed permitting the holding of a non-binding consultation. If the non-binding consultation was blocked, Mas hoped to gain international support but in the last resort would call plebiscitary elections to the Parliament of Catalonia.

He left no doubt about his commitment to a democratic mandate.

"... during the next legislature, during the next four years, there'll be a very transcendental moment, which will be the consultation. So what's my final commitment? The last decision, whatever process there is in the middle, will be taken by the people of Catalonia ... Ideally, the people will vote for Catalonia to become a new European state. That's the maximum we can vote in favour of. Whatever the decision it will be taken by Catalan men and women. It's not my decision, or the government's and not even the Parliament's. Sometimes I've been criticised for saying this. It's not a even a Parliament's decision. That's why we have to have a consultation. That's why we want people to vote because it's the most important decision that Catalonia will have taken in the last three centuries. That's no joke. How can you substitute the direct will expressed in the ballot boxes? You cannot substitute a decision of this magnitude." (Interview 8aldia - 25/10/2012)

Mas also talked about laying foundations for structures of state as well as working for a broad consensus and although at times progress has seemed extraordinarily slow, he has kept all his promises.

The Success of 9-N

The transcendental moment, that Artur Mas spoke of, ended up being set for November 9th 2014 and the date became known as 9-N. The decree calling the consultation in accordance with the Catalan Law of Popular Consultations was signed by the President on Saturday September 27th 2014 and met with an immediate response from the Spanish State. The Council of State met under extraordinary circumstances on the Sunday and the Constitutional Court met under equally extraordinary circumstances on the Monday and suspended the 9-N consultation.

The suspension meant the pro-independence parties were uncertain about what to do next and broke ranks. The first two weeks of October were spent in meetings with responses varying from giving up to disobedience until on October 14th, Artur Mas basically reinvented the definitive consultation as a non-definitive participative process, which would serve as a prelude to the plebiscitary elections that ended up being held on September 27th this year. (Note the date. The elections were set for a year after Mas signed the decree calling the consultation.)

The atmosphere of mistrust remained between the the pro-independence forces virtually until the day of the vote, but 9-N could only be described as an inspiring act of disobedience against the Spanish State, a pure expression of the sovereignty of Catalonia and an incredibly democratic success. Around 2.45 million Catalans voted in the participative process with 1.9 million voting in favour of co0mplete independence from Spain.

The symbolic moment of the day was the embrace between Artur Mas and radical left CUP parliamentarian David Fernàndez. It was at this point that it struck me that the bland automaton Artur Mas of a decade earlier had metamorphosed into a fully-equipped Terminator with the personality characteristics of Buzz Lightyear.

Mas, along with ministers Ortega and Rigau, was immediately accused of perversion of justice, disobedience and misappropriation of public funds by the Spanish public prosecutor, and these are the charges the President will be facing before the Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Catalunya on Thursday.

Towards a Plebiscitary Election

Following the success of 9-N, on November 25th in a speech entitled "After 9N: Time to Decide, Time to Work Together", Mas put forward his roadmap that would lead to the holding the plebiscitary elections. His central argument was that, for the elections to be interpreted as a referendum on independence by the international community, the result had to be as clear as possible and that the best way to achieve this was for all the pro-independence parties to form part of a single unitary electoral list or candidacy together with representatives of civil society groups, Assemblea Nacional Catalan and Òmnium Cultural, and independents.

Mas reiterated his promise to withdraw from politics once the sovereignty process was complete and also offered cede the Number One position in the unitary list to a candidate who was more to the liking of all the parties concerned. His proposal was rejected, most vociferously by Esquerra Republicana, and after a couple of months of disagreements, it was finally decided that Convergència, Esquerra and the CUP would stand separately for elections now set for September 27th and all three parties would include independence in their programme.

Artur Mas remained convinced that the best formula was a single list and, once Convergència had separated from its independence-sceptic coalition partner Unió, he put the cat back amongst the pigeons by repeating his proposal, with some modifications, in his "Welcome to the Future" speech made at Molins de Rei on June 20th. After some disagreement the Junts pel Sí candidacy finally came together and included the two main pro-independence parties, Convergència and Esquerra, as well as other parties, civil society organisations and independents, and would be headed by former MEP for Iniciativa, Raul Romeva.

In Conclusion

Junts pel Sí's clear victory in the elections, which have broadly been interpreted in plebiscitary terms, is a testament to Mas's clear political analysis and level-headed behaviour throughout the independence process so far. The fact that he has been proved right on many occasions means that it makes sense that Mas should continue taking part in the leadership of the process as President of the Generalitat.

Obviously, given that Junts pel Sí is a coalition including diverse political tendencies, there will be a greater sharing of power between the different sectors in the new concentration government. Perhaps Mas's role as President will be counter-balanced by giving more weight to positions such as Conseller en Cap and President of Parliament, possibly occupied by Junqueras and Romeva, so domestically at least, Mas will be perceived to be more of a participant in the administration rather than outright leader.

I also think that this week's hearings are an opportunity for the people to show support for Mas and depending how things go might end up leading to the new government's first act of open disobedience to the Spanish State.

So all in all, we should all be supporting Artur Mas not just this week but as President of the Generalitat of Catalonia for the next 18 months as well.

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