CiU, from the success of moderation to radicalisation and disintegration

by Dr Astrid Barrio and Dr Bonnie N. Field

Formed in 1978, Convergence and Union (CiU) was an alliance of two Catalan nationalist political parties: the dominant Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), a moderate, centre-right party, founded in 1974, and the smaller Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), a Christian democratic party established in 1931. CiU became almost synonymous with Catalonia’s political autonomy, governing that Spanish Autonomous Community for the first 23 years of its existence between 1980 and 2003 and again beginning in 2010. Yet, by 2015, CiU had split up, and the component parties subsequently dissolved.

In many ways, the story of CiU is one of great success. In addition to governing Catalonia for decades, it periodically played a pivotal role in Madrid by supporting Spain’s minority governments. In exchange, it extracted concessions that strengthened Catalonia’s self-government and shaped policy in line with its goals. However, its later, more radical demands, such as for a new fiscal relationship with the Spanish government and a legal referendum on Catalonia’s political status, languished. Radicalisation, particularly in CDC, also contributed to CiU’s demise.

Catalonia and the centre-periphery divide in Spain

The centre-periphery division has been present in Spanish politics since the emergence of the liberal state at the end of the 19th century. Catalonia was part of the Catalan-Aragonese Crown until its dynastic union with Castile in the 15th century gave rise to the Spanish monarchy. Yet Catalonia preserved its laws and institutions until the Bourbons repealed them in 1714. That lost autonomy would become the basis for the demands of the first non-statewide parties that appeared in Catalonia during the Restoration (1874-1931).

Since then, the Catalan movement has had many currents and multiple political parties, in part because a powerful labor-capital division has intersected with the national identity one. This created multidimensional competition and varying aspirations regarding self-government (regionalism, federalism, political autonomy, secessionism). There has never been a single party that represents the Catalan territorial or national cause.

However, in each historical period a predominant party has been the main protagonist in terms of self-government milestones: the Regionalist League for the Commonwealth of Catalonia (1914-1925), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) that presided over the Catalan government (Generalitat) during the first experience of true self-government (1932-39), and later CiU. After almost forty years of the Franco dictatorship and re-democratisation, CiU led the Generalitat and put in place the system self-government within the bounds set by Spain’s 1978 Constitution.

A key party in Spain and Catalonia

Running separately, the parties that would later form CiU had scant electoral success in the early days of the new democracy. Nonetheless, moderate Catalan nationalism had a representative on the seven-person committee that wrote Spain’s draft Constitution. This sector of Catalan political spectrum endorsed the new political system and more than 90 percent of voters in Catalonia supported the 1978 Constitution in a referendum.

At the state-wide level, CiU would end up obtaining significant concessions for Catalonia. Until 2014, two statewide parties dominated the Spanish party system, though smaller parties were always relevant. Under minority governments, governance depended on non-statewide parties. CiU provided critical support for minority Spanish governments in the 1970s and the 1990s, in part because of its centrist position on socioeconomic issues and moderation on territorial ones. However, it never took ministerial posts in a Spanish central government.

Source: Catalan Generalitat

CiU supported minority governments of the Democratic Center Union (UCD) after 1979, the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) between 1993 and 1996, and the Popular Party (PP) from 1996 to 2000. It was during these key moments that CiU obtained its main political achievements in terms of self-government. Concessions from PSOE included a commitment to allow the Generalitat to create its own police force and fiscal co-responsibility with the transfer of 15 percent of income taxes to most of Spain’s autonomous communities. Even more significantly, in 1996, a governance agreement with PP included, inter alia, the transfer of 30 percent of income tax to the autonomous communities, the elimination of Spain’s civil governors who represented the Spanish state in the provinces, the abolition of compulsory military service throughout Spain, and the transfer of traffic powers to the Generalitat.

At the regional level, CiU was quite successful as well. With the approval of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy in 1979, Catalonia gained a high level of political competencies. Despite previously modest election results in statewide elections, CiU won the first elections for the Catalan Parliament in 1980, although without an absolute majority. Under the leadership of Jordi Pujol, CiU governed alone either in majority or minority for the next 23 years. Thus, Catalonia’s autonomy became identified with CiU and its president. When there were minority governments in Catalonia and Spain, CiU received support to govern Catalonia from the statewide parties governing Spain, and concessions in terms of regionalised investments.

CiU pursued deepening Catalonia’s self-government but did not push for major institutional reforms. However, beginning in the mid-1990s, with new states emerging from the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and electoral wear and tear, voices in CDC began to identify with pro-sovereignty theses. This also coincided with the incipient electoral recovery of ERC, a party that openly embraced Catalan independence.

Pujol’s replacement as CDC party leader by Artur Mas in 2001 marked a turning point in CiU. CiU sought to reform Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, as the Catalan Socialists (PSC) had done to compete with CiU and ERC. The timing coincided with the full development of Spain’s system of decentralisation. The powers of the autonomous communities had largely been aligned, though with some differences among the communities, such as in language, civil law, police, and local government organisation.

With the proposal to reform the Statute of Autonomy, CiU won the 2003 Catalan elections, but a tripartite coalition of the left (Socialists, ERC and post-Communists) ousted it from power. After a turbulent reform process, the new Autonomy Statute was finally approved with broad parliamentary support, but without PP and with little societal interest—fewer than 50 percent of the Catalan electorate voted in the referendum on the matter. PP’s opposition culminated in a hostile collection of petition signatures against the Statute and an appeal of unconstitutionality.

From autonomism to secessionism

When the Constitutional Court ruling finally came in 2010, it annulled aspects of Catalonia’s new Statute of Autonomy, amidst major criticism in Catalonia since the mandates of some members of the Court had expired. This ruling, after the Statute’s approval in a referendum, sparked great indignation in Catalonia. For many, this was a determining factor in the dramatic increase in support for secession in Catalonia and for the CiU's turn towards supporting independence.

That same year, CiU returned to government in Catalonia under the leadership of Artur Mas. Amid the Great Recession, the party’s program focused on the economy. With austerity on the political agenda, Mas demanded a more beneficial financing model for Catalonia from the Spanish government, arguing that Catalonia was subject to fiscal plunder and a prejudicial regional financing system. PP, which governed in Spain in 2011 when the country was on the brink of a financial rescue, rejected Mas’ proposal. The government’s refusal led to CiU’s demand for the right to decide, a euphemism to refer to the right of self-determination and therefore secession.

At a time when support for independence continued to increase, CDC formally adopted a secessionist position in early 2012. Nonetheless, CDC’s shift had been developing for a while, causing conflict with UDC which maintained its autonomist, non-secessionist stance. Several years prior, in the context of frustration with the result of the reform of the Autonomy Statute, various informal ‘consultation’ votes on independence were organised in a number Catalan municipalities, supported by CiU, and around which pro-independence organisations emerged. These organisations would stage major popular demonstrations in favor of independence. 

A few days after a massive demonstration on Catalonia’s national day in 2012, Mas called elections promising to hold a self-determination referendum. Contrary to expectations, CiU declined considerably to the benefit of ERC, the secessionist party par excellence. This accentuated competition between the two parties on the national question. CiU nevertheless returned to the Generalitat, continuing to govern, though now in an uneasy collaboration with ERC that supported plans for the referendum. 

CiU’s demise

Meanwhile, tensions between the two allies within CiU were increasing due to CDC’s move to secessionism. Under Mas’ control, the Catalan government organised a non-binding self-determination vote in 2014, against a Constitutional Court ruling. Prohibited from holding a legal referendum, CDC also supported calling parliamentary elections in Catalonia that would be framed as a plebiscite on independence with a joint candidacy of the independence movement. This would serve to address competition with ERC on the national question and hide the party’s brand at a time when it was engulfed in various corruption scandals that also implicated its founding leader, Jordi Pujol. UDC's opposition to the plebiscite elections, its autonomist position, and its refusal to exceed the legal limits culminated in 2015 with the breakup of CiU.

Thus, the CiU alliance lasted nearly four decades. It achieved many successes as a moderate Catalan nationalist organisation, including incremental enhancements of Catalonia’s political autonomy in Spain. However, its embrace of more radical goals regarding Catalonia’s political status were frustrated and had lethal consequences for the organisation. Notably, the successive organisations that have formed from the remnants of CDC, including PDeCAT and Junts per Catalunya, have still not managed to surpass their secessionist rival, ERC, while UDC, after various electoral failures, disbanded in 2017.

Author bio

Dr Astrid Barrio is a Professor in the Department of Constitutional Law, Political and Administrative Sciences, University of Valencia, Spain.

Dr Bonnie Field is a Professor of Political Science in the Global Studies Department, Bentley University, US.