Arrimadas’s Waterloo “happening” kicks off Spanish electoral season

Spanish general election campaigns aren’t supposed to begin like this. They tend to kick off in echoey sports centres in Zaragoza, or lifeless conference halls in Marbella, with amp-busting canned music and kitsch flag-waving.

But you could make the case that the 2019 election campaign began in Belgium, outside the rented Waterloo house of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont on Sunday. There, Inés Arrimadas, Catalan unionism’s most recognisable face, staged a…what? “Happening” might be the best word. Gathered with a group of journalists and colleagues from her Ciudadanos party, Arrimadas give a 10-minute speech in which she reprimanded Puigdemont, telling him his independent republic does not exist, advised him to hand himself in to Spanish authorities and then promptly left.

It was a press conference, of sorts. But from the moment Arrimadas announced her Waterloo plan, it had a slightly weird, Dadaist air. That was compounded when, as the event got under way, Puigdemont’s front door silently swung open, in an invitation to dialogue that everybody knew Arrimadas would not accept. It was all too easy to imagine the former Catalan president watching the proceedings from an upstairs bedroom, perhaps muffling a snigger as he twitched the curtains.

It’s all slightly reminiscent of a stunt pulled by the unionist-fantasists of Tabarnia last March, when their leader Albert Boadella issued a megaphoned appeal to Puigdemont from the same spot. But while Tabarnia’s humour has soured since then, on that occasion Puigdemont’s antagonists did at least have comedy on their side. Arrimadas’s gesture, by contrast, might have made us laugh if it weren’t so reckless.

Enric Juliana noted at the weekend that instead of heading to Waterloo, she was in fact heading “to the electoral border between Ciudadanos and Vox.”

The election campaign doesn’t officially start until mid-April, but this was Ciudadanos’s starting gun. It wasn’t an attempt to lay out policies or even a vision of Spain, it was simply a move aimed at further raising tensions and convincing voters that Ciudadanos can be as angry at and hostile to independentistas as Vox or the Popular Party.

There will be plenty more of this in the coming weeks, with grand, choreographed gestures taking the place of considered solutions, and not just from Ciudadanos. The PP and Vox will, of course, also bang the same drum, calling for immediate direct rule in Catalonia and tougher laws to clamp down on separatism. Meanwhile, Pedro Sánchez’s government will also seek to make a big gesture before the April 28th election, albeit one which could solve a very painful problem: exhuming Franco from the Valley of the Fallen.