Polarised Catalonia and its political stalemate

Yesterday’s election in Catalonia has produced some striking results, but ultimately it has solved little, leaving the most pressing questions currently facing this highly polarised region largely unanswered. The anti-secessionist Ciudadanos (Citizens), a party which only obtained 3 seats in the 2006 elections, scored a remarkable victory, winning 25% of the vote and 36 seats, making it the first non-nationalist party to win most seats and votes in a Catalan election. However, the Socialists (with 14% of the vote and 17 seats), and above all Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party (4% of the vote and a paltry 4 seats), performed significantly worse than expected. Together, the anti-secessionists mustered 43% of the vote and 57 seats, falling far short of the 68 required for a majority; as a result, not even a highly unlikely coalition with the far-left Catalonia in Common, who oppose independence but favour a referendum, and who scored a modest 7% of the vote and 8 seats, would allow them to form a government.

The election also saw a surprisingly strong performance by Together for Catalonia, led by Carles Puigdemont, the ousted regional president who fled to Brussels after his unilateral declaration of independence, which emerged as the largest secessionist party with 21% of the vote and 34 seats, slightly ahead of the Catalan Republican Left, who obtained two fewer seats. This appears to confirm Puigdemont’s leadership of the secessionist camp, but his ability to play this role is in doubt, since he will face charges of sedition and rebellion if he returns to Spain. His position is further complicated by his reliance on the support of the extreme left-wing Popular Unity Candidacy, which is determined to press ahead with UDI, and which may once again play a pivotal role in spite of having won a mere 4% of the vote and 4 seats. Not for the first time, nationalist parties benefited from the Catalan electoral law, which over-represents the sparsely populated provinces of Girona and Lleida, where they are strongest, to the detriment of the urban centres in Barcelona province, where the anti-secessionist parties have most support. Overall, those favouring independence secured two fewer seats than in 2015 and 47% of the vote, slightly down from the previous election.

This outcome has done nothing to dissipate the uncertainty that has gripped Catalonia since the regional parliament voted in favour of independence with the support of only 70 out of 135 members in early September. It is unclear if those accused of sedition and rebellion by the Spanish courts will be able to take up their seats, or whether they will resign in order to facilitate the election of a new government. If and when this happens, there are also doubts as to how and when Madrid will withdraw article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which was invoked in October to restore legality by suspending home rule. And if it is lifted, it remains to be seen whether Rajoy would continue to enjoy the support of the Socialists, should he wish to reinstate it in response to renewed pro-independence initiatives. Furthermore, these results will have done nothing to reassure those who were contemplating imitating the more than 3,000 companies that have already withdrawn their headquarters from Catalonia (including a third of all those with more than 50 employees), and may well trigger a fresh wave of departures.

Most importantly, the election has revealed a deeply fractured Catalan society: the secessionists still lack a clear popular mandate for independence, but those defending the status quo have also failed to achieve their goals, and the resulting stalemate will not be easily overcome. In the longer term, it will probably be necessary to reform the Spanish constitution in order to pave the way for a new Catalan statute of autonomy capable of attracting the support of a significant majority of its citizens. In the meantime, the Catalan conundrum will continue to absorb inordinate amounts of time and energy that could be better spent dealing with the region’s daunting economic and social challenges.

Charles Powell is director of the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid-based think tank.

2024 © Charles Powell