This post has been updated.
By Marcelo Fernandez de la Mora
Two months after the Spanish central government assumed control of the Catalan government and weeks of a tense and toxic campaign, Catalonia’s citizens voted in local elections in order to elect a new government.
This election, with a reported record turnout, was a referendum on Rajoy’s application of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allowed Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to fire the separatist Catalan government and to hold new elections in the region.
This election was a referendum on whether the Catalan people wanted the region to secede and become an independent republic. Unlike a referendum held on 1 October, which courts deemed illegal and involved police violence on behalf of he Spanish government, this election was peaceful and held in normal conditions.
Initial exit polling suggested that the pro-independence parties would be within a majority, which would consist of at least 68 seats in parliament. Final results showed that the pro-independence camp won an absolute majority of 70 seats, two less than during the last election, while strictly pro-union parties achieved 57 seats. Catalonia in Common (CeC), a left-wing party affiliated with Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona, won 8 seats and is ambivalent on independence, even though the party supports a negotiated referendum with Madrid. Most of the voters of this party oppose independence however. In terms of popular vote, pro-independence parties won a total of 47.53 percent, while strictly pro-union parties won 43.45 percent and CeC lagged behind at 7.44 percent.
Surprisingly, ex-Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont’s secessionist Together for Catalonia (JxC) party overtook the left-wing and secessionist Republican Left of Catolonia (ERC). JxC appeared to be in third place in earlier polls, while ERC was leading in the polls since 2015. The pro-union liberal Citizens’ Party (C’s) was at a distant second in earlier polls, but later managed to narrow the gap with ERC and to finally overtake the left-wing party and win first place.
This election was the first time in Catalan history in which a pro-union party won the popular vote, the Catalan southern province of Tarragona, and a plurality of seats in the Catalan Parliament.
Meanwhile, Catalonia’s Socialist Party (PSC), a party that had both governed Catalonia and had been the main opposition but had lost much support, managed to gain one more seat in parliament, much fewer than which earlier polls had projected. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s center-right People’s Party, a key government supporter in the 1990s and opposition party up to 2015, suffered a devastating defeat, losing more three fourths of its seats since the last election.
Due to this disastrous result, the party will be unable to form its own group during the next parliament and will have become a residual force in Catalan politics. Due to its inability to directly support or oppose independence, CeC suffered a decline of three seats, while the anti-capitalist and pro-independence Popular Unity Candidates party (CUP) lost six of its 10 original seats.
The result of this election drew various reactions form a wide range of parties; in Brussels lest he face prosecution for sedition, rebellion, abuse of office, and misappropriation of public funds, ousted Premier Carles Puigdemont announced to a jubilant crowd, “The Catalan republic has beaten the monarchy and article 155. The Spanish state has been beaten. Mr Rajoy and his allies have lost. They were seeking to legitimize article 155, but they have been beaten.”
Ines Arrimadas, the head of the victorious Citizens’ Party claimed that “a majority of Catalan voters are clearly ‘in favor of union with Spain.’”
She also criticized the electoral law, claiming that a vote in a pro-independence rural area counted more than in more unionist cities.
Furthermore, she said that it was wrong that “more seats [were allocated] to those who have fewer votes in the street.” Marta Rovira, the second in command of ERC, spoke because the party’s leader, Oriol Junqueras, is currently in pre-trial detention facing the same charges as Puigdemont. She joyfully exclaimed, “[The people] have voted for the [Catalan] Republic!”
With respect to the last election, separatists lost 2 seats and revived about one percent less compared to the last general election. Their number of seats may give them a mandate to continue on their process to create a Catalan Republic, while their inability to win more than half the vote might also delegitimize their plans. The most noticeable result was that Catalan voters rebuked Rajoy and his government’s handling of the Catalan political crisis.
This election may also show his party’s national decline after a series of corruption scandals and incoherent approach in dealing with secessionists. The centrist C’s continue to rise regionally and in national polls. Puigdemont will most likely be unable re-elected Premier; his arrival in Spain would probably result in his immediate arrest. It is unlikely that Oriol Junqueras will be released anytime soon, so the question will be who will be the next Premier.
Another key question is who will be the new Speaker of Parliament and other key parliamentary officers responsible for bringing bills to a vote. If the new Speaker does not belong to a pro-independence party or a majority of these other key parliamentary officials are not pro-independence, Arrimadas and her political allies will win a legislative victory; since these officials are responsible for processing and brining bills to the floor, a declaration of independence or the holding of a new referendum would be impossible if the majority of these members are unionist. This is unlikely, but possible if Mr. Puigdemont, Mr. Junqueras and other ex-regional ministers take their seats while in jail or abroad.
Nothing has changed since 2015 except that Rajoy and his People’s Party have been humiliated.
It is also unlikely that the ex-Catalan regional ministers will take back their posts. Perhaps a victory in a new general election throughout all Spain will restore some of Rajoy’s credibility, but now he has lost it as well as his moral authority and political capital. The unionist “silent majority” he previously has talked about is nonexistent. He has failed both Catalonia and the whole of Spain.
Due to Rajoy’s inability make the unionist case to the Catalan electorate, he should resign and allow a capable leader to take charge of the country and steer it through the current political crisis. This election was unfortunately unable to conclude – either to fulfill or neutralize – Catalonia’s independence movement.
There is no end in sight, and another possible application of Article 155 is on the horizon. A massive turnout failed to benefit unionist parties. Catalan unionists, Spain, and Europe lost today’s election while the pro-independence side has been galvanized and are poised to continue on their quest for independence.
This election concludes the 2017 political cycle in Europe, but brings more political uncertainty to the continent. Other European countries should be wary of growing nationalist and regionalist movements.