There’s no doubt that the pro-independence Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) coalition won a resounding victory in Sunday’s regional elections in Catalonia. With nearly 40% of the vote, it is by far the largest force in Catalonia’s regional government and with the support of the ardently pro-independence, hard-left Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP, Popular Unity Candidacy), it is likely to form a government that will carry forward the cause of Catalan independence over the next 18 months.
For the first time in Catalan history, an explicitly pro-independence coalition, running expressly on the campaign pledge to enact an 18-month process toward declaring independence, will control the Generalitat, the Catalan government.
But that’s essentially where the good news ends for Catalonia’s independence movement, which now faces the real prospect of hubris and overreach in the days and weeks ahead.
A democratic deficit
The first difficulty is that, though pro-independence parties now control the Catalan parliament, those parties did not, as a technical matter, win a majority of votes in the election. Pro-independence parties together won around 47.9% of the vote, just shy of an outright majority, depriving the pro-independence camp of an important moral victory in its quest. It’s difficult to claim that your movement commands democratic support when a majority of voters, in an election with nearly 77.5% turnout, supported anti-independence parties.
It’s hard to compare the 2015 result against the 2012 result because that’s something of an apples-to-oranges comparison. But in the broadest sense, the parties supporting independence (or at least sympathetic to the cause of Catalan nationalism) won 74 seats in the Catalan parliament. That’s actually two more seats than the pro-independence parties won in the 2015 vote.
It’s not exact, because in 2012, no one was running on the explicit promise to launch a separation process from Spain. But it’s also not the kind of boost you would expect to see from a movement that wants to claim it has sufficient momentum for a unilateral declaration of independence.
A government united only on the question of independence
The Junts pel Sí coalition is a merger between regional president Artur Mas’s conservative Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia) and the leftist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC, Republican Left of Catalonia), among other civil society groups, whose leader is Raül Romeva, a former member of the European Parliament whose political background lies in the Catalan green movement. Moreover, no one expects that it will be easy for the new government to agree terms with Catalonia’s other separatist party, the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP, Popular Unity Candidacy). The CUP is a hard-left party that wants Catalonia not only to leave Spain but the European Union altogether, and it’s fiercely opposed to the kind of austerity measures that Mas has introduced in the region throughout his two governments since 2010. In exchange for its support, the CUP may demand that Mas steps aside, in favor of Romeva or the ERC’s leader, Oriol Junqueras, as a more appropriate regional president over the next 18 months. If Mas is unwilling to step down, the pro-independence movement might be stymied in efforts to form a government. Though Mas and the Junts pel Sí leaders anticipate fresh elections in 18 months, they will come much sooner if no one can build a majority in the Catalan parliament.
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Mas’s first government from 2010 to 2012 was a traditional enough center-right government, even if he hoped to achieve more autonomy for Catalonia. But in Mas’s transformation into a more radical separatist, he has forced the breakup of Convergència i Unió (CiU, Convergence and Union), the two-party coalition that had dominated Catalan politics since the return of democracy in 1978. The junior member of CiU, Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC, Democratic Union of Catalonia), broke with Mas in June over his embrace of the independence movement, and the UDC attracted just 2.5% of the vote in Sunday’s elections, too little to win any seats in the Catalan parliament.
A moment of truth for Madrid
For the past five years, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has refused the notion that Catalonia has the power even to request a referendum on independence, let alone separate from Spain unilaterally. Though former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero enacted a statute of autonomy for Catalonia in 2006, Spain’s constitutional court significantly rolled back many of the statute’s provisions (including the affirmation that Catalonia is a ‘nation’ within Spain) in a 2010 decision. For the past five years, Rajoy’s intransigence has increasingly angered Catalans who want more fiscal control and autonomy on cultural and language matters.
So far, Rajoy has insisted that Mas’s efforts, including a proposed referendum last November, are illegal under Spain’s constitution. Increasingly, however, that position seems untenable, and even members of Rajoy’s conservative Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) are beginning to admit that Madrid must address Catalonia’s demands in a more thoughtful process, including constitutional negotiations for more regional autonomy or even a federal system. The PP’s local branch, the Partit Popular de Catalunya (PPC, the People’s Party of Catalonia), finished last among the four unionist parties, trailing the Ciutadans/Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’ or just the ‘C’s’), a relatively new liberal party in Catalonia that’s broadened its appeal to the national level; the center-left Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC, Socialists’ Party of Catalonia), which governed the region between 2003 and 2010; and Catalunya Sí que es Pot (Catalonia Yes We Can), a leftist coalition that incorporates supporters of the anti-austerity Podemos movement, Catalan greens and other leftists that propelled housing activist Ada Colau’s mayoral victory in Barcelona earlier this year.
Since the return of democracy nearly 40 years ago, Spanish governments have routinely scoffed at the idea of federalism, given fears about Basque nationalists and a centralist tendency that dates back to the Bourbon monarchy and the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. But for nearly a decade, there’s been a ceasefire in place with the ETA, the armed Basque nationalist movement. Given the choice between nothing and independence, Catalans are increasingly moving away from Spain.
Rajoy himself will face voters in national elections expected on December 20, a particularly fluid four-way race that will pit the PP against the Spanish Socialists, Ciudadanos and Podemos, all of which have embraced either federalism or some sort of accommodation for Catalan autonomy. With today’s vote, the constitutional question could easily eclipse Spain’s economy as the dominant issue in December.