By Samuel Blencoe
On Sunday 14th of February or Valentine’s Day, voters in Catalonia went to the polls to elect a new regional parliament and through that, a new regional government. These elections were particularly significant because, for the first time, an amalgamation of pro-independence parties achieved more than 50% of the vote, a total which includes smaller parties such as PDeCAT (Catalan European Democratic Party) that did not gain enough votes to take seats in the regional legislature. However, this result does not represent a definitive victory for the independentistes, instead in many ways, the result has served only to further polarise and complicate the independence debate that has been raging in Catalonia for the last decade.
This is because the results of the election can be manipulated to present a success story not just for Catalan independentistes, but also for both hard-line Spanish nationalists such as Vox and more conciliatory unionists such as PSC-PSOE (the Socialist Party of Catalonia).
For example, the Socialists emerged as the region’s single biggest party in terms of vote share, winning nearly a quarter (23%) of all votes cast in the region, placing them 2% ahead of second-place ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia), although they were tied on 33 seats. This came after a campaign that focussed on dialogue and cooperation between unionist and pro-independence parties, a clear attempt to scale down tensions which in recent years have seen violent clashes between Spanish state security forces and pro-independence demonstrators. Thus, the Socialists could claim this as a mandate for a peaceful resolution to the independence debacle, one based on cooperation with the Spanish state which would rule out any unilateral declaration of independence as we saw in 2017.
Conversely, Vox, a far-right Spanish nationalist party, will enter the regional parliament for the first time with 11 seats, making it the region’s fourth-largest single political force. This, coupled with the collapse of more moderate right and centre-right parties such as PP (People’s Party) and Ciudadanos (Citizens), could be taken by Vox to represent the frustration of unionist and pro-Spain voters in the region with the perceived failure of other unionist parties to stand up to pro-independence parties and resolve the issue for good.
As well as the strong performance of various unionist parties acting as a counterbalance to pro-independence parties winning a majority of votes between them, there is also the issue of turnout. Like most countries in the world, Spain is still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic but nevertheless, the Catalan regional elections were not cancelled or postponed. This had a drastic effect on turnout meaning that only 53% of the electorate actually voted. This has led to claims from the unionists and Spanish nationalists that the results are not representative of the regional population and are thus not a legitimate mandate for any sort of step towards independence.
In spite of all of this, it seems likely that the three pro-independence parties that won seats in the parliament – ERC, Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) and CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) – will go ahead and form a government in the region, despite early optimism from PSC-PSOE that they might be able to form a leftist coalition with the support of ERC and En Comú Podem (In Common We Can). This is due to the fact that between them, ERC and Junts won 65 seats, just three short of the 68 needed for an absolute majority, a figure easily surpassed with the support of CUP and their 9 seats.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that there is complete harmony between the three parties. Indeed, there is a lot of discord especially on social policy and on whether to include En Comú Podem in a coalition government between the left-wing ERC and the right-wing Junts, the regions two largest pro-independence parties. There is also a divergence between the pro-independence parties on how they should proceed towards their common goal of independence from Spain. This is especially apparent within CUP, where two sides of the same party are in disagreement over whether to enter into a coalition to form an autonomous government. In addition to this, the primary position within a regional coalition changing hands from Junts to ERC presents its own complications.
The only thing that seems clear after these regional elections is that, despite pro-independence parties winning over 50% of the vote, it is unlikely that we will see any form of Catalan independence any time soon. This is something even the independentistes themselves have recognised, with Pere Aragonès of ERC calling for ‘dialogue’ to resolve the issue. However, it is also evident that the debate remains polarised and fraught, perhaps even more so now.
It is time for the Spanish government in Madrid to begin respecting and taking the issue of independence seriously and to opt for dialogue and cooperation rather than the heavy-handed responses to pro-independence manifestations that we have seen in recent years, which have used the force of the national police and other state security apparatus rather than debate and negotiation. Such scenes of conflict and violence are not only simply unacceptable in a modern democracy, but they are also extremely counterproductive for Spain and will only serve to fuel pro-independence sentiment rather than breaking any deadlock between Madrid and Catalonia.
Samuel Blencoe (4th Year BA International Relations and Spanish