The Uncertain Path Forward in Post-Election Catalonia (12/10)     Print Email

By Ryan Barnes, Senior Trade Specialist at U.S. Dept. of Commerce

The world was watching as voters hit the polls on November 25th in the most important regional elections in Catalonia since the return of democracy in Spain. Seen by many as a referendum on Catalan independence, the election created more questions than answers.

Regional leader Artur Mas from the center-right Convergence and Union party (CiU), an erstwhile supporter of greater regional autonomy within Spain, called the November 25th snap poll after a huge pro-separatist demonstration in September, declaring “The time has come to exercise the right to self-determination.” (See pre-election article in European Affairs.)

Results of the election, in which nearly seventy percent participated, indeed showed gains for parties espousing independence. Together, separatist parties – CiU, the leftist ERC party, the environmentalist ICV party, and new secessionist party CUP – won a near two-thirds majority of eighty-seven seats. CiU was the biggest party with fifty seats, although this was a reduction of 12 seats from the previous election.  The ERC increased its share to twenty-one seats from twelve. The two mainstream national parties, the Socialists (PSOE) and Prime Minister Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), garnered twenty and nineteen seats, respectively. And the anti-separatist Ciutadans party improved its standing, rising from three to nine seats.

What does this all mean? It was not the clear victory that Mas and the CiU had hoped for, as they dropped twelve seats.  Moreover, its potential coalition partner, the leftist ERC, is diametrically opposed to the center-right CiU’s austerity-laden economic program and would thus make for an uncomfortable cohort. Shortly after the election, Mas noted, “The ideal thing would be a coalition government with those who favor self-determination.” But ERC has thrown cold water on that idea. The likely result will be a weak minority government led by CiU, with unofficial support from ERC on efforts to secede from Spain.

Despite the electoral victory for those parties campaigning for a referendum on independence, achieving this goal will be very difficult. In addition to the potential internecine conflict, a constitutional fight with the central government looms. The Spanish Constitution explicitly prohibits secession or even a referendum on it.  Regional independence would need to be approved by all Spaniards. And contrary to the British Government, which has agreed with Scotland to permit a referendum on independence, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is adamantly committed to maintaining a united Spain.

The somewhat murky election results have allowed both camps to claim an advantage.  Separatist parties won the majority of seats, but Rajoy and his allies were comforted by a weakened CiU.  After the election, Mas boasted, “The consultation [referendum] will take place in the next four years, we will keep our promise.” Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo countered, deeming the election "a good result for Catalonia, Spain and Europe, though not for Convergence and Union."

While both sides appearing to have dug in, the election results might actually provide a window for a negotiated compromise. Rajoy cannot ignore the separatist wave registered in the recent poll. Mas, on the other hand, did not receive the clear mandate he desired.

A compromise could take the form of greater fiscal autonomy for Catalonia. It would go a long way to placate Catalan grievances, which largely stem from frustration over sending much of its tax money to the rest of Spain, and it would allow Rajoy to save face by averting a referendum on his watch.  It was, in fact, the failure of talks over this issue in September that partially led Mas to call the snap election. Although this seems to be the most sensible solution, politics, as always, may prevent it from being realized.  In short, the future of Catalonia remains fraught with uncertainty.

(The views of Ryan Barnes are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. government.)