6 Things You Need to Know About the Catalan Elections

by Javier Moreno Zacarés

Yesterday the most important regional elections in Catalonia’s history were held; ‘the vote of your life’ in the words of the leading coalition. Catalonia has seen a strong rise in pro-independence sentiment since 2006, when a large majority in the Catalan parliament approved a new statute of autonomy (which included the recognition of Catalonia as a ‘nation’), which was subsequently shut down by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

In recent years the celebration of the Catalan national day (‘la diada’) has become a ritual for million-strong protests demanding the right to self-determination. Last year, in clear defiance of the Spanish state, the Catalan government held an illegal referendum of independence which, despite its non-binding character, attracted the votes of 2m people; 80% of whom favoured outright secession. Yesterday marked the moment of truth.

1. This was proxy independence referendum.

Last year’s referendum took place amidst juridical insecurity, only mobilising the pro-independence vote and acting as a mass solidarity action to give visibility to this sentiment in Catalan society. It acted as a good corrective against the elasticity of reported attendance figures at diada protests which the central government has a tendency to undermine massively.

This year, however, the legal framework of regional elections was used as a front to carry out a binding referendum. ‘Binding’ at least in the sense that pro-independence parties were openly threatening to declare independence unilaterally.

2. The complexity of the political layout.

Unlike other regions, such as Valencia, where Catalanist minorities are confined to the left, nationalism in Catalonia spans across the political spectrum. The main nationalist party, Convergència Democrática, is the party of business. Traditionally confined to regionalist demands, it has recently been pushed by the furor of its party base to take on a leading role in the state-building process. The second largest party is the historically left nationalist  Esquerra Republicana (ERC). Disturbing the traditional lines of Catalan politics – divided along the left-right axis as well as the national axis – both have decided to run together in the coalition Junts pel Sí (together for the ‘yes’ [vote]). The libertarian Marxist CUP (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular) provided the secessionist alternative to nationalist voters disenchanted with the corruption scandals of Convergència.

In the ‘constitutionalist’ camp are the traditional parties of Spanish politics. The PSC (Catalan Socialist Party – the Catalan branch of PSOE) was until recently the electoral outlet of the Spanish labour movement. The conservative PP (People’s Party) exists in a radical form; aware of its inability to capture the vote of Catalan liberals, it has carved a xenophobic niche for itself. Instead, unionist liberals have flocked towards Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’). Created to combat the surge of nationalism in a more appealing way, it is sometimes described as a ‘Podemos of the right’.

Here we also find the ambiguously confederalist stance of Podemos and Izquierda Unida (United Left), which have run together under the guise of Catalunya sí que es pot (‘Catalonia yes we can’) despite Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias’s reluctance to do so at a state-wide level.

3. The left has only been united by a commitment to self-determination.

Leaving aside the PSC, the left has put forward a clear stance in favour of self-determination. However ERC’s choice to run in coalition with Convergència, the party of public-spending cuts and clientelist corruption, has been highly controversial, forcing many to choose their priorities: social justice or nation.

For many the way out has been the openly anti-capitalist CUP, an assembly movement with deep roots, which has acted as the scourge of corruption. CUP’s discourse has blended nation and left more carefully, facing secession as a means to revolutionary change. Unlike the candidates of Junts pel Sí, who have shied away when questions arise of a potential EU exit in the event of unilateral independence, CUP has embraced such a prospect as a fresh start against austerity.

Following Podemos’s strategy of mobilising disaffected voters, Catalunya sí que es pot has concentrated on appealing those on the fence in Barcelona’s periphery, often the children of Spanish working-class immigrants. Pablo Iglesias’s address to those ‘not ashamed of their origins’ has raised some eyebrows, since the Spanish-Catalan ethnic card is usually played by the PP. The leading faces of CUP have pointed out their own mixed backgrounds and dismissed Iglesias as a ‘paratrooper’; landing from Madrid without real knowledge of the context.

The Barcelona en Comú movement, led by the radical housing activist Ada Colau and victorious in the local elections earlier this year, have coldly backed Podemos, and some of its leading members, including Colau herself, have been open about their pro-independence sympathies.

4. The ‘yes’ vote only won an in-house majority.

Contrary to what some international news outlets rushed to declare, there will not be an independent Catalonia for now.

This may have been due to a translation error: the Spanish refer to an in-house majority as an ‘absolute majority’, leading some to believe that there had been in fact a popular majority as well. There was not; pro-independence parties have achieved 72 (of 135) seats but only 47.8% of the vote. Despite the eagerness of liberal nationalists to do otherwise, left nationalists are unwilling to back an independence process when a majority of the population is not on board.

5. Concessions are unlikely.

Spain’s territorial integrity was saved very thinly last night, yet the elites in Madrid are unlikely to acknowledge the significance of half of Catalonia’s population voting for outright independence and nearly a fifth for some kind of new federal arrangement.

The ruling PP has long played a ‘scorched earth’ tactic: aware of their inability to succeed in Catalonia, they instead rely on galvanising their traditional bases in the rest of Spain by taking a hard stance against peripheral nationalism. With general elections fast approaching, it is extremely unlikely that any concessions will be made. Most likely, the Catalan question will continue to be ignored or perhaps even made worse by the blind triumphalism of Spanish unionists. But one thing is clear: as long as the PP is in power, the abyss is bound to widen in the future.

6. Winners and losers.

While CUP tripled its seats (to 10), the true victors of the night were Ciudadanos, rising to second place with a spectacular result (25 seats). The clear losers were Podemos. Expected to achieve second place, they instead tied in fourth position with the PP (11 seats). Even a discredited PSC, Podemos’s biggest target, has secured a much better result with 16 seats. This could ultimately play to the detriment of the Spanish new left, as such a decisive defeat may turn disaffected voters towards Ciudadanos in the future.

Podemos’s strategists have a lot of reflection to do. How they interpret the result will have an important impact on how they approach the trial for which Podemos was born: December’s general election. The question remains: will they place the blame on running with United Left, deeming the Sí que es pot coalition as a failed experiment not to be pursued, or will they instead rule that they’ve misread the specificities of Catalonia? The Spanish left holds its breath.

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Published 28th September 2015

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