Catalan Election: A Blow for Both Rajoy and Independence Movement?

by Pablo Castaño

22 December 2017

Beverly Yuen Thompson/Flickr

The pro-independence parties have won the Catalan election convened by Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s government following the suspension of political autonomy in Catalonia.

The sum of the MPs obtained by Junts per Catalunya (JxC), Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Candidatura de Unitat Popular (CUP) has reached the majority in the regional parliament, which will allow them to form a pro-independence government. However, unionist centre-right party Ciudadanos has received the largest number of votes, which constitutes a symbolic defeat for the Catalan independence movement. Pro-independence parties have won, but the prospect of Catalan secession seems even more remote than a few weeks ago. These are the key facts of this exceptional election:

On first glance, the extremely high turnout – almost 84% – may appear the only exceptional aspect of polling day. No major incidents occurred and queues at ballot boxes remained peaceful. However, the election has been marked by significant anomalies: ERC’s candidate Oriol Junqueras is in prison together with three other pro-independence leaders, while the former president of the Catalan government Carles Puigdemont (JxC) is in Brussels having fled the Spanish judiciary. None of them will be able to take their seat in the new regional parliament, let alone attend their eventual investiture sessions.

Meanwhile, having invoked article 155 of the constitution and suspended Catalan autonomy – an unprecedented move deemed unconstitutional by several jurists – Mariano Rajoy’s Popular party (PP) has not benefited, at least in Catalonia. PP obtained less than 5% of the vote – its worst ever result – with many votes bleeding to Ciudadanos.

The exceptional conditions overshadowing the election have provided the main campaign talking points for pro-independence parties. Former president Carles Puigdemont is still considered the legitimate president of the Catalan government by the independence movement, despite his removal by the Spanish government, and has frequently referred to this legitimacy in telecast rallies. The situation has been even more difficult for the former deputy president of the regional government, Oriol Junqueras, who is in provisional detention for his role in the organisation of the 1 October self-determination referendum. Junqueras was the presidential candidate of the centre-left pro-independence party ERC, and his imprisonment delivered a severe blow to the party’s electoral prospects.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Ciudadanos has benefited from a growing rejection of independence movement among large sections of Catalan society. Ciudadanos’s candidate Inés Arrimadas has performed well in electoral debates and rallies, and has succeeded in softening the conservative image Ciudadanos used to have. The Socialist party (PSC) – which supported the suspension of Catalan autonomy – has slightly increased its number of seats as well, but Ciudadanos has concentrated most of the unionist vote.

The outcome of the election is ambiguous. Pro-independence parties have secured a majority in parliament once more, and they will be able to form a government. This result implies a failure for Rajoy, who hoped the snap election would decisively favour unionist parties. However, it is not clear whether the Spanish government will lift the suspension of Catalan political autonomy soon, and Puigdemont will probably be detained by Spanish police if he returns to Catalonia to be invested as president. Meanwhile, the phenomenal rise experienced by Ciudadanos will likely weaken the independence movement.

Finally, the election has brought bad news for the Catalan radical left. Pro-independence anticapitalist party CUP obtained only four seats while Catalunya En Comú-Podem (the coalition formed by Podemos and Ada Colau’s party, among others) has returned only eight MPs. It is fair to say the radical left is finding it difficult to find its place in a political context dominated by the national conflict.

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