Separatists Finally Have a Majority in Catalonia – But Independence Isn’t a Done Deal

by Tommy Greene and Eoghan Gilmartin

16 February 2021

Trevor Huxham, Flickr

Sunday’s election saw Catalonia’s independence movement finally clinch a majority of the popular vote, having only ever previously won a majority of seats in the regional parliament.

A historic shift was also recorded within the transversal pro-independence bloc that has governed the region in different forms since 2012, as the Republican Left party (ERC) narrowly secured a long sought-after ‘sorpasso’ (overtaking) of its centre-right rivals, achieving second place in the popular vote.

In a strong showing for Catalonia’s leftwing formations overall, there were better-than expected returns for En Comú Podem (an affiliate of the leftwing Unidas Podemos), which maintained its eight seats, while the radical-left pro-independence CUP achieved its second-best result of nine seats.

But, significantly, the weekend’s milestone for the independence movement was qualified by a historically low turnout (down 28 points at 53%) amid reduced polarisation around the national question and concerns over Covid-19 transmission.

A campaign marked by exhaustion, after years of confrontation over independence and almost a year into the pandemic, saw the unionist centre-left Socialist party (PSC) – fronted by Salvador Illa, who extraordinarily resigned as Spain’s health minister several weeks ago in order to run – win more votes than any other. PSC’s narrow lead cements a certain centre-left consensus: one that is committed to a negotiated resolution of the independence conflict, but also one characterised by economic orthodoxy.

Now, as the Spanish judiciary seeks to clamp down on briefly-restored freedoms for the region’s convicted independence leaders (serving hefty sentences arising from the outlawed 2017 referendum and failed independence drive), talks over Catalonia’s next chapter will begin to get moving. A tripartite government of the left is arithmetically possible – but the more likely administration to emerge from the talks will be a renewed configuration of the pro-independence coalition that has led the region into the historic upheavals of the past four years.

Sorpasso.

The election campaign kicked off with the emotional return to the political stage of jailed ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, who secured day-release at the end of January, having completed the first quarter of his punitive 13-year sentence for sedition. “They don’t like that we [prisoners] are speaking out,” asserted the former Catalan vice president at his party’s opening rally. “They [in the Spanish state] are doing everything they can to return us to jail because they fear us.”

Such defiance in the face of judicial repression was, however, tempered by the recognition that Catalan independence was now seen as a longer-term objective. Many within the party, including Junqueras, had come to the conclusion that the independence movement had overplayed its hand in the standoff over the disputed referendum – with ERC’s post-2017 strategy moving away from engaging in further head-on confrontation with the state. For Junqueras, the movement now had to concentrate on “being more”, ie widening the pro-independence base gradually over time, rather than “being ever more pure but [attracting] fewer people.”

Junqueras’ reference to purity was a nod to the more hard-line populist discourse of centre-right JuntsXCat (Together For Catalonia), led by the exiled former president Carles Puigdemont,  (now a member of the European parliament in Brussels). On election night, the battle between the two major independence forces for the leadership of the movement hung in the balance – with the Left Republicans ultimately securing its sorpasso of JxCat by the narrowest of margins (21.5% and 33 seats compared to 20.2% and 32 seats).

In one sense, the result represents the culmination of a decade-long shift to the left within the Catalan nationalist bloc, which had previously been dominated by the centre-right since Spain’s return to democracy in the 1970s. Yet, in closing down ERC’s pre-Christmas 4- to 5-point lead, Junts’ campaign also demonstrated Puigdemont’s enduring appeal as an independentist figurehead and his continued ability to mobilise the Catalan right along a more confrontational nationalist line.

Indeed, throughout the campaign both Puigdemont and JxCat’s current candidate for the presidency, Laura Borràs, had concentrated on questioning their rivals’ commitment to the independence cause – as they repeatedly claimed the Left Republicans were planning to break ranks to form a coalition with the unionist Socialist party.

Sit and talk.

The turnout for Sunday’s ballot, moreover, must be taken into account when assessing the historic gains made by the independence movement at the polls. Despite JxCat’s rhetoric – with Borràs having promised during the campaign to implement a unilateral independence declaration if her party won the election – this result can not be considered a clear mandate for such a move.

It does, however, strengthen the independence bloc’s hand at the bilateral negotiating table established between Barcelona and Madrid last year. Taken together, the ERC and Socialist party’s results reflect a shift towards a negotiated resolution to the protracted independence conflict, coming out of a recognition of the need to restore dialogue in both the independentist and non-independentist camps.

Indeed, the move towards dialogue fits into a wider de-escalation of tensions around the independence conflict over the past year – partially a result of the new central government’s need to neutralise the independence standoff, and partially a result of the pandemic having displaced the Catalan question politically for now. The electoral decimation of Ciudadanos, which won the most seats of any party in Catalonia’s last regional election and saw its vote share drop by 85% on Sunday, underlines this wider shift, as the party ruminates a failed bet to lead the rightwing unionist space.

As Spain’s public prosecutor requested the suspension of prison leave for the nine jailed independence leaders be withdrawn on Monday, however, an increasingly radicalised judiciary at the same time appears intent on continuing to ramp up its long-running campaign of lawfare against political opponents, which aside from regional independentists has also targeted deputy prime minister Pablo Iglesias.

One political force that has been looking to instrumentalise these legal campaigns is Santiago Abascal’s Vox. Given that the far-right formation – having already harnessed the fallout of the independence leaders’ sentencing to make huge national gains – won more seats (11 overall) than its rightwing unionist rivals combined on Sunday, the threat of a growing and galvanised radical right remains acutely felt both within and outside Catalonia.

Where next?

Vox’s entry to the Catalan parliament has clear implications for the national picture in Spain, with the country’s year-old coalition government having been brokered as a ‘defensive formation’ on the back of Vox’s 2019 electoral surge. The support of ERC in the Spanish congress, offered in order to secure certain concessions, will help end years of institutional gridlock to allow further progressive legislation to proceed, as was the case with the recently-passed 2021 national budget.

In exchange, Junqueras’ party expects the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, to make concessions to its core demands in the bilateral negotiations – above all, on the question of a general amnesty for all those involved in the 2017 independence drive. Sánchez, a Socialist, has already initiated preliminary moves to grant pardons to the jailed leaders, but this would not address the question of their guilt or how to deal with the dozens more Catalan activists and officials still facing trial.

Some have speculated that, in order to secure ERC’s cooperation in passing Spain’s budget law last November, the Socialists have already made further private commitments around changing the laws on sedition and rebellion so as to limit the judiciary’s scope for prosecution. This avenue, which Spain’s justice minister recently hinted was the Socialists’ preferred option, would allow for a retroactive application of the legal changes to Junqueras and the other Catalan prisoners. And this, in turn, could serve as a means to ensure cooperation, creating the basis of a tentative working agreement for the progressive ‘Frankenstein’ voting bloc going forward.

Yet, unlike five or six years ago, when the radical left was in the ascendence, Catalonia is now witnessing a convergence of a more moderate left – one that Catalan capital and Spain’s international investors seem happy to allow to manage the EU recovery funds. Given the depth of the social and economic crisis engulfing the Spanish state, it remains to be seen whether Sánchez in Madrid and Catalonia’s likely next president, ERC’s Pere Aragonès, will build on the budget plan’s welfare spending commitments and take the decisive measures necessary to maintain social cohesion in the coming years.

Tommy Greene and Eoghan Gilmartin are journalists and translators who have written about Spanish politics for a number of years.

  • This article was amended on 16 February 2021. The original version mistakenly described CUP’s result as its best ever.

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