Analysis

Catalan Election: Takeaways and What Happens Next

Another separatist coalition is the most likely outcome.

Pere Aragonès
Acting Catalan president Pere Aragonès outside the headquarters of his Republican Left party in Barcelona, January 10 (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya/Marc Puig)

The Catalan branch of Spain’s ruling Socialist Party shared first place with the separatist Republican Left in regional elections on Sunday, but the unionist camp as a whole lost support relative to pro-independence parties.

Both the Republican and Socialist party leaders have announced they will put themselves forward as candidates for the regional presidency.

The Republican candidate, Pere Aragonès, is most likely to succeed.

Results

68 seats are needed for a majority

Turnout was 54 percent, the lowest since the restoration of democracy. Authorities blamed the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed some 20,000 fatalities in Catalonia.

Separatist parties won 74 out of 135 seats, up four. The Republican Left (ERC) bested its center-right rival, Together for Catalonia (JxCat), winning 33 against 32 seats.

The anticapitalist and localist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), which would take Catalonia out of Spain tomorrow if it could, was the biggest winner, going up from four to nine seats.

The Republican Left and Together for Catalonia have governed with the CUP’s support since 2012.

On the unionist side, the Socialists (PSOE) doubled their representation in parliament, going up from seventeen to 33 seats. The far-right Vox (Voice), which wants to abolish all regional autonomies and centralize power in Madrid, also did well, winning eleven seats. Its gains came at the expense of the liberal-nationalist Citizens, who retained just six of their 36 seats, as well as the conservative People’s Party (PP), which went down from four to three.

The alliance of Barcelona mayor Ada Colau’s Catalonia in Common and the regional affiliate of Podemos (We Can), which governs with the Socialists nationally, defended its eight seats. The “Commons” support Catalan self-determination but oppose independence.

Takeaways

  • Pro-independence parties have won a clear victory. For the first time, they won more than half the votes. It looks like they benefited from low turnout among less motivated, unionist voters.
  • Another separatist coalition is the most likely outcome. The parties’ priorities are a legal referendum on independence and an amnesty for the organizers of the controversial 2017 referendum, who were convicted in 2019 of rebellion and sedition against the Spanish state.
  • Don’t underestimate the possibility of a left-wing government. It’s not the most likely outcome, but the Republicans have not been on great terms with Together for Catalonia and frequently vote with the Socialists in the national Congress. A coalition of the Republicans, Socialists and Commons would be an easier negotiating partner for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez than one involving Together for Catalonia, which is led by deposed former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. Sánchez, a Socialist, has promised Catalonia more autonomy. The Republicans want to give him a chance. Puigdemont’s party is skeptical.
  • Anti-Catalan nationalism is not a vote-getter. Shocking, I know, but still it was the strategy of three of the four unionist parties — Citizens, People’s Party, Vox — who won fewer than one in five votes between them. For more on the collapse of the Citizens, read my blog post from last night.

What happens next?

The new parliament must convene no later than March 12. It will then have ten days to begin the investiture of the next president.

If a candidate fails to win an absolute majority of 68 out of 135 votes on the first ballot, he or she can win the second time around with a simple majority of more votes in favor than against. Abstentions aren’t counted on the second ballot.

Aragonès, the outgoing president, and Salvador Illa, the Catalan Socialist Party leader, who served as Spain’s health minister until the end of last month, have both said they will seek the support of parliament.

Aragonès’ ambition is to form a broad coalition for Catalan self-determination with Together for Catalonia, the Commons and CUP.

Illa’s only hope is that the Republicans will change their minds and form a government with him.

Which makes Illa’s election-night claim to the presidency premature at best. He appears to be making the same mistake as Sánchez did in 2019, when the Socialists placed first nationally but didn’t win a majority in Congress. Sánchez thought he could browbeat the far-left Podemos into supporting the formation of a minority government without giving much in return. Podemos balked and snap elections had to be held after six months of fruitless talks. Spaniards returned more or less the same Congress. Only then did the Socialists agree to share power with Podemos.

The difference in Catalonia is that the Socialists and Catalonia in Common-Podemos don’t even have a majority. The ball is in the Republican Left’s court.

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