Explainer

Catalan Election Guide

The Catalan electoral system, the parties, the polls and possible coalitions.

Barcelona Spain
View of Barcelona, Spain (Unsplash/Ferran Fusalba)

Catalans vote in regional elections on Sunday that are unlikely to produce a breakthrough in their region’s acrimonious relations with the rest of Spain.

I’ll be live-blogging the results on Sunday night. In the meantime, this explainer will get you up to speed.

Bottom lines

  • The elections are overshadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has affected Catalonia worse than all other regions of Spain except Madrid.
  • The Socialists are in a three-way race for first place with the two largest independence parties.
  • But separatists are likely to defend their majority in parliament.
  • They intend to call a referendum on independence if they win more than half the votes.

Electoral system

There are 135 seats in the Catalan parliament. 85 seats are allocated to the province of Barcelona, eighteen to Tarragona, seventeen to Girona and fifteen to Lleida, giving the less densely populated areas a slight advantage. Within each province, there is a 3 percent threshold to qualify for seats.

No single party has ever won a majority. Coalition governments usually consist of two or three parties.

Turnout has risen in recent elections, from 56 percent in 2006 to 75 percent in 2015 to 79 percent in 2017.

Background

The election was called after the ruling separatists fell out over the dismissal of regional president Quim Torra.

Torra, a member of the Together for Catalonia party, was forced to resign by electoral authorities in early 2020 for refusing to remove a banner from the regional government palace in Barcelona during the last election that called for the release of nine separatist leaders from prison. The Republican Left, the second-largest independence party, voted to uphold Torra’s removal, even though its leader, Oriol Junqueras, is one of the prisoners.

The nine were convicted of rebellion and sedition against the Spanish state for organizing an independence referendum in 2017 that had been forbidden by the Constitutional Court.

The dispute over Torra’s ouster came amid wider disagreement about the lessons of the failed 2017 breakaway. Together for Catalonia has taken a hard line, arguing for confrontation with Madrid. The Republican Left supports the Socialist-led government of Pedro Sánchez, which came to power a year after the conservative People’s Party had temporarily suspended Catalan home rule to prevent a breakaway. The party wants to give negotiations a chance.

Coronavirus put Catalan politics on hold. Elections were postponed until this year. Talks between Sánchez and the Catalan government about transferring more power to the region have yet to resume.

Parties

Catalan politics, and indeed Catalan society, has been polarized around the independence question. Only one party is neither explicitly separatist nor unionist.

Separatist

  • Together for Catalonia: Successor to the long-ruling Democratic Convergence of Catalonia. Used to argue for self-government. Was radicalized by Spain’s refusal to allow an independence vote. Formerly center-right, now a big tent.
  • Republican Left: Formerly the more radical of the two, now willing to give Sánchez a chance. Social democratic. Traces its roots to the Second Spanish Republic that lost the Civil War.
  • Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP): Small anticapitalist and localist party that calls for unilateral secession from Spain.
  • Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT): Another successor to Democratic Convergence. Center-right and opposed to unilateral secession.

Unionist

  • Socialist Party: Willing to give Catalonia more autonomy. Describes itself as feminist, pro-European and social democratic.
  • Citizens: Liberal, pro-EU and fiercely anti-independence. Placed first in 2017, but has lost momentum.
  • Vox (Voice): Far right. Wants to revoke all regional autonomies, keep out immigrants, take over Gibraltar from the British and teach a more Franco-friendly version of history in schools.
  • People’s Party: Deeply unpopular in Catalonia, given its opposition to home rule.

Neither

  • Catalonia in Common-Podem: Alliance of Barcelona mayor Ada Colau’s party and the Catalan branch of Podemos (We Can), which governs with Sánchez nationally. For Catalan self-determination, but against independence.

Polls

Polls have been stable in the weeks leading up to the election. In 2017, they overestimated support for the Socialists and underestimated support for Together for Catalonia by a few points.

  • Together for Catalonia: 19-21 percent
  • Republican Left: 19-20 percent
  • CUP: 5-8 percent
  • PDeCAT: 1-2 percent

Separatist total: 44-51 percent

  • Socialists: 20-22 percent
  • Citizens: 7-9 percent
  • Vox: 5-7 percent
  • People’s Party: 4-6 percent

Unionist total: 36-44 percent

  • Catalonia in Common: 6-7 percent

The totals for the separatists and unionists are close to the outcome in 2017. There is almost no crossover between the camps. Support for Catalonia in Common is almost unchanged as well.

Possible coalitions

  • Another pro-independence coalition of Together for Catalonia, the Republican Left and CUP, possibly joined by the PDeCAT if it wins a seat or two, is the most likely outcome. The parties could call another referendum on independence if they win more than 50 percent of the votes.
  • A left-wing government of the Socialists, Republican Left and Catalonia in Common is the only other option. It would be the best partner for Sánchez if he is serious about charting a third way for Catalonia between secession and the status quo.
  • There is no possibility of a unionist government.

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