Catalonia held elections on 21 December, with parties that support independence winning a majority of seats in the parliament, although the number of seats they control fell from 72 to 70. Luis Moreno highlights several key questions that will now have to be settled: what type of coalition government will emerge; will constitutional reform now take place in Spain; and will polarisation around the independence issue continue to cut across left-right ideological lines in Catalan politics.

Credit: Brandon O’Connor (CC BY-SA 2.0)

To gain perspective on the outcome of Catalonia’s election on 21 December, it is useful to look in retrospect at the results of the previous election held two years before. On 27 September 2015, the elections produced a majority for parliamentarians in favour of independence, with 72 pro-independence members in the 135-member Catalan Parlament. However, such a majority corresponded to a minority of popular votes (47.8%).

The mismatch between this parliamentary majority and popular minority was due to the workings of the Catalan electoral system. The system provides a premium of seats to the less populated provincial constituencies of Tarragona (18 seats) Girona (17) and Lleida (15), as compared to the urbanised Barcelona province (85). Note that on a purely proportional basis, the distribution of seats ought to assign 101 seats to Barcelona, 14 to Tarragona, 12 to Girona and 8 to Lleida. The turnout of the 2015 election was high and reached 74.9% percent of the registered electorate.

This year’s snap elections on 21 December produced results with minor variations, but it reflected a major polarisation between secessionists and non-secessionists. The parties explicitly advocating the secession of Catalonia from Spain collected 47.5% of the popular vote, which translated into 70 seats. The newly elected Catalan Parlament continues to be highly fragmented, with 7 political parliamentary groups. The turnout in the 2017 election reached 81.9% of the registered electorate, the highest in the history of Catalan elections since the transition to democracy in Spain in the late 1970s.

The latter figure greatly explains the changing mood of the Catalan electors as regards secession. Mobilisation of the non-secessionist voters made possible the impressive victory of Ciutadans (Citizens), a staunch anti-separatist party. Nevertheless, the success of the centre-right formation under the charismatic leadership of Inés Arrimadas can be regarded as a pyrrhic victory. The party cannot possibly find enough parliamentary support in the Parlament to take on the government of the Generalitat. Instead, the secessionist parties are in a position to accomplish such a task despite having lost two seats (from 72 to 70). They also lost ground concerning their popular support, as the non-secessionist parties managed to collect 52.5% of the cast votes.

Far from having been settled, Catalonia’s accommodation, or its final political severance from Spain, remains as an open-ended conundrum in both Spanish and European political agendas. Among the various issues which can influence future developments, three can be singled out in the following questions: (1) Would a transversal agreement in the Catalan Parlament facilitate the appointment of a new President of the Generalitat, or should we expect new elections in the not too distant future?; (2) Would the promised reform of the Spanish Constitution facilitate the accommodation of Catalonia’s aspirations for self-government within a federal Spain?; and (3) Would the Right-Left functional cleavage be back in Catalonia’s politics or will the present ethnoterritorial polarisation continue to cut across their ideological and policy preferences? Let us elaborate a bit further on these three points.

First, the road toward independence would have most likely come to an end if the non-secessionist parties had carried the day on 21 December. Now, it seems ‘impossible’ that a cross-party coalition government between secessionists and non-secessionists could be formed. The most likely executive would be supported by the three pro-independence parties: Junts per Catalunya – Together for Catalonia (34 seats), Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya – Republic Left of Catalonia (32), and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular– Popular Unity Candidacy (4). It remains to be seen whether the ex-President Carles Puigdemont, now in Brussels, and other elected secessionists with pending court trials would be present at the constitution of the newly-elected Parliament. Otherwise, parliamentary sessions could be adjourned and eventual fresh elections could take place as early as in May 2018.

Second, the Spanish minority Government of the conservative Popular Party (the big loser in the Catalan election) has promised to engage with other opposition parties in order to undertake a constitutional reform. Among other measures to be carried out, the eventual changes in the Constitution could make possible the implementation of a further decentralisation of powers to Catalonia and the rest of the Spanish Comunidades Autónomas. New financing and equalisation systems should allow Catalonia to reduce the gap in obtaining public resources in comparison to the Basque Country (whose economy represents barely 6% of Spain’s GDP, as compared to Catalonia’s 19%). All things considered, a thorough federalisation of Spain remains as the most desirable option for future political accommodation all-round.

Finally, territorial and identity politics have put aside other pressing issues concerning the functional dimension of social life in Catalonia (an ageing population, family care, poverty, and unemployment, just to name a few). Political claims associated with the long-standing programmes of the Left and Right seem to be off limits in the nasty confrontation between Catalan secessionists and non-secessionists. Such development explains, for instance, how a self-defined anti-capitalist party like the CUP, which is in favour of a planned economy, is willing to prioritise support to those elite liberal secessionists representative of “the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie”.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Luis Moreno – Instituto de Políticas y Bienes públicos (CSIC)
Luis Moreno is Research Professor at the Institute of Public Goods and Policies (IPP) within the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).

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