Catalonia is facing a deeply uncertain future – whether inside or outside of Spain
by Sebastian Balfour
Catalonia is about to embark on an extraordinary adventure. The government that emerges from the autonomous elections of 27 September will be committed to initiating an 18-month unilateral process of disconnection from Spain. By any standards this is a leap in the dark, a measure of the desperation (some might say, determination) felt by many Catalans from different parties, classes and ideologies as a result of the failure of Madrid to recognise their grievances.
The complications it may give rise to regarding membership of the EU and the euro, international relations, debt, tax, banks, diplomacy, defence and so on are multiple. To add to the uncertainties, the configuration of politics in Spain is likely to change substantially after the general elections of 20 December in ways few can predict.
The Catalan elections of 27 September
The independence movement had cast the autonomous (regional) elections as plebiscitary elections intended to determine the relationship between Catalonia and Spain. Two of the three major parties in Catalonia, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), had agreed on a single slate, Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), without clarifying what programme they might adopt beyond independence, partly because they occupy different ends of the ideological spectrum.
By any definition, a plebiscite, like a referendum, asks voters to choose between two options of constitutional importance. In these elections a vote for a party or a combination of parties had been framed by the independence parties as a vote for or against independence. Without the constitutional right to hold a referendum, the Catalan government used the autonomous elections, as it had used a ‘popular consultation’ in November 2014 (declared unlawful by the Constitutional Tribunal), to rally nationalist opinion and demonstrate to the rest of Spain that Catalans wanted to form their own state.
In the event Junts pel Sí won 62 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament and 39.57 per cent of the votes. Together with the 10 seats won by the small anti-capitalist, separatist party, Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), which stood independently, they won a majority of 72 seats but only 47.8 per cent of votes. Any plebiscite or referendum needs a majority of votes, whereas an election is customarily won through a majority of seats. On the basis of this procedural ambiguity, Junts pel Sí claim that the separatist parties have a popular mandate to prepare Catalonia for independence.
Yet the CUP had always insisted that this mandate should be on the basis of a majority of votes. Since they hold a balance of power in the parliament, the CUP will seek to exact a price for parliamentary support of, or inclusion in, a new government, including a demand that the present President and leader of the CDC, Artur Mas, responsible for applying privatisation and austerity measures in Catalonia, should not stand as head of government. Already riven by programmatic differences of their own, the two parties of Junts pel Sí will have to negotiate these demands in order to form a new administration.
Arraigned against the independence movement in the elections were parties representing very different political and cultural constituencies. The most surprising result was that of the relatively new party of the centre-right, Ciutadans (or Citizens, Ciudadanos in Spain) which gained 25 seats or 17.91 per cent of the votes, making it the main opposition party in the new Catalan Parlament. Ciutadans clearly won over disenchanted voters of the centre and centre-right, including many from the Catalan branch of the Popular Party, whose result was its second worst ever, 8.5 per cent.