Catalonia Update: Adéu Espanya? Goodbye Spain?

Article written by Fernando Betancor. 

The vote count in the Catalan regional election is not yet finalized, but initial estimates give the pro-independence parties an electoral plurality that translates into a substantial parliamentary majority. This is at best a mixed result for Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras, who were much criticized for the begrudging manner in which the separatist coalition came together earlier in the year and who failed to recapture the sum of votes given to their parties separately in 2012. However, it remains a heavy blow for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, whose consistent mishandling of Catalan affairs have acted as a spur to Spain’s prickliest region. His government was responsible for numerous wholly avoidable gaffes that undermined the pro-union position just days before the election and undoubtedly contributed to the record turnout of 77% of the electorate.

As of 11:15 p.m., with 96% of the ballots counted, the election stands as follows:

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The result, if confirmed, would yield a parliamentary majority of 4 delegates, which is enough for Junts Pel Sí and CUP to form a stable government and begin to implement their transition plan. What it does not mean is an immediate declaration of independence: as much as members of Esquerra Republicana and CUP might desire it, it is not in the cards unless the Spanish government takes some irrevocable action that would force the new Generalitat’s hand. Any attempt to arrest pro-independence members of the Catalan government or to suspend the region’s Statute of Autonomy would undoubtedly provoke just such an immediate rupture.

The most immediate and perhaps fatal problem is that the pro-independence groups failed to secure anelectoral majority. The independence vote sums to 48%, which wouldn’t have won a straight-up referendum. And while Messrs. Mas and Junqueras have already declared victory and their intention to proceed with preparations for independence, it will be nearly impossible to convince an already doubtful international community that there is a democratic mandate in the face of 52% of Catalans voting for a non-independence option. Given that international recognition and support is a sine qua nonfor Catalonia’s successful transition to a new state, this is worrisome portent. Of course, Mr. Rajoy has even less cause to declare victory: his party was massacred and only 39% of Catalans were unambiguously in favor of staying in Spain.

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Very quickly, the winners and losers. The winners:

  • Democracy. A record turnout of 77% and an absolutely peaceful and respectful day despite the incendiary tensions involved in this election;
  • Ciutadens. Went from first-time parliamentarians in 2012 with nine seats to the second most voted party with 25 seats. Makes a powerful statement prior to national campaign in December;
  • CUP. A “radical left” party – according to the establishment, anyway – the CUP is characterized by its grassroots organization, town hall meetings to select candidates and desire for immediate independence from Spain. Came out of nowhere to claim ten seats after winning only three in 2012.
  • Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC). Although the Socialists lost 4 seats compared to 2012, the fact that they did not lose even more can be considered a win. They retain the third position in Catalonia with 16 seats.

The losers:

  • Sí Que Es Pot. Taking 11 seats, this is nevertheless a tremendously underwhelming performance. Given the effort put into this election by the Podemos leadership, including Pablo Iglesias, the result is little short of disastrous;
  • The Paritido Popular of Catalonia (PPC). The Populares continue their slide to extinction in Catalan politics, losing half their seats from 2012 (from 19 to 11);
  • Unió. The federalist half of what was the most successful coalition in Catalan politics just 3 years ago has disappeared, completely incinerated by the independence issue. After separating from Artur Mas’s Convergéncia, Unió will not meet the minimum requirements for winning a seat in Parliament.

What are the immediate next steps?

  1. The leaders of Junts Pel Sí and CUP will meet to agree on a coalition government. That should not be too hard; the hard left CUP has nothing in common with the Artur Mas’s center right Convergéncia, but it is not too dissimilar from the other JPS partner, Esquerra Republicana. The fact that this government will be viewed as a purely transitional government until after independence – a period of no more than 18 months according to the Transition Plan – means that the pro-independence parties will be able to go along to get along for that long, united in their desire to leave Spain. It is hardly probable that the new Catalan government will attempt to introduce any major, controversial reforms in the coming months in any event – they are likely to have their hands full without measures unrelated to preparing for independence that might fracture the coalition.
    Convergéncia and ERC had already agreed to a 60/40 split of ministries in the event of a victory; all that would remain would be to grant CUP a share of the same proportional to their electoral turnout;
  2. Perhaps more importantly, the Junts Pel Sí and CUP should strongly press Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot (CSQEP) to openly join their coalition and back their transition program. Why? Because that would allow the pro-independence government to claim not 48% of the popular vote, but 57%, which would be enough for a “democratic mandate”. Is this possible? It seems unlilkely; although CSQEP has supported the Catalan’s “right to decide” and their identity as a nation, they have stopped well short of supporting independence. Gaining their support is likely to come with significant strings that the more independence-oriented parties are unlikely to welcome: such as a good faith pledge to negotiate constitutional reform with the next Spanish government prior to any transition planning;
  3. Assuming only Junts Pel Sí and CUP agree to a coalition, the new Parliament would draft a bill declaring a mandate for independence and authorizing the Generalitat to enter into negotiations with the Spanish government in order to agree the terms of separation. I imagine that the bill will be carefully drafted to avoid giving cause for any actual charges of treason: something along the lines of “consultation” to “explore the new relationship between Catalonia and the rest of Spain”. There are constitutional lawyers aplenty on both sides to ensure that no irreparable breach is made at this time.  The wording should also be non-prescriptive enough that it gathers the support of the Sí Que Es Pot delegates: a party which is very much in favor of negotiating a new relationship with the Spanish state, but not in favor of independence (not yet, anyway).

The request for negotiation will be still-born. It is inconceivable that the Spanish government could accept it; it would be political suicide. Mr. Rajoy’s government would certainly fall. No, the petition by the Catalan legislature will last even less than the previous request for authorization of the November 9th referendum last year: about 3 nanoseconds. It will be shot down by everyone except the representatives of CDC and ERC in the Spanish Parliament, and perhaps the odd Basque politician. Nevertheless, it is a necessary gesture: both for the international and the domestic audiences.

Given today’s results, the Parlament should limit itself to a requirement that discussions be held with the Spanish government after the conclusion of the general elections. Why? The optimal outcome of the Spanish general elections, from the pro-independence point of view, is a fragmented parliament where no party can govern easily. That is exactly the result indicated by the latest voter intention polls: neither of the likeliest combinations – PSOE + Podemos and PP + Ciudadanos – provides a majority in the Spanish Parliament.

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The pro-independence groups have benefited greatly from having the Partido Popular in charge in Madrid. Many of the major campaign issues promoted by the Populares were deeply unpopular in Catalonia, such as the proposed education bill and anti-abortion law. It was similarly easy to blame cut-backs in social spending, health care and infrastructure investment on the imposition of austerity measures by the central government. And it was rarely too difficult to provoke the Populares into making some statement or declaration that offended many moderate Catalans and convinced them that “Spain” didn’t understand them or care about them. But now the situation is different. A Partido Popular government with a legislative majority is most likely to escalate to police and military intervention, something the Catalans are keen to avoid. Three months is not a very long time to wait to deny them this capability, not after 300 years.

The new government will face further challenges moving forward. The first and foremost of these is to be able to advance its transition program in the teeth of ferocious Spanish legal opposition. The Spanish government will naturally impose every possible obstacle in front of the Generalitat: legal challenges for every action and decision taken by the Govern; judicial orders to cease the development of parallel government functions that are the sole responsibility of the central government; possibly criminal and civil indictments against individual Catalan politicians for failure to implement court orders, central government orders.

I assume that Madrid will adopt this attitude, not through any real hope of convincing the new Generalitat to desist from its efforts, but rather with a view to the upcoming General Elections. The Partido Popular will want to demonstrate that only they are capable of “standing up to the traitors”. Meanwhile, the Socialists will argue that it was the incompetence and stupidity of Mariano Rajoy’s government that has led to this breach with the Catalans, and that the PSOE is the party best able to lead a constitutional reform that heals the rift between Spanish and Catalan societies. Which is at least half true: support for independence really only took off after Mr. Rajoy took over leadership of the Partido Popular from José María Aznar. Whether the rest of the statement is true is very much open to debate.

The Generalitat will attempt to carry out its transition development without having too much of it blocked by legal challenges or risking an Article 155 injunction. That will require creativity and lots of volunteer work, both virtues in which the pro-independence groups abound. For example, the drafting of a constitution for the future Catalan Republic cannot be done by anyone in the Catalan legislature or government: they would be censured for dereliction of duty just as the magistrate Santiago Vidal was. Instead, the Generalitat will lean on volunteer jurists and constitutional experts to perform that work on a purely voluntary and unremunerated basis, without any involvement or sanction of the government. Similarly, a parallel tax authority has already been challenged and ruled illegal; Catalan public employees cannot volunteer to work in it in their “spare time”.  Again, the voluntary provision of tax records by citizens to an NGO civic organization will be required, as imperfect as that will be. Subsequent to independence, that civic organization will be nationalized and transformed by Act of Parliament into the new Catalan Tax Agency.


Today’s result shouldn’t make anyone happy, public declarations notwithstanding. Anyone with a shred of honesty at Junts Pel Sí will admit that they would have preferred to win an electoral majority. Anyone with a shred of honesty at the Partido Popular will admit that they would have preferred the pro-independence groups to come short of a parliamentary majority. Now we have the worst of both worlds: enough votes to proceed forward, but not quite enough to convince anyone, especially an already skeptical Europe, that there is a democratic mandate for doing so. This assessment will undoubtedly be substantiated in the coming days as the international press reacts to the election results.

What is absolutely clear and indisputable is that the Catalans are immensely dissatisfied with their situation in Spain. If the pure independence vote topped out at 48%, the pure unionist vote was even lower, at 39%. The balance of voters are not quite at the point of supporting independence, but still support serious constitutional reform that recognizes and respects the differences of the Catalans within Spain. The Partido Popular is deaf to this message, there is no expectation of their listening to it and making a real effort at accommodation, despite the fact that 2 million of their countrymen just told them they want to leave. But Spain cannot continue ignoring the democratic, peaceful and repeated demands of Catalans for a referendum; continued obstinacy will ensure the rupture. Only a change of government might accomplish the difficult task of wooing back the Catalans through a mutual recognition of grievances, a good faith offer of constitutional reform and an agreement on a properly organized and sanctioned referendum at the end of the previous two processes.

That is not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Both the Socialists and Podemos have largely endorsed such an approach, and God knows Spain needs it. However, they would not have much time, assuming they win in December. As things stand, the Catalans are on their way out of the Kingdom of Spain and 18 months is no time at all.

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