Separatists on Sunday (27 September) won a clear majority of seats in Catalonia’s parliament, in an election that sets the region on a collision course with Spain’s central government over independence.
“Catalans have voted yes to independence,” acting regional government head Artur Mas told supporters, with secessionist parties securing 72 out of 135 seats in the powerful region of 7.5 million people that includes Barcelona.
The strong pro-independence showing dealt a blow to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, three months before a national election. His centre-right government, which has opposed attempts to hold a referendum on secession, has called the separatist plan “a nonsense” and vowed to block it in court.
Spain’s constitution does not allow any region to break away, so the prospect remains highly hypothetical.
The ruling conservative Popular Party dismissed the result, and said it would keep fighting against the independence drive.
“The government will continue to guarantee the unity of Spain,” its spokesman Pablo Casado told reporters in Madrid.
The main secessionist group “Junts pel Si” (Together for Yes) won 62 seats, while the smaller leftist CUP party got another 10, according to official results.
They jointly obtained 47.8% of the vote in a record turnout of 78%, a big boost to an independence campaign that has been losing support over the last two years.
Both had said before the vote that such a result would allow them to unilaterally declare independence within 18 months, under a plan that would see the new Catalan authorities approving their own constitution and building institutions like an army, central bank and judicial system.
Addressing supporters of Junts pel Si in central Barcelona, Mas said a “democratic mandate” now existed to move forward with independence.
“That gives us a great strength and strong legitimacy to keep on with this project,” Mas told the exultant crowd, which chanted “in-inde-independencia” and waved secessionist flags.
Albert Llorent, a taxi driver from Barcelona who had come to celebrate, said the result was one of historic proportions.
“What I think, what I feel, is that I belong to the best possible nation in the world. Long live Catalonia,” he said.
The vote in Catalonia, Spain’s second-most populous region, is widely expected to influence the course of the Spanish general election in December.
Spain’s two dominant parties – the ruling People’s Party and the opposition Socialists – lost tens of thousands of votes compared with the last election in 2012, boding ill for their national ambitions, although the PP suffered a much deeper setback than its rival.
Anti-austerity Podemos also registered a disappointing score at 9%, sharply down from last May’s nationwide regional and local elections.
Among parties opposed to independence, pro-market Ciudadanos, often cited as a national kingmaker, emerged as the only winner, as it jumped to 18% of the vote.
Despite the separatist victory, analysts believe the most likely outcome of the election will be to force a dialogue between Catalan and Spanish authorities.
“Many have voted for Junts pel Si, even if they don’t favour secession, because they saw the vote as a blank cartridge… and a way to gain a stronger position ahead of a negotiation,” said Jose Pablo Ferrandiz from polling firm Metroscopia.
Opinion polls show a majority of Catalans would like to remain within Spain if the region were offered a more favourable tax regime and laws that better protect language and culture.
While investors do not see secession as an immediate material risk, financial markets may react negatively on Monday (28 September).
The gap between Spanish five-year bond yields and the higher yields on the Catalan equivalents has been hovering near its widest point in two years in the run-up to the vote.
Following Scotland, Quebec
After the Spanish government blocked him from holding a straight referendum on secession, Mas framed Sunday’s vote as an indirect vote on independence.
Spain’s national government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy brands secession illegal. It wants the country to stay united as the eurozone’s fourth-biggest economy recovers from recession.
With its own language and cultural traditions, Catalonia has seen numerous bids for greater autonomy over the past century.
Secessionist demands have surged in the recent economic crisis, with nationalists complaining they get less back from Madrid than it takes in taxes.
Mas wanted Catalonia to follow Scotland and Quebec by voting on independence — though in both those cases, most voters chose not to break away.
Madrid garnered support from US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who have defended the unity of Spain.
The EU has warned that Catalonia would automatically drop out of the bloc and would have to apply for readmission if it seceded from Spain.
“If part of a member state ceases to be part of that state, because of the territory becoming an independent state, the (EU treaties) would no longer apply to that territory,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said when asked about the possible consequences of the 27 September vote.
“A newly independent region by the fact of its independence would become a third country in respect of the EU and may apply to become a member of the Union,” Schinas told reporters in Brussels.
A NATO official also said that a territory that breaks away from a NATO member state would not be able to stay automatically as a member of the alliance.
“It would have to follow the existing procedures in case it wants to apply for NATO membership,” the official said.