Catalonia elections: Separatists on collision course with Madrid

Barcelona says "Si." [Jordi Payà/Flickr]

The political situation in Catalonia will be extremely tense in the weeks ahead, following Sunday’s victory (27 September) by separatists Junt pel Sì. EURACTIV Spain reports.

Center-right Ciudadanos came in a resounding second. The Socialists of PSOE were third (with 16 seats) and the Partido Popular (PP) came fourth, with 11 seats, a severe blow when compared with the 2012 regional elections, when they obtained 19 seats.

Anti-austerity Podemos registered a disappointing score at 9% (11 seats), sharply down from last May’s nationwide regional and local elections.

The results are a big blow to conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, three months ahead of national elections.

Pro-independence feeling has surged in Catalonia in recent years, fanned by disagreements with the conservative central government (of PP) and Spain’s sharp economic downturn, which has left nearly one in four people out of work, despite a slow recovery in recent months.

“Double victory” and the issue of legitimacy

“Today we have a double victory. The ‘Yes’ vote has won, and democracy has won as well,” said Mas right after the results were known yesterday night. “We will manage victory in a spirit of cohesion within Catalonia, and a spirit of concord with Spain, Europe and the world,” he added.

>>Read: Catalonia faces wall of Spanish indifference, regional government says

However, to support his optimistic view, Mas referred to the record turnout of more than 77%, using it also as element of “legitimacy”, adding that “Catalonia (referring to Junts Pel Sì supporters) had voted”.  But the separatist bloc fell short of winning half of the votes which opponents said would be needed to legitimise their policies.

“We will not let up. We have won despite having everything against us, and this gives us enormous strength and great legitimacy to carry this project forward (…) Just like we, as democrats, would have accepted defeat, we ask for others to accept Catalonia’s victory and the victory of ‘Yes’,” Mas added.

With 47.8% of votes and the majority of seats (if backed by the CUP), Catalan separatists ”won indeed the right to govern in Catalonia, but not the right to declare unilateral independence as they wanted to”, political analyst Ignacio Escolar said yesterday night on Spanish television station La Sexta. “They have won the elections but not the referendum,” pointed out Víctor Arribas, political analyst and journalist with the Spanish state television TVE.

Autonomous elections or “referendum”?

From the very beginning, Artur Mas and Junts Pel Sì wanted the elections to be a referendum, to decide about independence. In a tricky exercise with the Spanish language, separatists called them “elecciones plebiscitarias” (“plebiscitary elections”),  illegal under the current constitution.

During a symbolic independence referendum held in November 2014, which the top court in Spain ruled unconstitutional, only 1.9 million out of 6.3 million potential voters cast their ballot in favour of secession.

Before the elections, secessionist had announced their intention to carry on with the breakaway process and declare independence within 18 months, should they earn an absolute majority.

>>Read: Catalan rep: Commission position is ‘too partial, too easy and incomplete’

Their plans include approving a Catalan constitution, building institutions like an army, central bank, a judicial system and a tax collection agency.
Sunday´s results, analysts predict, pave the way for a bitter clash with Madrid, as Rajoy has pointed out in many occasions that independence is illegal under Spain’s constitution.

In the most extreme scenario, the Spanish government could activate Article 155 of the constitution, suspending Catalan autonomy, although this would be under very exceptional circumstances.

Independence in 2017?

But the CUP (indispensable now to form a government) goes beyond that. They don’t want to wait until 2018 to declare independence. CUP´s number two, Anna Gabriel, said yesterday night “the independence project continues forward” and warned that (Catalan) premier “Mas is not indispensable”. The party, which opted not to join Junts Pel Sí, has seen its number of seats rise from 3 to 10.

Due to the complexity of the situation, the government formed by the separatist bloc will probably not last a full four year term. The pro-independence parties have announced that there will be new elections in 18 months, but this could happen even earlier if no coalition agreement is reached to support the new Catalan premier, Fermín Bocos, political analyst and journalist said on Spanish public television TVE.

According to El Pais, this is a real possibility given the apparent fragility of the alliances among the parties that make up the secessionist bloc, a weakness that would also affect any deals between anti-independence forces.

Ciudadanos: Eye on national elections

While the Popular Party and its candidate in Catalonia, Xavier García Albiol,  suffered a big blow, Albert Rivera´s Ciudadanos – and its candidate Inés Arrimadas – won 25 seats, up from the nine that it secured in the last election in 2012.

“Artur Mas is responsible for this defeat. He can´t be president, he must resign”, Rivera said. “Old style politics died yesterday. The two-party system (PSOE and PP) died,” Rivera said.

>>Read: Catalan separatists send shudders through Madrid

Spanish citizens are looking for fresh ideas. Corruption cases, and high unemployment, at almost 25% (with over half the country’s youth without work), are two of the main challenges political parties must now tackle.

In this scenario, Rivera sees Ciudadanos as the main emerging force that could break the PP-PSOE duopoly and win the national elections, to be held in December.

Ciudadanos has gradually shifted from being considered a purely Catalan party (the party “Ciutadans” was founded in 2006 in Barcelona as centre-left, and non-nationalist), to becoming a national party. And it also scored good results in the municipal elections held last May.

The vote in Catalonia, Spain’s second-most populous region (7,5 million people), is widely expected to influence the course of the Spanish general election in December.

A survey published last July says 45% of Spanish citizens would prefer an agreement between PSOE and Ciudadanos, followed by a possible PP-Ciudadanos coalition (42%), rather than a coalition between PSOE and anti-austerity Podemos.

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