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In Catalonia, Elections Bring Mixed Results

4 MINS READSep 28, 2015 | 15:47 GMT
(DAVID RAMOS/Getty Images)
Catalan President Artur Mas (C) celebrates Together for Yes' victory in Catalonia's Sept. 27 elections.
Summary

Catalonia's recent elections, which the regional government touted as a prelude to a referendum on independence, produced mixed results. Secessionist forces won a majority of seats at the regional parliament but obtained less than 50 percent of the popular vote. This means that at least at the regional level, the independence process will be delayed, though it probably will not be stopped. However, the Catalan vote also has important national implications since it was the last electoral test to be held before Spain's general elections, scheduled for late December.

The Sept. 27 regional elections in Catalonia were bittersweet for most of the players involved. Catalan President Artur Mas' Together for Yes party, which supports independence, won the election but only obtained 62 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament. Thus, Together for Yes will have to seek support at the regional parliament from the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) — a small left-wing secessionist party that won 10 seats — to appoint the next Catalan president.

CUP will probably support Together for Yes, but at a price. The party campaigned for a unilateral declaration of independence from Madrid, going against Together for Yes' roadmap, which only foresees independence within 18 months and only after negotiations with Madrid and the European Union. CUP also proposed a series of economic measures to increase public spending, support the poor and assist people who have been recently evicted from their homes. Many of these proposals conflict with the ideas of Artur Mas' conservative Democratic Convergence party, one of the main members of the Together for Yes alliance. Finally, CUP has said it will not back Mas' re-election as Catalonia's president, which will force Together for Yes to look for a compromise president if it wants the support of the small left-wing party.

Conflict among secessionist parties will probably delay any bold moves for independence. In the coming weeks, pro-independence forces will need to make substantial compromises to remain in power. After a government is formed, which should happen in early November, Together for Yes will probably decide to wait for the outcome of the Spanish general elections before making any significant moves. Spain's largest political parties oppose independence, but a potential center-left government may be more willing to negotiate than the current conservative administration.

During the electoral campaign, Mas said a majority of seats in the regional parliament would be enough to begin the independence process. However, the fact that the secessionist forces won 47.8 percent of the vote suggests that most Catalans still want some kind of accommodation with Spain. The Catalan government will probably make symbolic moves, such as approving a proclamation of the beginning of the independence process and announcing the start of the drafting of a constitution. However, it is unlikely to make any radical or unilateral moves toward independence this year.

National Ramifications

In addition to the independence question, the Catalan elections were an important test for the popularity of Spain's main anti-establishment parties, Ciudadanos and Podemos. While the former performed strongly, the latter fared poorly.

Ciudadanos won 25 seats in the regional parliament and became Catalonia's second-largest party. In the short term, this will be a boon for the government in Madrid because Ciudadanos opposes independence. In the long term, however, the centrist Ciudadanos could syphon conservative votes away from the Popular Party. Ciudadanos' strong performance in the Catalan elections confirms it will be a key player in the Spanish general elections. More important, its centrist agenda makes it a potentially suitable coalition partner for both the Popular Party and the center-left Socialist Party.

Podemos, by comparison, ended the elections in fourth place, with only 11 seats. This was probably the result of the party's ambiguous rhetoric: It defended Catalans' right to decide their future, but it opposed a declaration of independence. Podemos' weak performance comes amid the party's drop in the opinion polls since the beginning of the year. Podemos is still Spain's third most popular political force, but its popularity has declined drastically since January.

The Catalan elections were also bittersweet for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. His Popular Party performed poorly, a reminder of the unpopularity of his government among the Catalans. Since Catalonia is one of Spain's largest electoral districts, the Popular Party's lackluster performance there is a warning signal for Madrid. But two months before the general elections, Rajoy is unlikely to soften his position on Catalonia. On Sept. 28, Rajoy said he was open to talking with Catalonia but that he would not accept any plans to break Spain's territorial unity. And Madrid has the backing of Berlin: After the elections, a spokesperson from the German government asked Catalan politicians to "respect Spanish law" and reinforced statements by EU officials that an independent Catalonia would have to reapply for EU membership.

The Spanish government is probably relieved that pro-independence forces won less than 50 percent of the vote. Still, the elections confirmed that secessionist sentiments are strong in Catalonia, and that the push for independence will not go away anytime soon.

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