A big win for Catalan separatists, but does that mean independence from Spain?

September 28, 2015, 4:09 PM UTC
Catalan President Artur Mas (center left, glasses) joins hands with candidates for Junts pel Si after polls closed in Barcelona Sunday night.
Catalan President Artur Mas (center left, glasses) joins hands with candidates for Junts pel Si after polls closed in Barcelona Sunday night.
Photograph by Sergio Perez--Reuters

By 11 p.m. on election Sunday in Catalonia, the restive region in northeastern Spain, it was clear that the parties advocating secession and the creation of an independent Catalan state had won a majority of congressional seats in the new regional parliament.

In Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, supporters danced to a D.J. outside the election-night headquarters of Junts pel Si (JxSI), the main pro-independence party, as they watched election results on a huge projection TV, alternately cheering and whistling when pro- and anti-independence leaders were shown.

“Today was a day in which we could express ourselves and speak in a way the Spanish state wouldn’t let us before,” said 25-year-old student Andreu Bolòs, a JxSI supporter draped in an estelada, the unofficial flag of a Catalan state. “We’re about to start an 18-month constituent process and achieve independence for our nation.”

The vote comes after years of brewing tension between Catalonia and Spain’s central government in Madrid. Many in Catalonia blame Madrid for causing the economic crisis that began in 2008 and starving them of the tax money they believe they deserve. The independence movement took off in 2010 after Spain’s constitutional court heavily pruned a 2006 agreement between the nation and Catalonia that would have given the region increased tax resources, as well as more powers over its judiciary, the use of the Catalan language, and other areas.

“There were a lot of people who were interested in finding a way to fit Catalonia better into Spain, into changing Spain to make it more federal. But seeing how they’ve treated us in the recent years … ” Bolòs said.

On Sunday, the parties who’d framed the election as a plebiscite on independence—Junts pel Si and the anti-capitalist leftist party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP)—won 72 of the regional parliament’s 135 seats in an election with a historic voter turnout of 77.4%.

“No one can say we don’t have a democratic mandate; no one can say we don’t have legitimacy,” Raül Romeva, the top JxSI candidate, said to the election-night rally.

But the path to secession—or some other solution—is far from clear. What comes next is likely to be messy and conflictive, both between the Catalan and central Spanish governments and inside the independence movement itself. It comes down to three main issues.


First, while the pro-independence parties won a majority of seats, because of vagaries of local election law they were able to do so with only 47.8% of the votes cast, meaning that opponents of Catalan secession—including Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who has repeatedly called the movement unconstitutional and denied the region the right to hold a referendum—can argue that the independence movement “lost.”

“They are not supported by the law,” Rajoy said Monday in his analysis of the election, “and from what happened yesterday we know that they are not supported by the majority of the Catalan people.”

Second, Spain will hold national elections in December. With the campaign season approaching, it’s doubtful that prime minister Rajoy’s center-right Partido Popular (PP) has the desire—or the power—to make concessions to the government in Catalonia, where the PP has little support.

Finally, the independence camp is made up of three uneasy bedfellows. Inside JxSI is Convergencia, a business-friendly center-right party led by current regional president Artur Mas, and the left-leaning Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), a longtime “frenemy” of Convergencia. Outside, there is the radical CUP, which wants to take Catalonia out of the EU.

While CUP and ERC are firmly committed to secession, Convergencia’s own commitment has raised suspicions among its partners. It blew open last week when Convergencia candidate Oriol Amat said that it was highly probable that the conflict would end after the December national elections with Madrid offering to return to the 2006 agreement that was thrown out by the courts.

The CUP immediately responded with a statement: “These words, far from being an isolated event, are a sign of the huge contradictions in the heart of the candidacy of Artur Mas.” And on election night, a CUP leader said that Mas was not “essential” as President, a job that JxSI would like him to continue in. CUP has the leverage for such pronouncements: Mas’s reelection will probably require some of the party’s 10 votes to succeed.

So what happens now?

For political analysts like Antonio Barroso of global advisory firm Teneo Intelligence, the short term will be a game of positioning until Spain’s December elections put a new national government in office.

“If JxSI and CUP manage to get over their differences regarding Mas’s reelection, the Catalan parliament is likely to start adopting symbolic moves towards independence, thus continuing the ongoing game of chicken with Spain’s central government,” he wrote in a research report.

Jorge Galindo, editor of the Spanish political blog Politikon, says that as the independentistas “tighten the screws” with this game of chicken, prime minister Rajoy will push back just as hard to engage his own anti-secessionist base.

What really matters is what happens in Madrid after the December elections.

“The blocs [in the national parliament] will have to come together in some way, and what will be on the table is a negotiated exit from the conflict. We will have a debate over what can be done for Catalonia so that it stays, so that it wants to stay, and on what terms,” Galindo says.

Much of the success of that offer, whatever it may be, will depend on how fed up Catalan voters are.

“Have the independentistas gone past a line of no return, or not?” Galindo asks. “I believe that, yes, there is a way to step back. While the [independence] block may now seem very unified, very homogenous, and with one very clear goal, it’s not like that. There is a variety in preferences, and in the intensity of them.”

Investors seemed to agree with Galindo’s calm diagnosis. In Madrid, the IBEX 35 stock index closed down about 1.3% on Monday, which was less than its peers in Germany, France, and the U.K.

Whether this optimism is justified will become clear next year. For now, Spain seems destined for three months of tension, aggressive rhetoric, and political inaction. After that, the strain may ease, but it’s hard to see how Catalonia and the Spanish central government will ever have a completely happy marriage.

“There are Shakespeare-like tragedies where everyone dies, and Chekhov-like tragedies where everyone lives and they’re all miserable because of unfulfilled aspirations,” says Juan José Toribio, an emeritus professor of economics at Spain’s IESE Business School. “Catalonia is likely to remain a Chekhovian tragedy for a long time.”

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