Interpreting the Catalan elections | Elections 2017
Given the complexity of the results, their myriad implications and the renewed uncertainty about what comes next, it is important to perhaps distinguish between big read takeaways and deeper changes in the political and social landscape in Catalonia, which are sure to condition the region and Spain as a whole.
Big read takeaways
1. The secessionist parties retained their wafer-thin parliamentary majority. This was slightly down from the 72 seats out of 135 they obtained in the September 2015 parliamentary elections, to 70. They claimed that as a victory, especially as their narrative largely hinges on conflating the whole of Catalonia and the Catalan people with their specific preference, and the latter with a majority in the Catalan Parliament (vs a Spanish “unionist minority”, as often claimed by former premier Carles Puigdemont and other leaders). This is key to their discourse.
The narrative of victimhood, with Puigdemont in “exile” in Brussels, some former government counsellors in prison and temporary direct rule from Madrid under article 155 of the Spanish Constitution (enacted in late October at the peak of the crisis), kept mobilised an already mobilised secessionist electorate, in spite of the political instability, division and economic damage wrought by the secessionist process. Expectations among non-secessionists and in the rest of Spain that that damage would see secessionists losing their majority, even by a few seats, have been dashed.
2. The secessionists are still short of a majority of votes in Catalonia. The parties opposed to secession – though in different forms – have more than 50 percent of the votes, even if they fail to enjoy an equivalent number of seats, partly due to the electoral system. But that fact can be relatively overlooked by the current secessionist leaders, especially the more hardliners among them, who base their strategy on a parliamentary majority that allows them to retain control of almost all institutional and power levers in Catalonia.
Elections last night have confirmed that Catalonia remains a pluralistic society, instead of the nationalistic pretence of a sol poble (“one people” – aka, the nationalists).
3. This was a landslide win, in votes (over 1.1 million and 25.3 percent) and seats (37), for pro-Spain Ciudadanos (liberals). This is no doubt a historic win for many reasons. It is the first time since 1980 that a non-nationalist party clearly wins elections in Catalonia.
Ciudadanos was born in 2006 as a small anti-nationalist party in Catalonia, before going national in 2015, becoming the fourth Spanish party (some 15 percent of the vote). It has won in the most populated urban areas (including most districts of Barcelona), sneaking votes away from the Catalan Socialists (PSC), even in the latter’s traditional, lower working class strongholds. And it has won in spite of a political language, including elements of hate speech, commonly used by many secessionists, that aimed at tarnishing Ciudadanos’ legitimacy by labelling them as “Spanish”, born outside Catalonia or even “fascists”.
Led by the young Ines Arrimadas, the party ran a clear anti-secessionist campaign and endorsed the Mariano Rajoy government’s application of temporary direct rule. So, while the secessionists claim that the “Catalan Republic defeated the tripartite of article 155” (Ciudadanos, PSC and Rajoy’s Popular Party), the biggest advocate together with the Popular Party(PP), of article 155 (even of harsher forms of federal coercion than the one finally agreed to), actually won elections in Catalonia, somewhat denting the secessionists’ narrative. A pyrrhic victory nevertheless, as Arrimadas will be unable to get enough votes in Parliament to be elected the next Catalan premier.
4. This was a severe blow to Prime Minister Rajoy’s PP and the government. The PP has gone from 19 seats in the Catalan Parliament just five years ago to 11 seats in 2015, to a meagre 3 seats this year, and will have to humiliatingly join their foes from the anti-establishment, secessionist CUP (the other loser last night, from 10 seats to just 4) in the parliament’s Mixed Group.
There is a widespread perception in Spain that Prime Minister Rajoy’s bet on early elections (against the preference of some in his party who wanted a longer period of direct rule with elections later in 2018) has not delivered the political benefits he sought – mainly, defeating the secessionist process towards independence from Spain in polls. The loss of the secessionist majority that Rajoy expected has ultimately failed to materialise.