Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia

A divided Catalonia may yet attempt to divide Spain

Image Credit: JuanmaRamos-Avui-El Punt (Wikimedia Commons) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Image Credit: JuanmaRamos-Avui-El Punt (Wikimedia Commons) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Thinking about organizing a referendum on Catalan independence? Turns out it’s not that popular. But voting yes emphatically or no emphatically in such a referendum would be, and increasingly so, it appears from the results of yesterday’s regional elections in Catalonia.

Yesterday’s elections were, first and foremost, a referendum on a referendum. The leader of the Catalan regional government, Artur Mas, had called for early elections to garner support for his plan to organize a plebiscite on separating the northeastern Spanish region from the rest of the Spanish state and seeking full independence. That didn’t work out for him very well. Instead of winning an “exceptional” majority as per his stated ambition, he lost 12 seats — his party, the center-right Convèrgencia i Unió (CiU), went from 62 to 50 seats, out of a total of 135.

This was the first time CiU had embraced the ulterior goal of full-fledged independence, and it seems as if voters chose to vote for the real thing, not the latecomer. While CiU lost 12 seats, its hard-left nationalist rival, Esquerra Republicana de Cataluyna (ERC) won 11 seats, raising its total from 10 to 21. ERC has a long tradition of striving for full-fledged independence: Francesc Macià, party leader from 1922 till 1933, was the president of the very short-lived Catalan Republic in pre-Civil War Spain. A significant number of voters seems to have turned from the Catalan equivalent of a Republican Party running on a new-found platform of tax increases and identity politics to the Catalan equivalent of the Democratic Party.

Overall, the nationalist camp obtained a number of seats close to what it got two years ago. Naturally, the same holds true for the unionist camp. And within that camp, similar dynamics came to the fore. The Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), which has adopted an ambiguous stance toward Spain’s secessionist movement and is internally deeply divided on the issue, lost 8 seats (from 28 to 20), while both the strongly unionist People’s Party (PP) and the explicitly anti-nationalist Citizens Party made important gains, the latter tripling its seat share from 3 to 9.

What do these results show us, then? First of all, the pattern of polarization that marked Basque and Galician regional elections earlier this year was repeated here. Second, in spite of CiU’s losses, the new Catalan Parliament will most likely be dominated by a governing coalition of CiU and ERC that is even more gung-ho on independence than the pre-election majority, and may well choose to go ahead, staging a (non-binding, as the national Rajoy (PP) government is fiercely opposed to this kind of thing) referendum on secession.

Such constitutional unrest is particularly unhelpful while Spain is still in the midst of a major recession while battling extraordinary fiscal trouble, but of course it is moments of crisis like this that show the limits of solidarity, much like they do at the continental level. And while times are tough, Catalans will be scrutinizing the transfers they fund for Andalucia and Extremadura, much like Brits, Dutchmen, and Germans are scrutinizing the transfers they deliver to Greece, Portugal, and Spain. How any significant changes would be implemented or executed is, of course, mostly a mystery.

There is one small exception: The mayor of Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, has declared that its powerhouse soccer team, F.C. Barcelona, could try to join the French league if the Spanish league is no longer an option post-independence. Because, you know, sometimes economies of scale are a thing.

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