Catalan Separatists Win Elections, But Don’t Get a Clear Mandate for Independence

People gather to celebrate the election results after the Catalanist coalition 'Junts pel Si' (Together for the Yes) won the regional elections held, at the El Born Culture Center in Catalonia on September 27, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The independentists, who champion a Catalan state, affirmed that should they win the general election, they would consider that a de-facto referendum on Catalan independence, and put into action a plan to achieve an independent Catalan state within 18 months. They now have an absolute majority in parliament, with the main separatist coalition Junts pel sí (Together for Yes) winning 62 seats and the more radical leftist formation, CUP, taking another 10 seats. However, the shine has been taken off the victory, as they fell short of achieving 50% of the total vote, throwing the independence plan into question. The Catalan branch of the opposition Socialist Party, the PSOE, did better than expected with 16 seats. The night was also successful for the relatively new centre-right party, founded in Catalonia, Cuidadanos (Citizens), which gained 25 seats. More disappointing swas the performance of the coalition, Catalunya sí que es pot (Catalonia Yes we Can), which is closely aligned with the new left-wing Spanish party Podemos, and the Catalan branch of the ruling Popular Party (PP), which came in with 11 seats each.

This leaves a complex situation. On one level, the mobilization of the pro-independent sentiment in Catalonia over the last five years has been remarkable. Until 2010, separatism was a minority creed in Catalonia, but in these elections almost two million Catalans have voted for an independent state. These voters have been alienated by what they see as the central state’s hostile attitude to Catalonia and, just as important, attracted by the counter model of smaller western European nation states like the Netherlands and Austria. Yet this has also produced a counter mobilization by those sectors of society–often migrants or the offspring of migrants above all from southern Spain–who still maintain a strong Spanish identity.

In addition, claims by the Spanish government that an independent Catalonia would find itself outside the EU–backed by the institutions of the EU itself–have no doubt given a significant number of Catalans pause. And yet, within Catalan society overall, there is still a large majority in favor of constitutional change. Ciudananos and the Catalan PP defend present constitutional arrangements, but the Spanish Socialist Party says it wants to undertake a federalist reform of the new constitution, and the leftist coalition, Catalunya sí que es pot, also wants federal reform and is not opposed to a Catalan referendum on secession. That is to say, only about 26.5% of the voters indicated that they wished to maintain the status quo.

The key questions are, therefore, whether the push for independence will end in success and, if not, whether there will be room for compromise. At present there is a stalemate, given the PP’s seeming total opposition to constitutional change. However, general elections will take place in only three months, and their outcome will be crucial. The Catalan question will loom large in these elections and one possible outcome is that Ciudadanos and the PP will be able to take advantage to present themselves as the defenders of national unity, achieving an absolute majority. Should this occur, there would surely follow a brutal confrontation with unforeseeable consequences. Catalan nationalism has in recent years come out of the closet, and its supporters have brazenly embraced the separatist flag, the estelada. For conservative Spaniards, this is tantamount to waving a red flag at a bull, with the Spanish Right maintaining a rather shrill and thin-skinned Spanish nationalist rhetoric.

But the PP has been hit by corruption scandals and weakened by the depth of the recession, and opinion polls indicate that, though it will be the largest party in the post-election parliament, it will fall short of an absolute majority, even if it aligns with Ciudadanos. The question then becomes whether the PSOE and Podemos (with the backing of Catalan and Basque nationalists) might form a coalition and negotiate some kind of compromise. When one looks at Catalan attitudes toward Spain, then room for such a compromise should exist. When asked in a recent questionnaire, only around 22% of Catalans affirmed that their identity was solely Catalan (25.6% stated that they were more Catalan than Spanish, and 42.1% that they were as Spanish as Catalan). That is to say, many Catalans are at present voting for independence for the pragmatic reasons, not because they fully reject Spanish identity. Key areas of discussion would be a better financial deal for Catalonia and a free hand for the Catalan autonomous government in the area of linguistic policy. In addition, the PSOE has mooted the possibility of basing the Spanish senate in Barcelona and turning it into a territorial chamber.

Yet serious obstacles would remain. In the first place, would important sectors of the separatist coalition be willing to draw back and do a deal? The key figure here is Artur Mas, a centrist politician who, until 2012, was not a separatist, but who has since this date has in effect led the separatist coalition. An about face would be difficult to pull off, though a possible escape route would be for him to argue, after negotiations, that he had achieved the stated goal of a “Catalan state,” albeit within a Spanish federation. But there is also the question of how much ground the state parties would be prepared to give. One important issue is that of national identity. A minimum demand for Catalan nationalists would be that Catalonia should be regarded as a nation, but according to the Spanish constitution, Spain is the nation and the leader of the PSOE, Pedro Sánchez, has so far only recognized Catalan “singularity” with the major Andalusian section of the party opposed to him going further. And supposing that an agreement was reached, Catalan nationalists would surely demand that it be put to the electorate alongside the option of total independence.

In short, the outlook is uncertain, to say the least. Since the mid-1990s, the political climate in Spain has deteriorated. Political debate has become more heated, grave accusations and counter-accusations have been freely aired, and even common courtesy has not been maintained. Now is the time to draw back and act responsibly. This requires Spanish politicians to propose major reforms to the constitution (perhaps even think the unthinkable and accept that a referendum of Catalan independence is needed and that if the majority of Catalans do want independence then this should be respected). But the fact that there is important opposition to total independence in Catalonia also means that Catalan nationalists should be prepared, if possible, to consider the alternative route of constitutional reform.