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15 February 2021updated 28 Jul 2021 7:45am

How pro-independence parties triumphed in the Catalan election

Secessionist parties extended their majority in Catalonia despite a surge in support for Spain’s ruling Socialists.

By Graham Keeley

Despite being overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic, the result of the 4 February regional election in Catalonia proved that the independence issue still dominates debate in the Spanish province.

Catalan pro-independence parties took more than 50 per cent of the vote for the first time, winning 74 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament, an increase of four seats from the 2017 election. The far-right party Vox also broke through to win its first seats in the region.

The election came more than three years after secessionist regional authorities unilaterally declared independence in the wake of an illegal referendum on the subject and plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in decades.

Support for independence in Catalonia has diminished since then, amid divisions between secessionist parties: a Catalan government poll last month found 49.9 per cent of Catalans are against independence and 45.1 per cent in favour – down from 49 per cent in October 2017. But this year’s low election turnout of 53 per cent, down from 79 per cent in 2017 – partly due to fears about coronavirus – may have favoured pro-independence parties, whose supporters were more mobilised.

The Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), a pro-union regional version of Spain’s ruling party, finished first, winning 33 seats and 23 per cent of the vote, but will struggle to form a government as it will need support from the left-wing, pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which came second with 33 seats and 21.3 per cent of the vote, and the far-left En Comu Podem (In Common We Can), which came in fifth place (in percentage terms with 6.9 per cent) and won eight seats.

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Secessionist parties signed a document before the election declaring they refused to support the socialist PSC in the event of a win by Salvador Illa, the party’s candidate and former Spanish health minister. The initiative came from a civic group called Catalans for Independence and was designed to dispel any fears that the ERC would join forces with the PSC.

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Analysts have instead predicted that the most likely scenario will be a new Catalan government formed between the moderate ERC; the centre-right, pro-independence party Together for Catalonia, which came third with 32 seats and 20 per cent of the vote; and the far-left, pro-independence party Popular Unity Candidacy, which won nine seats and 6.7 per cent of the vote.

“A government made up of pro-independence parties is 99 per cent inevitable despite tensions between the parties,” Pablo Simón, a political analyst at Carlos III University in Madrid, told the New Statesman. “ERC could not form an administration with the Socialists or the far left as it would upset its own supporters.”

If the ERC heads a new Catalan government it is unlikely to cause a repeat of the 2017 rupture with Madrid, however, as the party prefers to negotiate a legal referendum. According to Oriol Bartomeus, a political commentator from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, “There will be a pro-independence government in Catalonia but any talk of staging a new unilateral referendum is rhetoric more than action.”

In remarks made after the election results were counted, Pere Aragonés, the acting Catalan president who led the ERC during the election campaign, urged the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchéz to begin talks on a referendum. “We have an immense strength to achieve a referendum and the Catalan republic,” he said.

Mr Aragonés makes no secret of his admiration for the Scottish National Party, which is on course to win a large majority in May’s Scottish parliamentary elections. The SNP hope the unpopularity in Scotland of UK prime minister Boris Johnson and of Brexit, and the pandemic fuelling pro-independence sentiment, will help its push for a second independence referendum.

[see also: A kingdom of fragments]

Brussels will observe the Catalan election result with interest as Catalonia is a major European economic powerhouse which produces 19 per cent of Spain’s GDP. Spain expects to receive €140bn in European Union reconstruction funds, but this in part depends on continued political stability in Catalonia. The victory of the ERC and the PSC will guarantee the necessary stability, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Enric Juliana, a Spanish author and journalist, told the state broadcaster RTVE: “For the Spanish government and the regions (like Catalonia) the key challenge in the next six months will be getting the EU reconstruction funds, and for that political stability is necessary.”

The breakthrough of the far-right Vox party, which won 11 seats and 7.6 per cent of the vote, threatens to polarise politics further in Catalonia. The party is the third largest in Spain’s national parliament, where it has 52 seats. It has campaigned to outlaw pro-independence parties and deport illegal migrants in Catalonia – a region with a large Muslim population, mostly from Morocco.

More than 9,000 of Spain’s 64,000 confirmed Covid deaths have come from Catalonia, the second hardest-hit region, and Illa’s election campaign focused on investing in health and the economy. He also concentrated on bringing Catalan society together after a decade of division. “A majority (of people) want to move on and the PSC is the only way to do this,” he said during the campaign.

Nevertheless, the election result appears to prove that the question of independence will endure.

Javier Cercas, a Spanish novelist whose new book Independence touches on the secessionist issue, told the New Statesman: “The Catalan elite were the ones which got the middle and working classes out on the street to support independence in 2012, but it will take years to heal this division.”

Graham Keeley is a freelance journalist based in Madrid, Spain.