Independence parties have kept their majority in Catalonia, but right-wing parties were the real winners

By contrast, left wing parties have have been the losers of Thursday’s election 

Pablo Castao
Friday 22 December 2017 12:08 GMT
Carles Puigdemont declares that the Spanish state has been defeated in a snap regional election.
Carles Puigdemont declares that the Spanish state has been defeated in a snap regional election. (AP)

The pro-independence parties have won the regional elections convoked in Catalonia by the Spanish government. The addition of the MPs obtained by Junts per Catalunya (JxC), Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) represents the majority of the regional parliament, which will allow them to form a pro-independence government.

This implies a defeat for Mariano Rajoy, who intended to solve the Catalan crisis by calling an election that should have been won by unionist parties. However, unionist right-of-centre party Ciudadanos has obtained the largest number of votes, which represents a symbolic defeat for the independence movement. Both the Spanish and Catalan nationalist right-wing parties have benefited from the election.

Everything looked normal in Barcelona streets during the voting day. The particularly long queues to vote were the only visible sign of the exceptional character of this election (turnout has reached the unprecedented figure of 83 per cent of the electorate).

However, the regional election has been extraordinary in many ways. First of all, the vote was called by the Spanish government after it had suspended the autonomy of Catalonia by applying article 155 of the constitution, a decision that has been deemed unconstitutional by several lawyers.

In addition, the two main pro-independence candidates have been prevented from leading their campaigns on equal terms with the rest of candidates. Former president of the regional government Carles Puigdemont (JxC) has fled the Spanish justice and is in Brussels, while former deputy president Oriol Junqueras (ERC) is in prison. Both Puigdemont and Junqueras, and other pro-independence leaders, have been persecuted because of their role in the organisation of the 1 October self-determination referendum – considered illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

Puigdemont has conducted a powerful long-distance electoral campaign, appearing in rallies through videos. By contrast, Junqueras’ electoral activity has been reduced to the sending of letters from the prison to his supporters. This difference may explain to a certain extent the unexpected electoral strength of Junts per Catalunya, which has obtained the first position among pro-independence parties and the second position regionally.

This unpredicted result puts Puigdemont in a good position to reclaim the presidency of the region again, insofar as Ciudadanos’ Inés Arrimadas will not be able to obtain the majority in Parliament even though her party has the largest number of votes and seats. However, it is not clear whether Puigdemont will succeed in being elected president, as he will certainly be detained by the Spanish police if he comes back to Catalonia to attend his investiture session in Parliament.

The Catalan elections have brought bad news for the left, as votes have concentrated in nationalist right-wing parties. Inés Arrimadas’ Ciudadanos is a fiercely unionist party, which has succeeded in softening its conservative image and concentrating the votes of Catalans who are opposed to independence and fed up with the blockage of the political situation in the region since the first electoral victory of the pro-independence parties in 2015.

Arrimadas has obtained the support of former Popular Party voters but also large sets of working-class voters who used to support the Socialist Party and, more recently, Podemos. On its part, Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya is the most recent reincarnation of Convergència Democrática de Catalunya (CDC), the neoliberal and conservative party that ruled Catalonia for three decades.

Convergència has been involved in serious corruption scandals and has implemented hard austerity policies when it has been in power, but the surge of the pro-independence movement has allowed the old party to successfully rebrand itself. Pro-austerity parties now constitute a majority in the Catalan Parliament, despite popular opposition to further social cuts and deregulation.

By contrast, left-of-centre Esquerra Republicana, the Socialist Party, Catalunya en Comú-Podem (the coalition formed by Podemos, Barcelona major Ada Colau’s party and other left-wing organisations) and the anticapitalist and pro-independence party CUP have been the losers of Thursday’s election.

In the pro-independence side, Esquerra and CUP have suffered the concentration of the vote in Puigdemont, considered as the legitimate president of Catalonia by the independence movement. On the unionist side, the Socialist Party has lost many voters in favour of Ciudadanos, which has a more radical anti-independence discourse.

Finally, Podemos and its allies have failed in seducing the electorate with their proposal of a binding referendum on Catalonia’s independence – in which Pablo Iglesias’ party would have campaigned against secession. It seems that the fierce conflict over independence and national identity is not a favourable context for left-wing parties, regardless of their positions on the national-territorial issue.

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