Despite low turnout & volatility, Catalan pro-independence parties retain narrow majority

The Diada (National Day) demonstration in Barcelona, September 11, 2012.
February 23, 2021

On February 14, voters in Catalonia went to the polls to elect a new parliament. Not surprisingly given the continuing Covid pandemic, turnout dropped sharply from 79.1 percent in the previous election in December 2017 to 51.1 percent and, perhaps for that reason, the shares of the vote obtained by some parties changed dramatically. The Socialists (PSC-PSOE), led by Salvador Illa, until late January the minister of health in the national government headed by Pedro Sánchez, won 23 percent of the vote, an increase of 9.1 percentage points from their vote in 2017 and their largest share of the vote since 2006. In contrast, the center-right Citizens (Ciutadans, Cs) party, which in 2017 won 25.4 percent, the largest share of the vote, won only 5.6 percent. And Vox, a xenophobic, nationalist populist party running for the first time, won 7.7 percent. It was a sad commentary on the electoral state of health of the center-right in Catalonia that Vox outpolled not only the Citizens party but also the People’s Party, which won 3.9 percent.

Despite the volatility, one thing remained unchanged in the election: roughly half the voters supported one of the pro-independence parties and those parties retained their narrow majority in the 135-seat parliament. Together for Catalonia (Junts per Catalunya, JxCat), formally led by former President Carles Puigdemont, who remains in Belgium to avoid arrest for sedition for holding the October 1, 2017 independence referendum, and headed in Catalonia by Laura Borràs, won 20.0 percent and 32 seats, compared with 21.7 percent and 34 seats in 2017. The Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), which had participated in the Together for Catalonia alliance in 2017 but subsequently broke away, won 2.7 percent of the vote but, falling below the 3 percent threshold, took no seats. The Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), formally headed by Oriol Junqueras, the former Vice President who is now serving a long sentence for his role in conducting the 2017 referendum, and led in the election by Pere Aragonès, the Minister of Economy and Finance who succeeded Junqueras as Vice President in 2018 and is now, after the disqualification in September of President Quim Torra, the Acting President, won 21.3 percent of the vote and 33 seats, compared with 21.4 percent and 32 seats in 2017. And the far-left, pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) won 6.7 percent of the vote and nine seats compared with 4.5 percent of the vote and 4 seats in 2017. Taken together, the pro-independence parties won 50.7 percent of the vote and 74 of the 135 seats in the parliament, compared with 47.6 percent of the vote and 70 seats in 2017.

There has been support for independence in Catalonia for a very long time. The first pro-independence party appeared in the 1920s, Catalonia first received a Statute of Autonomy in 1932, and the calls for independence continued—at least surreptitiously—throughout the Franco years and continued, loudly and publicly, even after the creation of multi-province Autonomous Communities in the 1978 Constitution and Catalonia’s second Statute of Autonomy in 1979. But the long-standing support for independence received a new impulse in 2010 when Spain’s Constitutional Court, acting on a challenge from the People’s Party, struck down 14, and limited the applicability of another 27, of the 223 articles in the 2006 Statute of Autonomy that amended and extended the previous statute and had been approved by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments. Among other things, the Court eliminated articles that made Catalan, which as of 1979 was, with Spanish, an official language, the primary language of administration and required residents to learn it, enumerated additional rights of Catalans beyond those enumerated in the Constitution, strengthened the powers of the Catalan judicial institutions, gave the Catalan government new powers in several domains of policy, including taxation and investment by the state, and referred to Catalonia as a “nation” and to “the national reality of Catalonia.”

After some futile efforts by the Catalan government headed by Artur Mas, the leader of the center-right Convergence and Union party (CiU), to renegotiate portions of the autonomy statute with Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the People’s Party who became prime minister in 2011, and a huge demonstration on National Day (Diada), September 11, 2012, that brought an estimated 1.5 million people into the streets of Barcelona, Mas decided to call an early election in November 2012 and pledged to hold a referendum on independence if he won. After the election, Mas and Junqueras agreed to form a CiU-ERC government and hold the referendum. After the Constitutional Court objected to the labelling, a non-binding referendum took place on November 9, 2014 in which voters were asked two questions: “Do you want Catalonia to become a state?” and “In case of an affirmative answer, do you want this state to become independent?” About 43 percent of the voters turned out. 81 percent said yes to both questions and another 11 percent said yes to the first but no or gave no answer to the second, meaning  that 92 percent of those who voted wanted Catalonia to become a state and 81 percent wanted it to be an independent state.

After the referendum, Mas announced the government would call another election in 2015 that would be a vote on independence. The decision led to a split of the CiU into two parties—the pro-independence Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) and the anti-independence Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC). In the September 2015 election, the CDC and ERC, along with a couple of smaller parties, formed an electoral alliance, Together for Yes (Junts pel Sí), but JxSí won only 39.6 percent of the vote, almost five percentage points less than the parties had won in 2012, and only 62 of the 135 seats in the Parliament, a loss of nine. However, another pro-independence party, the left-wing Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), increased its vote by nearly five percentage points to 8.2 percent and won 10 seats, a gain of seven—meaning that, while the pro-independence parties fell short of a majority in the vote, winning 47.8 percent, they did win a majority in the parliament, 72 of the 135 seats. The CUP objected to Mas continuing as the head of a pro-independence government because of corruption scandals while he had governed, but it agreed to support a government headed by Puigdemont of the CDC and in January 2016 Puigdemont was elected president of the Catalan government with Junqueras as vice-president.

On September 6, 2017, the Catalan parliament enacted legislation calling for another referendum, this one binding, on October 1 to decide whether Catalonia should become “an independent state in the form of a republic.” Spain’s 1978 Constitution doesn’t allow a region to secede and the next day the Constitutional Court suspended the legislation. Nevertheless, despite the ruling and the considerable effort by the national government to prevent it, including deploying the National Police and Guardia Civil in Catalonia, the referendum took place. On October 1, 43 percent of the electorate turned out to vote and 92 percent said yes to independence. Four weeks later, on October 27, the Catalan parliament voted to constitute a republic as an independent state. The Spanish Senate immediately authorized the Rajoy government to take whatever measures were necessary under Article 155 of the Constitution to ensure that Catalonia as an Autonomous Community fulfilled its obligations under the Constitution and didn’t act in ways that damaged the interests of the country. The Catalan government was removed from office, Catalonia was placed under the control of Madrid, the parliament was dissolved, and new elections were called for December 21, 2017.

The Rajoy government had hoped the dissolution of the parliament and calling of a new election would bring to the polls a “silent majority” who, either because they felt intimidated or threatened by the supporters of independence or believed the referendum was illegal, hadn’t voted on October 1 and would deliver a resounding defeat to the pro-independence parties. But that didn’t happen. Despite a much higher turnout than in the referendum—79 percent, the highest in any Catalan election—the overall distribution of support between the pro- and anti-independence blocs remained largely unchanged. The two pro-independence alliances—Together for Catalonia (JuntsxCat) that included Puigdemont’s Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), the successor to the CDC, and some independents; and the ERC with its allies in Catalonia Yes (CatSí) and Democrats of Catalonia (DC)—and the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) won 47.6 percent of the vote, virtually identical to the 47.8 percent they had won in 2015. Together for Catalonia won 21.7 percent of the vote and 34 seats, a gain of three, and the ERC and its allies won 21.4 percent of the vote and 32 seats, a gain of six. Although the CUP won only 4.5 percent of the vote, a drop from its 8.2 percent in 2015, and lost six of its ten seats, and the pro-independence bloc also lost five seats won in 2015 by independents who had campaigned with Together for Yes, the pro-independence forces retained a narrow majority in the Catalan parliament with 70 of the 135 seats, only two less than they held in the outgoing parliament.

Among the anti-independence parties, the 2017 election resulted in the continued growth in support for the Citizens Party (Ciutadans) and continued loss of support for Rajoy’s People’s Party. Founded in Catalonia in 2006 as a liberal, centrist or center-right, anti-nationalist and pro-European party, the Citizens, or Cs, won 3 percent in the Catalan elections of 2006 and 2010, 7.6 percent in 2012 and 17.9 percent in 2015. Entering the national arena as the Ciudadanos, it obtained 13.9 percent and 13.1 percent in the Spanish elections of December 2015 and June 2016 and supported the formation of a minority People’s Party government headed by Rajoy in October 2016. Campaigning with a slogan that many, after the events of past several months, could relate to—“Catalonia is my homeland, Spain is my country and Europe is our future”—the Citizens  won 25.4 percent of the vote, a gain of 7.4 percentage points, and 36 seats, a gain of 11, making it the largest party in Catalonia both in vote share and seats. In contrast, Rajoy’s People’s Party dropped from 8.5 percent to 4.2 percent and lost 7 of its 11 seats in the Catalan parliament.  

The first order of business after the 2017 election was forming a new government—a task that was complicated by the fact that some leaders of the pro-independence parties, such as Puigdemont, had fled Spain to avoid arrest, while a number of others, including Junqueras, had been charged in connection with the referendum and taken into custody. Eventually, in March 2018, Quim Torra, a lawyer and independent candidate for Together for Catalonia was elected president of the government by the narrowest of majorities in the 135-member Parliament—66 to 65 with 4 abstentions. The 34 deputies of Together for Catalonia and 32 deputies of the Republican Left voted for him while the 65 deputies representing the Citizens, Socialists, Catalonia in Common—We Can, and People’s Party voted against him. The four deputies of the CUP abstained.

In the normal course of events, the term of the parliament would have run until December 2021, meaning that, with the maximum allowed lapse of 60 days between the expiration date and the date for a new election, the latter might have taken place as late as February 2022. But events didn’t proceed on a normal course. In March 2019, the Spanish Electoral Board (JEC) ordered Torra to immediately remove all pro-independence “estelada” flags and yellow ribbons in support for the jailed Catalan political leaders from public buildings because they were “partisan symbols” that some—most notably, the Citizens and People’s parties—claimed favored the pro-independence parties in the upcoming Spanish election in April 2019. Eventually, after several additional requests from the JEC, the flags, banners and ribbons were taken down but Torra was nevertheless charged with disobeying the JEC and in December 2019 the High Court of Justice of Catalonia disqualified him from holding any political office for a year and a half. Last September, the Spanish Supreme Court upheld the High Court ruling and Torra lost his position as a member of the Catalan parliament and president of the government. The parliament subsequently decided that, rather than appointing a replacement, it would dissolve itself and schedule new elections.  

It’s possible that, in view of his success in producing a dramatic increase in the Socialists’ share of the vote from 13.9 percent in 2017 to 23 percent on February 14, Salvador Illa will put himself forward for president of the Catalan government. But with only 33 seats in the 135-seat parliament and no clear pathway to a Socialist-led majority—even one aided by abstentions—it seems clear the parliament will in due course elect Pere Aragonès, the leader of the ERC and, after Torra’s disqualification, Acting President, as president of an ERC—Together for Catalonia (JxCat) government. The pro-independence CUP has indicated it may return to the opposition, meaning that the ERC and JxCat, with 33 and 32 seats respectively in the parliament, might fall just short of the absolute majority of 68 required on the first ballot. But it’s conceivable that, in view of the support the ERC has consistently provided for the Sánchez government—supporting it against a no-confidence voted in 2018, assuring through its abstention the investiture of the government in 2019, and in December enabling it to win approval of a new budget for the first time since 2018—Sánchez will see to it that the Catalan Socialists support the formation of an ERC–JxCat government headed by Aragonès, if not by voting for it on the first ballot at least by abstaining on a second or later ballot, which would require only a relative rather than absolute majority. Supporting an Aragonès-led ERC-JxCat government would have an added benefit for the Sánchez government. Spain will receive €140 billion—€72.7 in grants and €67.3 billion in loans—from the EU through its recovery fund. Spain, the second-largest recipient after Italy, isn’t certain it will take all of the loans but it certainly will take all of the grants, and it would no doubt be very helpful, as the Sánchez government receives the EU funds and implements its  recovery plan, to have a government in Catalonia that is headed by the leader of the ERC who happens to have several years of experience as minister of economy and finance and participated in the preparation of the recovery plan.

Whether formed by the Socialists or, more likely, by the ERC and JxCat, the first order of business for the new Catalan government, aside from implementing its portion of the EU-funded recovery plan, will be to resume discussions with Madrid with an eye to addressing the grievances that gave rise to the 2006 autonomy statute that, despite its approval by overwhelming majorities in the Spanish and Catalan parliaments, was rejected by the Constitutional Court in 2010. Those grievances still exist, and additional intergovernmental and constitutional grievances have arisen over the 15 years since the statute was drafted. Catalonia may or may not become independent at some future time. But in the meantime, it needs a new autonomy statute—one that recognizes its collective identity as a nation and that gives it the full autonomy comparable to that of a state in a federal system.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science and the director of the MacMillan Center’s program in European Union studies.