Catalan elections: Spanish unionists repelled, but now what?

February 18, 2021
Pro-independence rally in Catalonia.

From the commanding heights of the Spanish establishment, the battlefield situation two weeks out from the February 14 Catalan parliamentary elections looked promising.

First, the enemy’s two main batallions, the governing alliance of Together for Catalonia (JxCat) and Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), had been at each other’s throats since January last year, when JxCat premier Quim Torra announced that ERC “disloyalty” was forcing him to call early elections.

Torra did not survive to call the poll: the Spanish courts barred him from office for refusing to remove a banner in support of the Catalan prisoners and exiles from the central government building in Barcelona.

The COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes had also raised questions as to the competence of the Catalan administration, especially the ERC-run departments of health and social services.

By the first week of January, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), ruling Spain with Unidas Podemos (UP) as its junior partner, had announced its anti-independentist “dream candidate”, Spanish health minister Salvador Illa. Pro-PSOE media and pollsters were primed to produce exciting coverage and evidence of what was already being dubbed “the Illa effect”.

In late January, however, all Catalan parties except the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC, the PSOE’s Catalan franchise) supported postponing the election because of the pandemic’s third wave.

Yet, against the advice of epidemiologists and the government’s health panel, a full-bench majority of the High Court of Justice of Catalonia ruled the threat to democracy from postponing the poll graver than COVID-19’s threat to health.

The elections went ahead in a phantasmagorical environment: 25% of the 90,000 chosen by ballot to staff polling stations requested exemption; candidates gave rousing speeches to vacant halls while thousands watched on over Zoom, and the TV debates between the lead candidates became combinations of robotic set speeches and screaming matches.

With COVID-19 still raging in a half locked-down country, it was inevitable that the abstention rate would surge. The main issue in the elections — whether the independentist majority would withstand the“Illa effect” — would be decided by the side suffering least abstentions.


Independendentism won that contest, because the PSOE-PSC plan for an unstoppable “Illa effect” set off a stronger “anti-Illa effect” among pro-independence voters.

On February 14, one and a half million fewer electors — more than 25% of the electoral roll — came out than at the last election in 2017, producing the lowest participation rate ever (53.5%). Yet, while the unionist vote was down by 764,000, the pro-independence vote fell by less, 642,000.

The upshot was that independentism lifted its seat tally in the 135-seat Catalan parliament from 70 to 74, the pro-independence vote topped 50% for the first time (at 51.2%), and the lead of the independentist over the unionist bloc widened from 13 seats to 21.

Within independentism, the shift was leftwards, with the left-independentist alliance People’s Unity List-Let’s Win Catalonia (CUP-GC) increasing its tally from 4 seats to 9, the centre-left ERC from 32 to 33, while JxCat’s seats fell from 34 to 32.

The PSC came in first with the highest vote (23% compared to ERC’s 21.3% and JxCat’s 20%), but with the same number of seats as the ERC. The PSC’s 16-seat gain came overwhelmingly from the neoliberal, Spanish-centralist Citizens, which imploded from 36 seats to six.

Independentism’s win would have been even clearer if the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat) had not stood. A rebadging of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, the former ruling party of conservative Catalanism, PDECat campaigned as the low-tax, business-friendly wing of the independence camp.

Its score of 2.7% fell short of the 3% parliamentary representation threshold. Had it not stood, PDECat’s 77,000 votes would have gone overwhelmingly to JxCat and added 2–3 seats to the independence majority.

The Spanish-patriotic media was in no doubt about the meaning of the result. After years of headlines predicting collapse for the Catalan “soufflé”, its tone after February 14 was apocalyptic: “Catalonia, insoluble” and “The Catalan disaster” (La Razón); “A despotic nationalism, a sterile socialism, a residual opposition” (El Mundo).

As one Catalan TV commentator noted: “Independentism isn’t a soufflé: it’s a nougat from Alicante” — rock-hard.

PSOE-PSC: winners?

Since election night, Salvador Illa and other PSC spokespeople have behaved as if their party won the election “decisively”.

Illa will stand for the premiership in the first session of the new parliament and seek the support of ERC and Together We Can (ECP, the left coalition that is generally called the Commons) in forming a progressive government that “turns the page” on the divisions of the last decade.

With this posturing, Illa, who will get no support from ERC, is intent on reinforcing his legitimacy as “natural” premier in the case of the independence parties failing to form government.

Backed by major Spanish media and with the advantage of ruling in the Spanish state, the PSOE-PSC easily achieved its first goal of becoming the lead force within unionism.

Its votes were most concentrated in Barcelona and its surrounding Spanish-speaking working-class industrial “belts”: there the PSC’s “socialist” variant of unionism and its message of “turning the page” on conflict won it ten extra seats. Its other six gains came from Lleida, Tarragona and Girona.

Yet these gains went with a fall in support for unionism in its areas of traditional support. In Barcelona, unionism’s strongest province, the decline was matched by a strengthening of centre-left and left independentism.

Of the province’s 85 seats, 40 — two more than in 2017 — went to pro-independence parties, with the CUP-GC increasing its presence from 3 to 5, while the ERC took one seat from JxCat.

Mirroring this rise was the fall in the unionist seat tally — from 40 to 38 — with ECP, pro-sovereignty but not pro-independence, continuing to hold the remaining 7 seats.

The hegemony won by the PSOE-PSC with a campaign pitched against independentism thus came at the cost of the contraction of the unionist camp itself as well as of the PSC becoming hostage to its more reactionary sentiments.

Right shrinks, radicalises

The other main development within unionism was the emergence of the xenophobic, Spanish-chauvinist Vox as main force within a right-unionist camp that halved to 20 seats.

With 11 seats (7.7%) it not only overtook Citizens, but also marginalised the People’s Party (PP), Spain’s main conservative opposition force: the PP won only 3 seats (3.9%), its worst ever Catalan result.

It is the first time Vox has overtaken Citizens and PP in a regional election in the Spanish state.

As in the last Spanish general election, Vox got its best results at the extremes of the social scale, reaching 17.7% in the posh Barcelona district of Pedralbes — where the attraction would be its proposals for tax cuts — and 18.5% in the impoverished Barcelona neighbourhood of Torre Baró — where its proposal for a war on “illegal” immigration would have won support.

Its other high points were reached in neighbourhoods around Civil Guard and army barracks.

The Vox vote guarantees a phase of heightened conflict in parliament, almost certainly accompanied by street violence.(There were several clashes between Vox and anti-fascist groups during the election campaign.)

What government?

The most important challenge confronts the pro-independence parties, which went into the election with different proposals on strategy for independence and alliances for government.

The initial proposal from ERC lead candidate Pere Aragonès will be for a four-party coalition of those supporting Catalonia’s right to self-determination (ERC, JxCat, CUP-GC and the ECP) and amnesty for the political prisoners and exiles.

ERC will call for the negotiating table between the Spanish and Catalan governments to be reconstituted, raising there the demand for a negotiated Scottish-style independence referendum.

That four-party alliance will not happen, because of the mutual veto between JxCat and the Commons, but it may be possible for Aragonès to negotiate the latter’s abstention in an investiture session.

His next hurdle will be to win the support of the CUP-GC, which is having its own debate on whether to participate — and on what conditions — in a tripartite pro-independence government. That seems unlikely, with the more probable outcome being CUP-GC support in the investiture session in exchange for guarantees from the ERC on advancing the independence struggle and action against the economic crisis.

Aragonès’s toughest problem will be to repair relations between ERC and JxCat and avoid a repetition of the chronic distrust and divisions of the last government. Finding agreement on next steps in the independence struggle between organisations with marked strategic differences will be key.

All this will take place with the PSOE looking for every opportunity to work the cracks between these two forces, and with the PP-aligned upper echelons of the Spanish judiciary intent on maintaining its persecution of the Catalan movement.

There is a huge responsibility on the pro-independence parties to find an agreed path for forcing the “progressive” PSOE-UP government to stop ignoring the demands of the vast majority of Catalans for amnesty and an independence referendum.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed analysis of the Catalan elections will soon appear on the web site of Links—International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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