Catalonia: Independentism can’t afford another setback like the May 12 election

May 17, 2024
election results
The Catalan regional election on May 12 saw the vote for unionist candidates rise, while that of pro-independence forces fell. Graph: El Nacional; Photos: Wikipedia

Spanish unionism of all stripes — from the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) to the ultra-right and racist Vox — was crowing when the results of the May 12 Catalan elections became known.

“Socialist victory in Catalan election closes the door on separatist movement,” announced the English edition of El País, close to the PSC’s parent organisation, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.

The website of public broadcaster Spanish Radio and Television (RTVE) even posted a duplicitous article, “Independentism deflates after 12 years of the ‘process’ and loses its absolute majority”, arguing that support for Catalan independence has declined to its lowest level since 1980.

The trick used here was to conflate Catalan nationalism with support for Catalan independence. The latter sentiment never reached 20% until the 2010 decision of the Spanish Constitutional Court to override the Catalan statute of autonomy. It was the court’s abuse of Catalonia’s democratic rights that set off the last 14 years of independence struggle, sending support for breaking with Spain above 50% at times.

According to the latest issue of the official Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies, support for independence stands at 33%, with 24% opposed, 29% without a position and 14% not answering the poll.

There was nothing new in this latest bout of premature triumphalism from those who deny Catalonia’s right to a referendum on its future — supported by 70–80% of the population.

Indeed, Spanish unionists have been writing hopeful obituaries for the “process” ever since the October 1, 2017, independence referendum shocked Spain’s political and legal establishment and led to the jailing or exile of the movement’s leaders.

The PSC’s Salvador Illa’s election campaign was simply another — more successful — effort to convert Spanish-patriotic wishful thinking into political reality. His main sound bites were: “turn the page on the lost decade”, “begin a new era”, “restore social harmony” and “tackle the problems that matter to Catalans”.

Basic patterns

But did the election result actually mark an unambiguous turning point in the ongoing conflict between Spanish unionism and the Catalan independence movement? The main trends were as follows.

Support for pro-independence parties fell to the point where they lost the parliamentary majority first won in 2015: the pro-independence majority of 74 in the 135-seat Catalan parliament shrunk to a minority of 61, made up of 35 seats for the right-dominated Together for Catalonia (Junts), 20 for the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia, four for the radical left People’s Unity List (CUP) and two for the Islamophobic Catalan Alliance (AC) — entering parliament for the first time.

On the unionist side, the PSC won a relative majority of the vote (873,000, or 28%) and seats (42 out of 135), while the conservative People’s Party (PP) quintupled its seats from 3 to 15 and Vox maintained its 11 seats.

These gains largely took place at the expense of the Catalanophobic Citizens, which lost its representation seven years after leading the December 2017 election called by then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (PP), following the sacking of the Catalan government of Carles Puigdemont.

Support for pro-independence forces that won seats fell to 1.348 million on May 12 — not including the overseas vote.

By contrast, more than two million voters supported pro-independence options in the 2017 Catalan election, due to a record high 79.1% participation rate, reflecting the vast mobilisation against the attempted repression of the referendum and the subsequent sacking of the Puigdemont government.

At the 2021 election, held during the COVID-19 pandemic, the participation rate slumped to a record low 51.3%, with independentism losing more than half a million votes but gaining 1.448 million in total. This result, however, translated into a record majority of the total vote (50.9%) and seats (74).

Unionism mobilises

At this election, the participation rate partially recovered (to 57.9%), but with an unusual feature: it was unionism — strongest in the urban provinces of Barcelona and Tarragona — that most mobilised its potential vote.

The rise in participation in these provinces was 7.1% and 6.7% respectively, while in the more pro-independence rural provinces of Lleida and Girona the increase was 4.5%. In five of Catalonia’s 43 shires the participation rate even fell.

The upshot was that while overall participation increased by 264,000, the vote for unionist candidacies increased by 345,000 (to 1.528 million votes or 49.1%) while that of pro-independence forces fell by 81,000 (to 1.372 million, or 43.9%).

The remainder is accounted for by the vote for the pro-sovereignty but anti-independence Commons (Comuns Sumar): down to 5.8% (182,000 votes) and six seats from 6.9% (195,000 votes) and eight seats in 2021.

Independentism suffers

The main cause of the unionist bloc’s advance was demoralisation in the independentist camp due to the absence of an agreed way forward, producing rising disorientation and disenchantment, which the PSOE and PSC knew how to exploit.

The core of the setback was the rout of the ERC — from 33 seats to 20 — which has been governing Catalonia in minority since its Junts partners left the government in October 2022. ERC Premier Pere Aragonès, who has since stepped down, lost support on both the national and social rights fronts.

The ERC strategy of putting forward unobjectionably practical proposals for “dialogue” about an independence referendum — always immediately rejected by the Sánchez government — looked ineffectual compared to Puigdemont’s approach of maintaining conflict with Madrid, asserting the democratic legitimacy of the October 1 referendum and demanding substantive negotiations.

This became clear when the Junts MPs in Madrid extracted gains from the Sánchez government that ERC didn’t even try for, such as an independent monitor of Catalonia-Spain negotiations — rejected by the PSOE until it became dependent on Junts after the July 2023 general election.

The Aragonès government managed to introduce some reforms, especially in the area of democratic rights, but — like any chronically underfunded regional Catalan administration — could make little headway in the areas that have been driving up poverty and stress for at least a quarter of Catalan families.

These include the cost of housing, underfunded public health and education systems, the ongoing casualisation of work and the dilapidation of Catalonia’s Spain-run regional railway system.

Left losses, Junts gains

The ERC debacle was the worst case of losses for the left as a whole. Symptomatic was the failure of the CUP and the Commons to get popular support for their opposition to the proposed anti-environmental and anti-social Hard Rock casino mega-complex near Tarragona: both forces lost their MPs in the province.

The CUP lost five of its nine representatives, as its ecosocialist message of “defence of the land” failed to get traction with an electorate more worried about getting to the end of the month and rising social insecurity. Together the CUP and the Commons now have fewer MPs than Vox.

The winner within the independence bloc was Junts, but its gain of three seats was less than internal polling forecasting a neck-and-neck struggle with the PSC.

While Junts managed to mobilise its part of the independentist electorate — 15,000 supporters crossed the Pyrenees to attend Puigdemont’s rallies from French exile — it could not be the broadly remobilising factor that the former premier strived to make it.

In fact, May 12 exposed Catalan independentism’s state of fragmentation: not only did the Islamophobic AC score as much as 24.9% in leader Silvia Orriol’s shire of Ripollès, but Puigdemont’s former fellow Member of the European Parliament Clara Ponsati pointlessly founded a new party, Alhora (At Once), targeted against his “treachery” for reaching the amnesty agreement with the PSOE.

Now what?

Both Illa and Puigdemont say they will stand for the position of premier when the Catalan parliament reconvenes, but neither have a majority.

A key factor in determining which of them wins the post will be the position of the ERC, whose voting base is torn between preferring a fellow Catalan independentist (if right wing) or a fellow “left-winger” (if a Spanish unionist) as premier.

PP leader Alejandro Fernández has also stated that he will not support Illa for president, given the PSOE’s amnesty deal with Puigdemont.

No one can be sure how this diabolical puzzle will get solved, but a new election can’t be excluded.

In that case, it can only be hoped that independentism finally manages to find the minumum degree of unity necessary to begin to reverse the major retreat inflicted on it on May 12.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]

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