The outcome of the recent regional election in Catalonia (which was held on September 27th) has been read very differently by the pro-independence and the pro-union camps. The former have emphasized that pro-independence parties won, for the first time in Catalan history, a clear majority of seats in the Catalan Parliament and secured 47.8 percent of the votes. The latter, however, were very quick to declare the Catalan process for independence dead because it had fallen short of capturing a majority of votes cast.
At the heart of this controversy lies the fact that, given the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the Spanish government to hold a self-determination referendum, the Catalan government and the pro-secession parties had framed the poll as a de facto vote on Catalan independence. Although this plebiscite interpretation was not accepted by the pro-union parties before the election (they insisted that these were simply normal regional elections), their reading of the outcome still strongly emphasized the fact that less than 50 per cent of the vote had finally gone to the pro-independence side.
Strong proof of the importance people attached to this election is the record-breaking number of Catalans who cast their vote: more than 77% participated, a figure not registered in any election in Catalonia since the 1982 general elections. In the end this was a form of “imperfect referendum”, which made the political interpretation of its outcome highly controversial. With 47.8 per cent of the vote going to the “Yes” option, 39.1 per cent of voters to the “No” and 11.5 per cent to other options that explicitly refused to be added to any of the two main contenders, picking winners at one’s own convenience becomes eminently possible: either the “Yes” (47.8) or the non-“Yes” (50.6). Nobody has ever said that Catalan politics is easy to understand.
The next step in the process remains in question. The pro-independence coalition list ‘Together for Yes’ and the far-left pro-independence party CUP have secured 72 seats (out of 135, with an absolute majority reached at 68). President Artur Mas quickly remarked that this result represents “a great strength and strong legitimacy to keep on with this project.” Nevertheless, he faces a tortuous road ahead: a difficult negotiation to form the Catalan government and, above all, the strong opposition of the Spanish government and the main Spanish political parties to any move toward secession, or even the celebration of a proper referendum on independence. In sum, Catalonia faces an extremely complicated political scenario. Predicting ways out of the current stalemate is increasingly becoming an impossible task for political scientists in Catalonia.
Besides all this, Catalan elections (and in particular the most recent elections and their context) can be relevant for the political science community for several reasons.
First, Catalan political competition is genuinely divided along two lines: the standard left-right axis and the pro- and anti-sovereign dimension. Although the two axes show some correlation (left-wing individuals are more likely to favour independence), parties and individuals are located in a multidimensional political space. While the sovereign axis dominates in regional elections, both axes play a significant role and parties very often face trade-offs when deciding whether they should give a greater salience to one of them.
Second, the Catalan case raises several questions regarding the formation of political attitudes. As the next Figure shows, favourable attitudes towards secession are a relatively new phenomenon. Before 2010, the majority of Catalans were in favour of either the status quo or the federalist option, which could be interpreted as enjoying a higher degree of self-government without breaking with Spain. Since the end of 2010, independence has been the most preferred option, and polls show that between 35-40% of the population supports it, this figure being even higher if a referendum were to be organized.
Finding out the main reasons for this increase in pro-independence sentiment will surely become a fruitful line of research over the coming years. The role of Catalan political elites in promoting the independence project has been advanced by some authors, while other scholars have emphasized the role of civil society groups and grassroots movements in putting the independence debate on the parties’ political agenda. At the same time, support for secession has expanded after a period (2000-2010) in which the political confrontation between Spanish and Catalan political institutions grew considerably. The recentralization agenda of the second government of José María Aznar (2000-04) and the long and convoluted process of elaboration, negotiation and approval of the Reform of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia (2004-2010) are usually mentioned as important steps in the deterioration of the political climate. Finally, many observers also emphasize the part played by the worst economic recession the country has experienced in the last fifty years. Social scientists face the task of building research designs that allow them to be more precise about the ultimate causes of this phenomenon.
Third, the political confrontation between Spanish and Catalan institutions is slowly reaching the global arena, especially the debates concerning the international recognition of a new Catalan state and its membership in the European Union (EU) and other international institutions. There are no precedents concerning secession of a region from an EU member country that could be applied to the case of Catalonia. It is therefore not surprising that there remain all kinds of open controversies about the entire process, and that many questions have yet to be answered. Many such questions are addressed in a new book, forthcoming from Routledge (”Catalonia: A New Independent State in Europe?”, May 2016) in which both of us have participated.
In any case, the past elections act as a reminder of the pervasiveness of the “Catalan problem” in Spanish politics. In a nutshell, the current political controversy between the Catalan and Spanish governments (and their respective allies and supporters) may be summarised as the following question: Is Catalonia a political entity which, as such, is entitled to decide, in democratic fashion, all aspects of its political future according to its own political preferences?
The answer by the Spanish government and almost all Spanish political parties has been a resounding no, since the Spanish Constitution clearly states that national sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people. The Catalan government and its pro-independence supporters point to polls indicating that around 80 per cent of Catalan people favour the celebration of referendum on sovereignty. The Spanish general elections will take place on December 20th, but it is very unlikely that the new Spanish government will accept the “Scottish way.” If this is in fact the case, will the Catalan pro-independence parties follow their political manifestos and declare independence?
The short answer is that we do not quite know. What remains clear, however, is that the political process that has taken place in Catalonia since the early 2010s is a unique phenomenon in contemporary Europe, and that it is likely to attract much more attention in the years to come.