Catalans go to the polls tonight (Australian time), for the sixth time in just over three years: two national elections, two “unofficial” independence referenda, and now the second regional election.
So it’s a bit hard to think of anything new to say about the subject. You can read some of my past thoughts here, here and here – the last of those being written on the spot in Barcelona, not that things look any different there.
Seven parties are expected to win seats, divided both ideologically and by their views about Catalan independence. Simplifying a little, four are anti-independence – centre-right, centre, centre-left and far left – and three are pro-independence – centre/centre-right, centre-left and far left.
I’ve gone through all the opinion polls conducted since the beginning of November (as collected by Wikipedia): there are 46 of them, from 18 different pollsters. Only one, taken about three weeks ago, has shown the pro-independence parties outvoting their opponents, and that by just 0.2%. Another two (including one just last week) have shown them dead level.
All the rest have shown the anti-independence parties in the lead, some very narrowly, but on average by a few percentage points.
Unless there has been an enormous failure of polling, we can confidently say that the backlash against Madrid that many expected has not eventuated. There is no groundswell for independence; rather the two sides remain poised very much where they were two years ago, when the anti-independence forces held a narrow lead, 48.3% to 48.0%.
But of course it’s not that simple – it never is. Firstly, because the translation of votes into seats is not straightforward. Last time the pro-independence forces won a majority despite being outvoted (here I explained how it happened), and it’s quite possible they may do so again.
The opinion pollsters also do seat projections, and while they almost all show the anti-independence forces ahead on votes, they split about fifty-fifty as to who’s leading on seats. The most recent polls (eight of the last nine, by my count) suggest a very narrow majority supporting independence.
So it’s entirely possible that the election will just put us back where we started, and that either centre-right independence leader Carles Puigdemont (currently a fugitive in Belgium) or his centre-left colleague Oriol Junqueras (currently in prison) will become premier: still with an implacably hostile national government and still without a real popular mandate to deal with it.
Even if the pro-independence forces fall short (and I have a feeling they will), it’s not clear what will happen next. Despite their ideological diversity, the supporters of independence have shown they can work together. But their opponents cover such a broad spectrum that it’s very hard to imagine them forming a coalition government.
The leading force on the anti-independence side is the centrist Citizens, whose leader, Inés Arrimadas, aspires to be premier, calling for “a cross-party government with other constitutionalist forces.” But it would have great trouble reaching any sort of deal with the far-left Podemos, which (unlike the other anti-independence parties) supports a legal referendum and is hostile to Madrid’s hard-line measures.
Podemos (running with Catalonia in Common) would prefer a broad left government, with both the Socialist Party and Junqueras’s Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Such coalitions have governed Catalonia in the past, but it’s hard to see how one could now bridge the gulf that has opened up on the independence issue.
Socialist leader Miquel Iceta is calling for reconciliation, including pardons for the pro-independence leaders and serious negotiations on Catalonia’s future. But with his party running fourth in the polls he seems unlikely to be in a position to do much about it; nor is he likely to get a favorable response from Madrid if he is.
It hasn’t been a good year for Catalonia, and if the polls are right it’s not going to get much better in 2018.