A mandate at last in Catalonia

Apologies for not having done a preview of Sunday’s regional election in Catalonia. After a while, it becomes hard to say anything new about the Catalan issue, and this election looked a lot like a rerun of the last two. But it finally got a different result – different, in fact, in two important respects.

Last time we looked, the Catalan regional government had been thrown into disarray by the disqualification of its premier, Joaquim Torra, for disobeying an order from the electoral commission. Disagreement among the pro-independence forces, combined with their narrow majority, made it impossible to agree on a replacement, and another early election was the result.

In both of the last two elections, in 2015 and 2017, the pro-independence side had won a majority of seats despite attracting a minority of the vote (largely due to a malapportionment that favors rural areas). In 2017 those parties had 47.5% of the vote between them but won 70 of the 130 seats; not a mandate for independence, but several of their members proceeded to behave as if it was.

This time, however, they have achieved the goal that previously eluded them. It’s still a narrow margin, but the pro-independence parties have won a majority of the vote: 51.6% in aggregate, as against 48.2% for their opponents.* That will give them a total of 74 seats – 33 (up one) for the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC; centre-left), 32 (down two) for Together for Catalonia (JxCat; broad front) and nine (up five) for the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP; far left).

Opposed to them are five anti-independence parties spanning the ideological spectrum: the Socialists (centre-left) with 33 seats, Vox (far right) with 11, En Comú Podem (far left) eight, Citizens (centrist) six and the People’s Party (centre-right) three. Turnout was 53.5%, a big drop from 2017’s 79.1%, although it’s uncertain whether Covid-19 or election fatigue is the main culprit.

The regional government had tried to postpone the election until May, citing health concerns but apparently also feeling that a later date would have suited it politically. It was blocked by the courts, and it turns out it needn’t have worried.

But there’s a second respect in which this election differs importantly from the last one, and this applies to seats as well as votes. Last time around, the national parties on both centre-left and far left indicated that they aimed to form a broad left government, embracing pro- and anti-independence forces. There’s no reason to think they would have succeeded, but in any event they were short in terms of numbers, with only 61 seats.

This time, however, left and far left in aggregate have a big majority, with 83 seats (42 pro-independence and 41 anti). The difference is due to the performance of the Socialists, who topped the poll, jumping from 13.9% to 23.2% (ahead of ERC with 21.5%). The more fanatically anti-independence Citizens, who had led the field last time, crashed and burned, going from 25.5% to seventh place with just 5.6%.

The pro-independence parties have all promised not to negotiate with the Socialists, so in the short term the hypothetical left majority is unlikely to have any effect. Most probably, ERC leader Pere Aragonès will reconstruct a coalition with JxCat and the CUP and take office with a mandate to pursue the dream of Catalan independence – although he has promised to do so peacefully.

But if the poor relationship between the ERC and JxCat continues, and if Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez can bring himself to make an attractive compromise offer on the independence question, then it may create an option down the track.

* A handful of very small parties are unclassifiable. Note that the official website apparently calculates the percentages by factoring out invalid votes but not blank ballots, a procedure whose rationale escapes me. I have recalculated them, excluding both.

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