3 ways the election changed Catalan politics
BARCELONA — On the surface, after months of political drama in Catalonia, not much seems to have changed.
The three pro-independence parties won 47.5 percent of the votes in this week’s regional election, compared to 47.8 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the unionists increased their share from 41.6 percent to 43.4 percent. Support for a third option— a scattering of leftist parties that refuse to be considered as part of either of the two other blocs — dropped from 8.9 percent to 7.4 percent.
But scratch a bit deeper into the numbers, and three fundamental changes in the Catalan political equation emerge.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the election was a truly exceptional turnout. Some 82 percent of the electorate cast a ballot — the highest level of participation in any electoral contest in Catalonia since the restoration of democracy after the death of Francisco Franco in 1975.
Undoubtedly, the electorate regarded this vote as a very important moment in the political history of the country and turned out accordingly.
Until 2012, relatively high levels of abstention in regional elections helped perpetuate the idea that voters weren’t that interested in local politics. And since the voters who stayed home were less likely to support Catalan nationalist parties, that tilted the results in those parties’ favor.
More recently, turnout has skyrocketed, as the secession debate mobilized voters on all sides of the political spectrum. That pro-independence parties have been able to reach and sustain high levels of support and twice obtain an absolute majority of deputies in the regional parliament is not a minor achievement.
This week’s turnout was probably helped by the fact that, for the first time in 37 years, the election was held on a working day and not on a Sunday. But it will be difficult to deny that the electoral outcome is a clear reflection of the political will of the entire Catalan population.
The second fundamental change regards the unionists. The party that received the most votes was Ciudadanos, a center-right, liberal upstart that opposed independence. Meanwhile, support for Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party plunged, cutting its seats in parliament from 11 to three.
The likelihood of Ciudadanos forming part of the next Catalan government is close to zero, but the ascendance of a right-wing counterweight to the Popular Party has the potential to disrupt the balance of power nationally.
On the pro-independence side, the most important difference in this election is the decline of the radical, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy party, which saw its share of votes drop from 8.2 percent to 4.5 percent and its representation in parliament cut from 10 to four deputies.
This is likely to be good news for the two more mainstream pro-independence parties, which are likely to form the new government. They will be now less dependent on a frequently very uncomfortable ally and probably enjoy more flexibility to negotiate with other parties in the regional parliament on many different issues.
Don’t expect them to take a confrontational approach to Madrid. One of the first priorities of the new government will be to insulate the performance of the Catalan economy from the political goings-on.
Many on the secessionist side regard the perception of increasing economic risks as one of the main factors that could weaken support for independence in the next months or years. Thus it’s a safe bet that things will calm down and that Catalonia will disappear from international headlines for a while.
There is one wild card: One of the leaders of the main pro-independence parties is in jail. The other is in self-imposed exile in Brussels and would likely face arrest should he return. That makes whatever happens next highly dependent on the attitude of the Spanish government and judiciary.
Xavier Cuadras-Morató is an associate professor of economics at Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona.