Catalonia’s parliamentary election exposes how divided the region really is on independence

The next round.
The next round.
Image: Reuters/Jon Nazca
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Less than three months ago, Catalonia held a hard-fought referendum on independence from Spain, reigniting an old and messy battle. In a ballot the Spanish central government called illegal, the region’s government said that 90% of voters opted for independence.

After weeks of indecision and threats, Catalonia’s parliament in late October voted to formally declare independence. Madrid responded by taking away the remains of the region’s autonomy, dissolving its parliament, and announcing that new parliamentary elections would be held on Dec. 21.

On the eve of that regional election, the latest polls are showing an even split (link in Spanish) in Catalonia, between support for pro-independence and pro-unionist parties. The ambivalence is a reminder that, when it comes to independence, the battle lines aren’t simply between Catalonia and Spain. They actually divide Catalans themselves.

Catalonia’s declaration of independence masked how divided the region really is on the issue. Turnout at the Oct. 1 referendum was only around 42% and parliamentary support for independence was so high because most of the opposition boycotted the vote. Both sides remain intractable. 

“The election is going to produce a highly fragmented parliament, and forming a government is going to be a nightmare,” says Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence.

The election is expected to lead to seven political parties winning seats in Catalonia’s new parliament, but with none even close to a majority, at least three may need to form a governing coalition. Each party has different ideas about how Catalonia should move forward, Barroso says, as well as who should be its next first minister.

On Dec. 21, voting will close at 8pm local time, and a clear picture of the final results is expected to emerge around midnight. The chances of either the pro-independence or pro-unionist parties getting more than 50% of the votes is slim. It’s possible that the pro-independence parties will collectively win a majority of the 135-seat parliament, but this, too, is obviously not certain.

It’s also worth remembering that much of the leadership for the pro-independence parties is either in jail or in exile. Spain issued arrest warrants for 13 Catalan politicians on accusations of rebellion and sedition for organizing the referendum. Carles Puigdemont, who led the referendum, is in Belgium. Oriol Junqueras, leader of the Catalan Republican Left party, which is expected to get the most votes for a pro-independence party, is in a Spanish jail.

After the election, negotiations to form a government will likely be delayed by the holiday season. The parties’ differences will make this a tough process, so tough that analysts at Teneo put a 50% probability on new elections early next year. They expect an investiture vote to take place in January or February, which would set off a two-month deadline to elect a new first minister. If the parliament isn’t able to manage that, it will be dissolved again, and new elections held 40 to 60 days later.

As wearying as the prospect of another election may be, there are no signs of this issue being resolved soon. Spain’s assumption of direct rule over Catalonia, and its call for Thursday’s elections, succeeded in ending a stalemate and political crisis, but it didn’t resolve the region’s underlying problem.

“The remarkable feature is that, despite everything that has happened, the First of October vote, the declaration of independence, Puigdemont going to Belgium, and so on, pro-independence and anti-independence votes seem to be at the same levels,” Barroso said. Catalonia is still “a very polarized society over this issue, and certainly isn’t a strong majority in favor of independence.”