Secessionists win Catalan election, why it may not be adiós Madrid yet

Secessionists win Catalan election, why it may not be adiós Madrid yet

What is the significance of Sunday’s election in the storied Spanish region? Was the election in fact a referendum for breaking away from Spain? What happens now?

Catalan separatist flags fly during the last meeting of the Catalan pro-independence party Junts pel Si in Barcelona over the weekend. (Source: Reuters)
Catalan separatist flags fly during the last meeting of the Catalan pro-independence party Junts pel Si in Barcelona over the weekend. (Source: Reuters)

Have Catalans voted to leave Spain?

No. What has happened is that the Junts pel Sí, or Together for Yes, a coalition of two major separatist parties, has won 62 seats in elections to the 135-seat regional parliament. That is 6 seats short of the halfway mark, but Junts pel Sí has the support of the leftwing CUP, which has won 10 seats, thus giving the Catalan nationalists a majority. And yet, the nationalists have won only 48% of the vote in the elections that saw a record 77% turnout. Also, despite a long history of secessionism — and an 80% support for independence in an unofficial referendum last year — the constitution of Spain does not allow any of its provinces to break away.

Could the new leaders still attempt it?

Catalan president Artur Mas i Gavarró had said he would turn the election into an independence vote and, should the pro-independence parties win, secede — without considering an option such as (even) greater autonomy than it has in a united Spain. That result is now reality, and Mas has announced an 18-month deadline for breaking away, along with plans to build institutions of an independent state, such as a diplomatic corps, armed forces, a central bank and tax authority. But that is unacceptable to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey, who has vowed that “there will be no Catalan independence, and Catalonia is not going to leave Spain”.

catalana graph

Is there a case for Catalan independence?

Catalonia has its own language, over a millennium of recorded history, and a population of 7.5 million — not small for Europe. It has faced repeated repression from Madrid, which has attempted to make it “more Spanish”. 16% of Spain’s population lives here, whose prosperity accounts for a fifth of the country’s GDP. But there is a strong feeling that Catalonia does not get back as much as it gives — and frustrations have been increased by the economic crisis, which saw 20% unemployment in the region in 2014. Pro-independence groups say the Catalan contribution to Madrid in taxes is between €13.5 billion and € 17.5 billion, whereas its budget for 2015 is just about € 22.5 billion. Many Catalans believe their public services are being fund-starved, even though they may not mind helping out poorer regions like Andalusia. It is true that Spanish state investment in Catalonia has been falling — the 2015 draft national budget had only 9.5% for it.


What options does Madrid have now?


Rajoy has so far employed court orders and constitutional curbs to fight the separatist movement. He can continue to do so — or, he can exercise the “nuclear option” of removing the separatist Catalan president from office. Weeks before the vote, Rajoy amended the national security law, providing for central intervention in regional policy.

However, there is a growing opinion in Madrid that the government should engage with the separatists. And since Madrid and Barcelona do not share much common ground, there should be mediation, perhaps by the Swiss — and the Catalonian issue must be taken up by the European Union. The votaries of talks argue this is the only practical option available — and if the Spanish government remains stubborn, the separatist majority in Catalonia’s assembly would declare freedom anyway. There is no sympathy or trust for Rajoy in Catalonia — a window for talks may, however, open should he cease to be Prime Minister after national elections in December. Late on Monday evening India time, there were reports that Rajoy had indicated his willingness to talk, but “always within the law”.

Will an independent Catalonia stay in EU?

There is no provision in the EU for a part of a member state to declare independence — Catalonia’s secession will automatically send it out of the EU and eurozone. However, the region’s prosperity and economic strength, and its pro-Europe society, are likely to act as incentives for some sort of compromise. The European Commission has so far refused to take a position, but British Prime Minister David Cameron — who faced a Scottish secession referendum recently — has warned of the consequences of breaking away, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has backed Rajoy on Spain’s “national law”.

How is Sunday’s result relevant to the coming Spanish national election?

Purely in economic terms, Catalonia is extremely important to Spain, and no government in Madrid would like to govern without it. The opposition socialists want greater autonomy for the region, but are opposed to independence; the anti-capitalist Podemos, on the other hand, backs a referendum. The centrist Citizen’s (C’s) party won nearly 18% of the vote and 25 seats on Sunday, making it the second largest party in the Catalonian parliament. It is also doing well nationally, and may well be kingmakers after the general elections.