Catalonia is facing its most important vote in its modern democratic history. Regional elections on 21 December 2017 are supposed to finally settle the independence issue once and for all. Following the triggering of Article 155, which allowed the Spanish government to impose direct rule over the region, political parties have been regrouping and preparing for the decisive vote. But will things look any clearer the day after the elections?
The vote is expected to be tight. Record turnout is expected (possibly more than 80% of eligible voters) and most polls suggest a tie between separatist and unionist parties. Every single vote will count in the race to get to the 68 seats required for an absolute majority in the regional parliament.
What do our readers think? We had a comment from Paul arguing that, whatever the result (and given potential boycotts), it’s unlikely the elections will really “settle” the issue. At best, Paul says, a pro-unity vote might delay any call for independence for a while, whereas a vote for separation will open a huge can of worms Europe-wide.
To get a response, we put Paul’s comment to Charles Powell, Director of the Elcano Royal Institute, a think tank in Madrid. What would he say?
I don’t really agree. I think that even if the pro-independence parties win, they have now realised that the unilateral route to secessionism is closed, and they can exercise power but I very much doubt they would press for independence as they have been doing in the past. If the parties in favour of Spanish national unity win, then it will be obviously a much quieter period. I’m basically expecting a stalemate, whatever the result is, without any significant change.
To get another perspective, we also spoke to Rafael Arenas García, a Professor of Private International Law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and a former leader of the anti-separatist Catalan Civil Society organisation. We asked him if he agrees with Paul:
Next up, we had a comment from Susana, who thinks that the situation after the election will be even worse than it is today. She predicts pro-independence parties will win again, but with a strong showing for pro-unity parties. Meaning, essentially, a divided Catalonia.
Does Charles Powell think the situation has become even more complicated?
I don’t think they will be worse because democratic elections are always a good thing. I think Catalan society is more or less evenly split into two blocs, and whoever wins will win by a very small margin. In fact, the outcome I am predicting right now is almost a repeat of the 2015 election results. In other words a situation in which the pro-independence parties would have more seats, but without a majority of votes, and I don’t think that will significantly change the status quo.
Next, we also put Susana’s comment to Carles Boix I Serra, Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University in the USA, and currently leading a research project at the University of Barcelona. What would he say?
The elections will probably not settle the issue. If the pro-independence parties win, they will take back control of Catalan institutions and will try to open a negotiation with Madrid – yet we know that Madrid has already said it will maintain Article 155, which allows it to intervene in the governing of Catalonia. If the unionists win, which I think to be unlikely, the issue will not be settled either. Unionists are divided between a ‘hard’ and a ‘soft’ wing. The latter – mainly the socialist party, is basically supported by very elderly people, so over time they will lose votes. Besides, they won’t be able to deliver on any of the promises they are making now. So it’s going to be hard to settle the issue in the sense of a ‘Spanish victory’.
To answer Susana’s question, well, the thing is that both blocs are divided and they are divided between Left and Right, so yes, there is a possibility – and this complicates things – that there will be a sort of hung parliament, where maybe the pro-independence parties do not have the majority of seats, and clearly it doesn’t look like the pro-unionist parties will have that either. There is a group in the middle, called the “Comuns” (Catalonia in Common) that may hold the key to governing and it’s going to be difficult, if that happens, to have a stable government. We don’t know, but there’s a chance, and we will know more a week from now.
Finally, Mino suggests that the only way to finally resolve this question is to hold a legal referendum like the one in Scotland. What does Charles Powell think?
I don’t agree because basically we would have a “never-endum” rather than a referendum. In other words, whichever party wins – let’s assume the parties in favour of Spanish national unity win – that will not put the issue to rest. Those who advocate independence will continue to want a referendum until they win it.
How would Carles Boix react to the same comment?
If Mino means a referendum agreed by Spain in Catalonia, then yes, I think it is the optimal way to settle the issue, and this what the pro-independent Catalan parties are asking for. In fact, the strategy behind the referendum of October 1st was mostly to force the Spanish government to negotiate because, up to that point, Spain has said ‘no’ to all demands for a referendum, which, by the way, is possible within the constitution.
Notice that the pro-independence block, instead of going all the way to independence, just went for some sort of symbolic declaration of independence, preferring to avoid a full conflict. They really wanted the Spanish government to sit down and negotiate. That strategy didn’t work out. Spain simply took over the Catalan institutions. In any case, yes, a referendum is the best, most democratic solution. But Spain has been rejecting this systematically, so I’m not sure exactly where this leaves us at this point.
And how would Rafael Arenas García respond to Mino’s comment?
Will the Catalan elections settle the independence issue? What will change for Catalonia after the elections? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!