Catalan election to shape relationship with Spain and redraw unionist map

Socialists vying with independence parties to win Sunday’s vote as region’s priorities shift

Catalans vote on Sunday in a tightly-fought election that is likely to set the tone of the relationship between Catalonia and Madrid for the coming years.

The vote could feasibly shift the power balance between pro-independence parties, with the gradualist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) hoping to beat the more radical Together for Catalonia (JxCat ) and lead the regional government for the first time in the modern era.

But a more certain outcome will be a reshaping of the region’s unionist landscape, with the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC) aiming to double the 17 seats it secured in the 135-seat parliament in 2017. Such a result could dilute the divisive politics that have dominated Catalonia in recent years and embolden Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez in his efforts to tackle the territorial crisis.

Polls suggest the PSC is vying for first place with ERC and JxCat, which have been governing the region in an uneasy coalition.


“People are getting more and more tired of the politics of polarisation,” says Ferran Pedret, a member of the Catalan parliament for the PSC, which is on target to replace Ciudadanos as the primary pro-union force.

“We’ve been able to rebuild our support because we’ve not been part of that polarisation.”

The election was briefly delayed until May, due to the coronavirus pandemic, before a court ruled that the original date should stand. Extraordinary safety measures are being taken at voting stations and a special time slot is reserved for those who have recently tested positive for coronavirus to cast their vote.

“Covid means there is going to be much more abstention,” says Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University. “It also means that the independence issue has lost some of its presence in the political agenda.”

Healthcare and employment have re-emerged as priorities for voters after disputes over language, self-determination and identity dominated the region’s politics for the last decade.

Socialist candidate

The Socialists' candidate is Salvador Illa, who stepped down as Spanish health minister to run in this campaign. Although he and Spain's leftist coalition government have faced some fierce criticism for their handling of the pandemic, particularly from the political right, his name recognition and low-key manner appear to have translated into votes.

Illa’s campaign promise to engage with the independence movement echoes similar moves by the Spanish government, which has received the parliamentary support of ERC in exchange for a pledge to hold negotiations on the Catalan issue.

While the more unilateralist JxCat of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont is sceptical about those talks with Madrid, which have been delayed due to Covid-19, ERC sees them as a chance to discuss the right to self-determination and an amnesty for nine jailed independence leaders.

Such moves by the Socialists contrast with the less compromising stances of Ciudadanos and the other unionist parties on the right, the Popular Party (PP) and the far-right Vox.

"The separatists insist that Spain is not democratic, that it has political prisoners, and they demand the right to self-determination," says Nacho Martín Blanco, a member of the Catalan parliament for Ciudadanos. "What worries us is that the [Socialists] accept that language, those terms of debate."

The issue of Spain’s democratic credentials has once again come under scrutiny in recent days with the case of Catalan rapper Pablo Hasél, who was due to start a jail sentence on Friday for tweets and lyrics deemed to have glorified terrorism and insulted the crown. Catalan nationalists and many on the left claim this is yet more evidence of the state’s inherent repression.

The central government has responded by saying that it plans to soften the law regarding such cases.

Meanwhile, although there is no indication that Sánchez and his Socialists will agree to a binding referendum on secession, the Spanish administration is processing requests for pardons for the jailed independence leaders.


While such initiatives enrage the unionist right, they have failed to convince more hardline factions within the independence movement, which continues to cast Illa as the emissary of a centralist Spanish state.

Specifically, pressure has been building on ERC not to repeat the governing coalition it formed with the Catalan Socialists between 2003 and 2010. This week all the main pro-independence parties signed a manifesto promising not to form a government with Illa. He described the ring-fencing, normally reserved for the far-right, as “the continuation of hatred, of confrontation” in the region.

There have also been attacks of a more personal nature on Illa in recent days, when he was accused of jumping the queue and getting vaccinated because he declined a coronavirus test ahead of a campaign debate. He insists he has not received a vaccine.

Victory for Illa would embolden the Spanish government’s policy on Catalonia, although his chances of forming an administration look thin. The far-right Vox, which is expected to enter the Catalan parliament for the first time, caused surprise by saying it would support him in an investiture vote in order to prevent another nationalist coalition.

But juggling the fragmented support of Ciudadanos and the PP with that of the Catalan wing of the leftist Podemos in order to form a unionist government looks almost impossible, particularly if Vox were involved.

As red lines have been drawn during the campaign, another scenario has looked increasingly possible: a post-electoral stalemate requiring a new election.