Pro-independence parties take control of Catalan parliament

Regional election deals stunning blow to Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy

Supporters of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont celebrated election results in Barcelona on Thursday (December 21) which put the separatist block ahead of the unionists with an absolute majority in Catalonia's parliament.

 

Pro-independence parties held off the challenge of unionists in a tightly fought Catalan election yesterday, securing a majority in the regional parliament and delivering a stunning blow to Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy.

The three separatist groups claimed 70 seats in the 135-strong assembly to restore a majority they lost in October when Rajoy used Article 155 of the constitution to oust the rebel administration before it could put a declaration of independence into effect. Rajoy’s People’s Party took a hammering, losing eight of its 11 lawmakers as voters opposed to secessionists shifted to Ciudadanos, who’ve been demanding harsher measures against the secessionist push.

With over 90 percent of votes counted, the pro-union Ciudadanos had won 36 seats, making it the first non-nationalist party to win a Catalan election since the return to democracy. The result confirms its status as the dominant unionist force in the region.

But with separatist parties close behind, they were able to wrest back control of the Catalan parliament following two months of direct rule from Madrid.

An unexpectedly strong showing by Together for Catalonia, the platform of former regional president Carles Puigdemont, who is in exile in Belgium, saw it come a close second with 34 seats.

The election took place after the Spanish government introduced direct rule in the region in response to an independence drive led by Mr Puigdemont’s regional government and a controversial October 1st referendum on the issue. Having removed Mr Puigdemont from office, Mr Rajoy had called the vote in a bid to solve the Catalan crisis.

But the result is a disaster for him and for other unionists who had hoped this election would end Catalan ambitions of breaking away from Spain. By clinching a majority in the 135-seat chamber, the pro-independence parties should be able to form a new government that will keep the secession issue at the centre of the political agenda.

With 32 seats, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which had been hoping to win, instead emerged as the third party in the region. ERC’s leader, Oriol Junqueras, is in jail awaiting trial for sedition and rebellion, along with three other senior independence figures.

Compounding the misery for Mr Rajoy, his conservative Popular Party (PP) saw its share of seats fall from 11 to 4, making it the joint smallest party in the parliament.

Meanwhile, the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), which has backed direct rule but less stridently than the other unionist parties, made gains. The leftist coalition, Catalunya en Comú Podem, which advocates a negotiated referendum on independence, lost ground.

Sovereignty issue

A record turnout in a Spanish election of 82 percent reflected how the sovereignty issue, which dominated the campaign, has both divided and mobilised Catalans. It was also characteristic of arguably the most unusual election the country has seen in its modern era, due in great part to the legal status of several candidates.

“It is not normal that on this day there are candidates in prison and in exile,” said Mr Puigdemont as voting got underway. He had presented the election as a plebiscite on Madrid’s use of direct rule.

An 18-year-old girl, Laura Sancho, ceded her vote to the former Catalan president, casting her ballot in Barcelona on his behalf.

Due to his incarceration, Mr Junqueras had voted earlier in the week via postal ballot. He is facing possible disciplinary action for having given a radio interview from prison several days ago.

During the campaign, Mr Puigdemont had said that he would return if pro-independence parties won the election, despite the fact he faces arrest and trial on arrival in Spain. With his supporters insisting he remains the legitimate president of Catalonia, pressure will now increase for him to be allowed to be sworn in again, should he return.