Rajoy’s gamble on Catalan election backfires spectacularly

Moderation is one victim of result as region’s voters become increasingly polarised

Axed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont: has hinted at a less strident approach to independence in the future. Photograph: Thierry Roge/AFP/Getty Images

Thursday’s Catalan election will go down as one of the lowest points of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s six years in power. His decision in late October to call a snap election under the aegis of the direct rule he had introduced in Catalonia was an uncharacteristically bold move. But it has backfired on three fronts.

Firstly his conservative Popular Party (PP) was all but wiped out in the region, coming last with just three seats in the 135-seat chamber. Catalonia has always been relatively barren ground for the PP, but for a governing party to have such paltry presence in a region of 7.5 million people is extraordinary.

Secondly, the eight seats the party haemorrhaged almost certainly went to Ciudadanos, the election’s winner and now the dominant unionist presence in the region. This result is seismic enough to allow Ciudadanos to believe it can challenge the PP nationwide for primacy on the political right.

But the single most worrying aspect of Thursday’s election for Rajoy was the fact that pro-independence parties – Together for Catalonia, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) – won 70 seats, enough to form a new government.


Voters entrenched

The Spanish government had hoped that this vote would not just put unionists in power but would wipe the idea of Catalan independence from the political agenda. The fact that secessionist parties won almost exactly the same share of the popular vote – 48 per cent – as they did in the 2015 election is significant. It highlights how divided Catalan society is, with voters now seemingly entrenched on one side or the other.

The legalistic strategy of the Spanish government and state may have brought the autumn’s independence drive to a shuddering halt, but it failed to demobilise those who want to break away.

Instead, the polarisation has helped Rajoy's rivals, such as Ciudadanos, and enemies, such as deposed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. The electoral performance of Puigdemont's Together for Catalonia saw it shake off its previous torpor and become the primary pro-independence force. He can now back up his oft-repeated claim to be the legitimate Catalan leader by pointing to this result.

However, he must now decide whether to deliver on his campaign promise to return to Spain from his Belgian exile and face almost certain arrest.

PR problem

This also creates a conundrum for the Spanish government, which insists it has no bearing on judicial decisions, and the courts. If he returns, will he be allowed to be sworn in as president in the Catalan parliament? Refusing him that right would be yet another public relations gift for the independence movement.

But once separatist leaders have finished celebrating, they will have to go about forming a new government. Puigdemont will need to rebuild the bridges that were broken between him and Oriol Junqueras, the jailed ERC leader, during the campaign. And although the CUP has only four seats, it has proved in the past that it can drive an extremely hard bargain in return for its parliamentary support.

Puigdemont and Junqueras have hinted at a less strident approach to independence in the future, after the scorched earth strategy of October failed so spectacularly. But the CUP and civic organisations such as the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) may grow frustrated if they deem the new roadmap too timid.

Elsewhere, the performance of the leftist coalition, Catalunya en Comú Podem, was highly illustrative. Having studiously avoided associating itself with either the pro- or the anti-independence blocs, and proposing a “third way” Scotland-style referendum on the sovereignty issue, it suffered disappointing losses.

In 2015, Íñigo Errejón, a politician close to the coalition, had warned that taking such a nuanced stance was “like supporting the referee in a Real Madrid versus Barcelona game”. Two years on, there is even less room for moderation in Catalan politics.