Strong showing for moderates could ease Catalan talks with Madrid

Socialists win Sunday’s Catalonia elections but nationalists increase their majority

Pere Aragonès, candidate for pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), with party leader  Oriol Junqueras after Sunday’s vote. Photograph: Alberto Estévez/EPA

Pere Aragonès, candidate for pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC), with party leader Oriol Junqueras after Sunday’s vote. Photograph: Alberto Estévez/EPA

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Strong performances by moderates in both the unionist and independence camps in Catalonia’s election on Sunday are likely to pave the way for increased engagement between the region and Madrid in the coming months.

The Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) scored its first-ever victory in a regional ballot. With 33 seats, the PSC was tied with the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC) in parliamentary representation and it won the popular vote.

La Vanguardia newspaper described the election as a “night of heart attacks” and in an extremely close third place was ERC’s erstwhile coalition partner, Together for Catalonia (JxCat), with 32 seats.

Pro-independence parties celebrated an overall increase in their parliamentary majority, from 70 to 74 seats in the 135-seat chamber, as the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) made gains. Turnout was extremely low due to the pandemic, at 54 per cent. However, these parties believe they have strengthened their secessionist mandate by narrowly crossing the threshold of 50 per cent of the popular vote for the first time.

Pere Aragonès, candidate for ERC, described those numbers as “a very clear message”.

ERC is likely to be key in the creation of a new government, given that the Socialist candidate, Salvador Illa, will almost certainly struggle to gather support in an investiture vote.

Left option

An obvious route to the Catalan presidency for ERC would be to repeat its coalition with JxCat, although this time as the senior partner. However, the two have a poor relationship and ERC might instead look to the left, to the CUP and Podemos’s Catalan wing, to form a minority administration.

Socialist party candidate. Photograph: Cristina Diestro/Socialist Party of Catalonia/AFP via Getty Images
Socialist party candidate. Photograph: Cristina Diestro/Socialist Party of Catalonia/AFP via Getty Images

Speculation mounted during the campaign that ERC and the Socialists would form a coalition government. However, the main pro-independence parties have all signed a pledge not to work with the Socialists, at the behest of a hardline nationalist organisation.

While it is unlikely that ERC would break that promise, it will now be in a position to lead the independence movement down a more consensual road. Since the traumas of 2017, when the Catalan government headed a failed attempt to break away from Spain, ERC has taken a gradualist approach to the issue, calling for a broadening of its electoral support in order to negotiate with Spain.

With marginally more votes and seats than the less compromising JxCat, which is led by the Belgium-based former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, the way is now clearer to engage with Madrid.

Jailed leaders

Although the Socialist-led Spanish government of Pedro Sánchez is unwilling to discuss demands for a binding independence referendum, it is already making moves which could lead to the release of nine jailed nationalist leaders. That would calm tensions substantially and facilitate talks.

The electoral performance of the PSC, the Socialist Party’s Catalan wing, is a boon to Sánchez himself. The shock decision to nominate his health minister, Illa, as candidate paid off and the victory contrasts with the fortunes of their unionist rivals.

For Ciudadanos this was a particularly damaging night. Having swept to victory in 2017, the party has now lost all but six of its seats, bleeding votes to left and right. The conservative Popular Party (PP) lost one seat, leaving it with three, as it suffered the latest in a string of poor results.

But while the relatively moderate stances of ERC and the PSC were successful, so too was the belligerence of the far-right Vox, which enters the Catalan parliament with 11 seats and has emerged as the main force on the unionist right in the region.

Vox’s national leader, Santiago Abascal, was reluctant to celebrate, suggesting his party will maintain a hard line.

“These are bad results for Spain,” he said, as he digested the results of what he called “the unscrupulous socialism” and “selfish separatism” of his adversaries.

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