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Politics in Spain: 8 things we learnt from the Catalan elections

Conor Faulkner
Conor Faulkner - [email protected]
Politics in Spain: 8 things we learnt from the Catalan elections
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, wearing a T-shirt representing the head of PSC candidate Salvador Illa, delivers a speech during the Catalan Socialist Party - PSC closing rally ahead of the regional elections in Catalonia, in Barcelona on May 10th, 2024. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Who were the big winners and losers of Catalonia's regional elections? Is separatist kingpin Puigdemont down and out? What remains to be seen and what do the results mean for Spain?

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's Socialists increased both its vote share and number of seats in Sunday's Catalan regional election in a blow to separatist parties. This comes after pro-independence parties had governed the north-east region for the last decade.

The vote follows years of political turmoil after former regional head Carles Puigdemont tried to force through an illegal referendum bid in 2017, but also more recent steps by the Sánchez government to take the sting out the Catalan question, including pardons and a controversial legal amnesty for those involved.

READ ALSO: Separatists lose Catalan majority as Spain's Socialists surge

Following Sunday's result, however, the Socialist surge has been viewed by many as vindication for the Sánchez approach. Spanish daily El País reports this morning that the result effectively "buries the 'procés'" -- the shorthand term used to refer to steps taken towards independence by separatists parties.

Many in Spain are this morning interpreting the results as the end of the Catalan independence struggle, but Sánchez's national government also depends on Catalan separatist parties to prop it up in the Spanish Congress.

8 things we learnt from the Catalan elections

The results

Salvador Illa, formerly Spain’s Health Minister, led the Catalan Socialist party (PSC) to 42 seats (out of 135) – a nine seat increase on elections in 2021.

Puigdemont's Junts per Catalunya won 35 seats, also an increase, while the separatist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) plummeted to 20 seats, a sharp fall of 13, and Candidatura d'Unitat Popular (CUP), also pro-independence, fell from 9 to 4 seats.

The right-wing Partido Popular made big gains, going from 3 seats in the 2021 elections to 15.

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The independence movement loses its absolute majority

On Monday morning the Spanish press is reporting that Catalonia has 'turned a page' and moved on from independence.

Pro-independence parties had won absolute majorities in the previous four elections before this one, in 2012, 2015, 2017 and 2021. In 2021, ERC (33 seats), Junts (32) and the CUP (9) won a comfortable majority of 74 seats.

This time round, however, Junts (36 deputies), ERC (20) and the CUP (four) have just 63 seats between them.

READ ALSO: Which Catalans want independence from Spain?

Has Sánchez 'buried' the Catalan question?

Sánchez has shown himself to be something of a marmite politician in recent years — people either love him or hate him. Though Catalan Socialists love him, and partly credit the ‘Sánchez effect’ for its victory, many in Spain detest him for his dealings with Catalans separatists over the years.

In government since 2018, the Sánchez government has taken steps to try and normalise ties with Catalan separatists and take the tension out of politics. He has given pardons, a controversial legal amnesty, and made pacts with Junts and ERC to stay in power after last summer's general election.

Though his critics hate this and accuse him of selling out Spain in order to stay in power, many feel the Sánchez approach has worked. Sunday's regional poll shows that the separatist vote is going down, removing the pro-independence majority from government for the first time in a decade, and many credit the Socialist performance in Catalonia last summer with helping Sánchez to cling onto power.

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Good night for the Partido Popular

Sunday's poll also provided positive results for the PP in the region, going from 3 to 15 seats and making them the party that increased its vote the most.

Admittedly, improving on its 2021 was not a difficult task, but the fact the largest vote increases were for the PP and Socialists, Spain's two establishment parties, speaks to the waning power of separatist parties in the region.

There will (probably) be no triumphant Puigdemont return

If there wasn't enough melodrama for you in Spanish politics recently, this regional election also presented the tantalising prospect of Puigdemont, a man who is still technically a fugitive from Spanish justice, winning the regional Presidency and making a triumphant return to Spain.

This now seems incredibly unlikely.

He had previously promised to retire from politics if he didn't win, but once the amnesty bill formally passes into law, he will able to return to Spain without risk of being arrested, and is expected to take part in coalition negations as he tries to cobble together a pro-independence majority.

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But he's not giving up easily

However, Puigdemont isn't giving up just yet. Despite the clear overall downwards trend of separatist parties, El País also reports this morning that "Puigdemont is not giving up on forming a government that would allow him to be the next president of the Generalitat after Junts became the second force in Parliament with 35 seats, three more than in the Catalan elections of 2021."

More alliances, more coalitions

This all means that now the polls have closed and the results are in, negotiations begin.

PSC essentially has two options to find a governable majority: a three-way, left-wing coalition with ERC and Comuns, or an unlikely alliance with Junts. Sánchez depends on the votes of both Junts and ERC to prop up his government, so the Catalan regional coalition could have implications on the stability of his national government.

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Decisions, decisions

In the coming weeks the ERC will have a decision to make: back the Socialists, or try to form a pro-independence government with Junts, something that seems very unlikely. It is not entirely clear how the parliamentary arithmetic would work for that to happen.

Despite that, El Mundo reports this morning that Puigdemont intends to try and form a government and has essentially threatened Sánchez: if he does not sacrifice Illa and allow a separatist government presided over by Junts, he will withdraw support in Congress.

"We are in a position to form a solid government of purely Catalan allegiance, and we will dedicate the next few days to this purpose," Puigdemont said following the results.

READ ALSO: Why regional elections in Catalonia matter to Spain's future

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