On Sunday Catalonia held what were certainly its most critical regional elections since the restoration of an autonomous government in 1979. A massive turnout, close to the exceptional participation rates registered in Spain during the transition years to democracy four decades ago, gave Sunday’s vote the momentum and international coverage of something close to a referendum.
Pro-independence parties secured a solid majority of parliamentary seats — 72 out of 135 — and 48 percent of the actual vote. Where five years ago, pro-independence Catalan MPs numbered less than a dozen, support for the pro-independence movement is now spread almost uniformly across Catalonia on an unprecedented scale. In Barcelona, home to almost a third of the region’s population, pro-independence parties obtained 47 percent of the vote. Overall, they came in first in 907 out of 942 municipalities.
The remaining parties running for office espoused very different programs on the future political status of Catalonia. Three electoral slates rejected independence and a possible referendum on Catalonia’s future: Rajoy’s Popular Party; a Catalan-based party called “Citizens”; and the Spanish Socialist Party, together polling 39 percent of the vote. In contrast to the unionist camp, Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot (“Catalonia Yes We Can”) — a coalition of Podemos (the Spanish Syriza), Catalan Greens and left-wing socialists — and a small Christian democratic party acknowledged Catalonia’s right of self-determination, supported holding a referendum on independence, and promised a reform of the Spanish constitution to recognize Catalonia as a nation and to grant it special political status within Spain. They obtained 11.5 percent of the vote.
It would be a mistake to add their vote automatically to the No camp or to the unionist camp: Some of their candidates — and their voters — would be content with genuine self-government within Spain but the rest favor independence, preferring to wait for the general elections of December to see if the Popular Party is dislodged from power.
The growing support for independence in Catalonia in the last few years is a complex phenomenon with multiple roots, but its key motivation is the lack of real institutional guarantees against the systematic intervention of the central government in policy areas that have been nominally transferred to the Catalan government. Because Catalans are a national minority within Spain, they have been always subject to the vagaries of the majority and the latter’s interpretation of the Spanish constitution. After years of asking for broader autonomy, including a reform of the Catalan Autonomy Law in 2006 that was rendered useless by the joint efforts of the Spanish Cortes and the Constitutional Court, a growing number of Catalans have turned to secession as a solution of last resort to protect their cultural, linguistic and political rights.
Unless this fundamental constitutional crisis is solved, the political “process opened by the pro-independence parties will continue and will continue in a more radical way,” to quote former president of the Spanish government and the Popular Party, José María Aznar on Monday, after the elections.
I expect the pro-independence parties to vote a formal declaration of sovereignty in the next few months that will include yet another call to Madrid and to the other Catalan parties to negotiate a compromise to this political crisis. Spain should take this opportunity to authorize a referendum on the political future of Catalonia.
Holding a referendum on independence could be the best strategy to solve the undergoing political crisis for at least three reasons. From a normative point of view, it will reaffirm the commitment of Spain to the principle of democracy — following the path that Canada and Britain took on the Quebec and the Scottish questions respectively. It will also meet the demands of a very large majority of Catalans: About 80 percent of them have consistently supported a referendum on self-determination over the last few years. From a political point of view, holding a negotiated referendum between Barcelona and Madrid will be tantamount to formally recognizing Catalonia as a political subject, thereby giving Catalans a good instrument to defend their political autonomy — even if they decide to remain a part of Spain.
Last but not least, holding a referendum will reduce the economic uncertainty that surrounds secessions: As in the case of Scotland, the Catalan and Spanish governments should agree, in a more or less explicit way, to negotiate the implementation of the vote in good faith, minimizing the costs for both sides of a potential separation.
Even though the Spanish constitution permits the holding of nonbinding referendums, it is unlikely that the current Spanish government will change course and authorize one. Things may change in December — although at this point the chances of this happening are slim, particularly given the position of the Socialist party. If Spain does not offer a real solution, I suspect a fraction of the voters in today’s middle ground — the 11.5 percent who chose neither Yes nor No, and who have given Madrid some breathing room — will break out in favor of secession. With a little less than a fifth of all those ballots, the Yes camp would then have more than 50 percent of the vote, making independence an indisputable fact.
(Published in Politico Europe, October 2, 2015)