Catalonia Votes: Why the Region’s New Proindependence Majority Won’t Guarantee Separation from Spain

Two proindependence parties could form an alliance in the regional parliament and call for a referendum — if they can do a deal on economic policy

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Supporters of the proindependent Catalan Convergence and Unity party sings the "Els Segadors," the Catalan national anthem, after Artur Mas delivered a speech following the regional elections in Barcelona on Nov. 25, 2012

Well, that was confusing. Two months after Catalonia’s regional president Artur Mas called snap elections to gauge support for his proposed referendum on secession from Spain, Catalans went to the polls yesterday and largely voted, as expected, in favor of proindependence parties. They didn’t, however, vote for Mas — or at least not in the numbers that would give his party, Convergence and Union (CiU) the absolute majority many believed necessary for the referendum to succeed. Which is why although his party technically won the elections, Spanish newspaper headlines from across the political spectrum the day after were unanimous in their assessment of Mas’ independence bid: “Failure.”

So is this the end of the Catalan independence movement? Mas swore last night that he would continue to fight for a referendum. “The task has become more complicated than it was but that doesn’t mean we are going to abandon our objectives,” he said at a press conference. “The majority is in favor of right to decide, and that’s indisputable.”

(MORE: Why Catalonia Isn’t Likely to Leave Spain Anytime Soon)

He was referring to the fact that although CiU lost 12 seats, another proindependence party, Catalan Republican Left (ERC), doubled its seats to become the second largest in the Catalan parliament. Together, they will have enough votes to push through a referendum.

For Salvador García, spokesperson for the Emma Collective, a proindependence group, that simple arithmetic is encouraging. “If you compare now with how things were two months ago, we are much closer,” he says. “Then we didn’t have government that supports independence, and now we do.”

Mas’ CiU, although nationalist, had never before favored secession, preferring to work for greater autonomy within the Spanish state rather than outright separation from it. But in September, an unexpected 1.5 million Catalans came out into the streets in support of independence. That popular outpouring, coupled with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s flat rejection of Mas’ proposal to reform the fiscal system so that its terms were more beneficial to Catalonia, prompted the leader to take up the independence cause and push for the transformation of Catalonia into, as he called it, “a new state within Europe.”

To some skeptics, that turnabout was an attempt to distract attention from Catalonia’s spiraling public debt, which was reduced to junk-bond status in August, and from the subsequent budget cuts to health care and other social services that Mas’ government had imposed. And indeed, these elections proved that, as much as they were about independence, the economy mattered too. Montserrat Guibernau, professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, observes that in addition to the mobilization of metropolitan Barcelona voters and a strong anti-independence campaign mounted by the Spanish government, economic factors help explain CiU’s poor results. “A couple of weeks ago, there was a general strike to protest austerity measures — and in Barcelona, there was a huge demonstration against cuts,” she says. “Obviously, the government in charge is the one applying the cuts.”

José Ramón Montero, political scientist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, sees more subtle factors at work in the outcome. “Identity is a very complex game in Catalonia,” he says. “We’ve known for a long time that there is a significant group of voters who see themselves as just as much Spanish as Catalan, or Catalan as Spanish. They tend not to show up in the polls because no single represents their interests. But they vote.”

(MORE: Catalonia Bullfighting Ban: Divisive Vote Stirs Politics)

Whether because of its political agenda, its economic policies or subtle identity politics, the center-right CiU now finds itself in the delicate position of having to form pacts with other parties to push through both a newly slashed budget and the referendum — tasks that, depending on the party in question, may be mutually exclusive. While the ERC shares CiU’s goals for independence, as a progressive party it takes a dim view of many of its austerity measures. “If a coalition develops between CiU and ERC, there will be an impetus to enhance Catalonia’s autonomy, which could have a referendum as its objective,” says Guibernau. “But if ERC forms a three-part coalition with the socialists and maybe the greens, it will be much more difficult to pursue sovereignty.”

For the moment, pro-union Spain is breathing a sigh of relief. Under the Spanish constitution, a referendum of the sort proposed by CiU is illegal, and it seems clear that Mas had hoped to obtain the moral impetus inherent in a resounding majority to bring the central government to the table. Instead, Catalan Popular Party leader Alicia Sánchez-Camacho last night told journalists that “Catalans have told Mas that he is mistaken and that they don’t want messianic projects, separatist projects. What they want is unity.”

That interpretation doesn’t jibe with the numbers, says Ferran Requejo, political scientist at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, who notes that 2 million Catalans voted for proindependence parties and only 1.2 million against. “The central government wants to present independence as the personal project of Artur Mas, but there’s a clear social majority that supports sovereignty,” he says. “The paradox is that their leader shot himself in the foot.”

In other words, the question of whether or not Catalans will get the chance to vote for independence remains unresolved. “There’s a lot of uncertainty,” says Requejo. “The future is open.”

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