A Bumpy Road for Catalonia to “Ithaca”

CataloniaYesterday’s elections in Catalonia marked a pivotal moment for the pro-independence movement even if they were technically deemed as just another regional election. The fact that they ended up being a de facto referendum about the potential secession of Catalonia was already a victory for the pro-independence coalition, Junts pel sí (Together for yes), which labelled its campaign as “the vote of your life”. The coalition, with former Green MEP Raül Romeva front and centre, has managed to bring together improbable political allies from traditional nationalist conservatives to pro-independent left-wing republicans. Junts pel sí has succeeded in gathering real momentum by positioning itself as a positive, unstoppable and forward-looking “civil” movement. This was triggered by the economic crisis and accelerated by the growth of pro-independence civil society organisations and social media.

Making sense of the elections-turned-into-a-referendum

The rise of the pro-independence movement is a great example of successful storytelling. Perception is not reality though. The latter, above all in politics, tends to be more complex. If you scanned the European press this morning you already know some of the facts:

  • With 77% of the electorate casting its vote, the participation was the highest turnout since the restoration of democracy in Catalonia. Electoral colleges were full of excited people about the “old-fashioned XIX tradition” of casting one’s vote.
  • Junts pel sí won 40% of the votes and 62 seats in the Catalan parliament. The coalition is six seats away from the absolute majority. A potential agreement with the CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy), a far-left pro-secession, anti-capitalist and anti-monarchist party, which won 10 seats and 8% of the votes would allow them to form the majority in the Parliament. However, some sacrifices may be needed since the CUP has made it very clear that it will not make the current president of the Generalitat (Catalan Government), Artur Mas, President again because of the corruption scandals and austerity measures that have preceded his party over the past legislature.
  • The rise of the liberal and anti-independence Ciudadanos (Citizens) party (18% of the votes, 25 seats), now the second force, sets the tone for what will come in the next Spanish parliamentary elections, which will take place in less than three months. The party, born only ten years ago, has managed to swipe seats from the Socialists (13% and 16 seats) and Spain’s ruling Popular Party (8% of the votes and 11 seats) – the traditional opposition parties.
  • Finally, the rising star of the latest European and local elections, Podemos, which in Catalonia presented itself under a coalition of greens, former socialists and independents called Catalunya sí que es pot (Catalonia, we can) obtained 9% of the votes and 11 seats. The results are not bad for the new kid on the block but they show that, at least in Catalonia, the political panorama marked by two distinctive political axes (left/right wing and pro/against independence) is extremely complex and competitive.

How does one interpret the results of what was technically speaking regional Parliamentary elections but were presented as a de facto referendum? Pro-independentism parties won 48% of the votes and may win a majority of seats (it is worth noting that the current proportional representation system in Catalonia favours large parties and coalitions over scattered small parties). On the other hand, 4 different political parties which are against independence won 52% of the votes (note, this does not mean they would be against the organisation of a “real” referendum) but will most probably not manage to form a government.

I win, you win, we lose

All eyes are now on the national government led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy but a 180º change of strategy is not to be expected. Compared to the recent Scottish referendum which had the blessing of the UK Government, the Government in Madrid has reiterated that the Catalan aspirations are unconstitutional and thus illegal. Commenting on the outcome of the vote earlier this afternoon, Rajoy stressed that his Government will not be the one that puts into question the “unity of Spain and the national sovereignty.”

So the Catalan process will be the key issue on the table during the upcoming general elections which probably will take place on 20 December 2015. The political earthquake in Catalonia will soon be felt in Spain with a more than probable end of the two-party predominance era. The Spanish government created after those elections will be the one that needs to find a way out of the Catalan dilemma. 37 years ago, when Spain regained its democracy, this solution was found in the current territorial system, the so called “State of Autonomies”. What is next? A third way between status quo and secession may be found in a federal reform – including the fiscal autonomy which was the unresolved issue that prompted the independence wave a couple of years ago. Given the state of the discussions and success of the pro-independence movement, however, a “third way” might not be enough to match its aspirations.

The EU, Scotland, Belgium but also France and other European countries, with existing independence or autonomist movements, will keep a close eye on the outcome of the Catalan elections. The financial markets have also not forgotten that Spain was on the edge of financial assistance just two years ago, similar to Ireland or Portugal, which might again face the risks of the Spanish economy. Likewise pro and against independence parties will keep looking for signs of support from individual Member States, the European Commission, businesses and other influencers to make their story stronger and more compelling.

“Always keep Ithaca in your mind”

The pro-independence movement has for a long time referred to the “Ithaca” poem of the XX century Greek poet Constantino Cavafis: “When you set out on your journey to Ithaca, pray that the road is long, full of adventure, full of knowledge. (…) Always keep Ithaca in your mind. To arrive there is your ultimate goal.” “Ithaca” may be closer to the eyes of the independence movement but nobody has clearly stated what the trade-offs on how to get there and the price of independence will be. The results do not yet allow for a reasoned prediction but the 18-month roadmap to independence may be over optimistic. Closer or far away, 2016 will certainly be a year of challenge and change for Catalonia and Spain.

Angela Moreno Falcón is Director at FTI Consulting in Brussels.

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