Seven post-election scenarios and their implications for the independence process

Pere Cardús
19.12.2015 - 16:31
Actualització: 01.07.2016 - 10:47

Next Sunday’s general elections in Spain come during a particularly delicate moment for the Catalan independence process. The results of the regional elections of 27 September in Catalonia led to a complicated parliamentary arithmetic in which the CUP has held the power to elect, or not, the Together for Yes candidate Artur Mas as president, but the long waiting period without a president being elected has left the separatist cause in a state of unusual uncertainty. Having thus far refused to back Mas, the CUP has marked a calendar date for the denouement of this drama: its 27 September party meeting, when a final decision is expected to be taken on whom to back for president. Meanwhile, the overhaul in the composition of the Spanish legislature’s lower and upper house has been set in motion: every eligible voter in Spain is called to the polls this Sunday.

After the experience of the Together for Yes coalition, the independence movement arrives at this election either divided or having asked voters to actively abstain from casting their ballot. For separatist voters, the options are Freedom and Democracy on the one hand, and ERC on the other, while the CUP is not running and has asked separatist voters not to turn out. In addition, some sectors of the independence movement appear seduced by the promise of an independence referendum that could only be realized if Podemos obtains an absolute majority, a scenario that, according to election poll results, is very unlikely. The separatist factions have been quick to point out that Sunday’s elections cannot be construed as a second round of voting for the independence referendum. However, comparisons will be inevitable and conclusions will no doubt be drawn. What follows is an attempt to outline the potential consequences of Sunday’s election for the road toward independence, which will depend on the results.

The struggle for hegemony within the separatist movement

CDC and ERC ran on a joint electoral list in the 27 September regional elections, so when the two parties announced that they would run separately in the general elections, it was understood that this Sunday would be a face-off of sorts between the separatist parties. The joint candidacy was the brainchild of President Mas, while running separately was always the option preferred by ERC’s Oriol Junqueras. The polls show the Republicans gaining traction, aided by the vacuum left by the CUP’s withdrawal, while Democracy and Freedom—CDC’s rebranding after its split from Unió—may lose support. Surveys suggest that the two main separatist forces are set for an intense head-to-head confrontation at the polls.

While it is only logical that Catalan parties should vie for political hegemony in regional elections, the outcome of this general election also has the potential to alter the balance of power between CDC and ERC. Even if ERC comes away strengthened by its results in Sunday’s election, it is not expected to demand any form of political compensation or a greater share of parliamentary power, which might have helped to break the present deadlock and result in the election of Mas as president of the Catalan government. Things might turn out quite differently if regional elections were again called as a result of the failure to reach an agreement with the CUP as to who will be elected president. In the event of a second regional election, the result of Sunday’s general election could pave the way for a significant political showdown between the two main separatist parties ahead of the regional elections in Catalonia; the two parties would have to decide whether to revive the Together for Yes coalition if they choose to run jointly, and agree on the distribution of candidates in this scenario. It has also been suggested that, if the outcome of Sunday’s election is favourable to the ERC, the CUP may advocate for a change of leadership in the independence process.

Ungovernable Spain

The struggle for hegemony within the separatist movement runs parallel to the reconfiguration of Spain’s political map. Polls indicate that this election will mark the end of bipartisanship in Spain. The rise of Podemos and Citizens, together with the weakening of the electoral base of PP and PSOE, points to a complicated arithmetic in the Spanish parliament. The distribution of political power that is now being created might result in an ungovernable state. At present, only a pact between PP and PSOE—the so-called great coalition—or, potentially, between PP and Citizens, is envisaged. However, recent surveys suggest that only the ‘great coalition’ is an actual possibility. However, it seems politically implausible that this alliance would ever see the light in Spain, as it would greatly complicate the task of forming a government.

Our editor, Vicent Partal, analysed this scenario—a deadlock that would impede forming a government—in an editorial last week. ‘What would happen then?’ asked Partal. ‘The answer to that question is that Spain would find itself in a similar situation to that of Catalonia today, having to endure three months of an interim government in Madrid and then wait three additional months before calling new elections’. Partal added: ‘And this is where we revert to my initial thesis: Imagine if this were to happen at the same time that Catalonia finally has a government in early January. For the following six months, the Catalan government would press forward with the process towards independence, while there would be no one in Madrid to counterbalance that push. Clearly this would make for an exhilarating political season’.

If Citizens wins in Catalonia . . .

Another focus of interest is the ranking of political parties in Catalonia after the elections. Who will come out first? And how will it affect the independence process? Polls show that a four-way tie in Catalonia is likely, with ERC, Democracy and Freedom, Together We Can (Podemos’s local brand), and Citizens all vying for first position. If this scenario materializes, these four parties may cross the finish line as a peloton, with none having been able to steal ahead and win the race. However, even if it is by a small margin, one of these parties will see its colours determine what the results map looks like. And this is where the media war may determine what particular post-mortem narrative of Sunday’s elections is more widely accepted.

If one of the separatist parties gains the most votes in Catalonia, the independence process will come away strengthened, as it will be the first victory for separatism in Catalonia in a general election. But if Citizens wins, a strong onslaught against separatism from the Spanish media can be expected. It also remains to be seen how the international media would interpret such an outcome. It is not difficult to imagine headlines such as, ‘The opponents of independence win in Catalonia in Spain’s general elections’. In addition, this scenario means that Citizens would have won the elections in Catalonia for the first time and would use this victory to emphasize the failure of separatism and underscore Catalonia’s ungovernability. We must not lose sight of the fact that Citizens has been the most vociferous opponent of linguistic immersion in Catalan schools.

And if Together We Can wins . . .

Another option that also excludes a victory for the independence movement is that Together We Can comes in first. Besides its promise of political regeneration and its criticism of the Troika’s ‘neoliberal’ policies, Together We Can has presented the independence referendum as the only solution to the conflict between Catalonia and Spain. After the narrow victory of the independence movement in the 27 September regional elections, a victory for Podemos could be interpreted as backtracking to a moment that has now been outgrown. There might also be an attempt to delegitimize the path toward independence opened by Together for Yes and CUP with the breakaway declaration adopted by the Catalan parliament on 9 November. In addition, a victory for the electoral list headed by Xavier Domenech would breathe new life into the ‘third way’ option.

The demise of Unió?

This ‘third way’ option that may be promoted by Together We Can will probably be killed by forces on the right. Sunday’s elections may spell the banishment from the political scene of Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida’s Unió Democràtica (Democratic Union). Duran has been a thorn in the side for the independence process, and the disappearance of the party he leads would make room for Demòcrates de Catalunya (Democrats of Catalonia), the new party formed by Unió’s separatist factions after their split from Unió in early summer. Therefore, if Duran fails to obtain a seat in the Spanish parliament, advocates of the ‘third way’ will find themselves without support on the centre-right of the political aisle.

The waning of the referendum

Whatever result Together We Can obtains in Catalonia, Sunday’s election will provide a snapshot of Spain’s political landscape and of the support enjoyed by referendum advocates. In order to hold a referendum on independence in Catalonia, an absolute majority in the Spanish parliament would have to vote to allow the Catalan government to call the referendum, or else it would have to convene it directly. And there is no survey suggesting that this is a real possibility, given the fact that PP, PSOE, and Citizens all strongly oppose the referendum. Therefore, the short-term feasibility of holding an independence vote with Spain’s approval would be dead in the water come Sunday. Those who have defended this option—Together We Can and Unió—will be forced back to the drawing board in the search for a solution to the Catalan conflict, as Domenech himself admitted in this interview.

Significant voter abstention

CUP’s contribution to Sunday’s election was the call it issued on Tuesday for voters to abstain from casting their ballot. The radical-left party decided a few weeks ago that it would not run in this election, a position that is consistent with its historic view of Spanish elections. While the voter intention survey from the Centre for Sociological Investigation, the government pollster, found that only 8% of those who voted for CUP in September’s regional election intend to stay home on Sunday, it remains to be seen whether the call CUP issued on Tuesday will increase the rate of voter abstention among independence supporters. Finally, interpreting this active voter abstention will entail comparing voter abstention in Catalonia with that across the whole of Spain. If the difference is significant, it might be interpreted as a reflection of the level of support for independence and for a radical political break with the past.


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