With fresh elections set for 21 December, the political situation in Catalonia remains tense and uncertain. When the Catalan nationalist administration made a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from the rest of Spain in October, the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish constitution. This allows for direct rule from Madrid when a regional government fails to comply with its obligations set out by law. But direct rule is a stopgap and Rajoy also convened the fresh elections due to take place just before Christmas. The poll will give the Catalan people a say in what happens next and could provide a democratic base for a way forward.
This is a sensible step. But whilst an end to the political chaos in Catalonia is doubtless at the top of Mr Rajoy’s yuletide wish list, it is unlikely that elections alone will provide a conclusive solution to the region’s problems. Large voter swings are unlikely in the current climate. According to the latest polls, Catalan society looks to be as divided as ever with voter preferences polarised along separatist and non-separatist lines. Data suggests that there has been movement between parties since the last elections in 2015 – though tracking support is complicated not least because some of the formations have now changed their name and composition – but few voters have changed their minds on the key issue of independence.
If the polls are correct (with the obvious caveat that pollsters are currently struggling to predict voter behavior) then the block of pro-independence parties looks set to win the largest number of seats in the next Catalan parliament. But, crucially, they will not win a majority of votes. Meanwhile, a diverse range of parties opposed to independence look set to gain the largest vote share – again. The Catalan socialist party (PSC) has consolidated its support from 2015 but continues to poll at a low level of 15%, whilst the Catalan version of the leftist Podemos movement seems to be losing ground slightly (down to 7%). Whatever the final tally, it is highly unlikely that the non-nationalist parties will win a majority of seats in the parliament – or that they would be able to form a functioning coalition if they did. The most probable result is a stalemate in which the two forces are finely balanced, in terms of either votes or seats.
In political terms, this will register as a setback for the now stalled separatist movement. The hardline nationalist ex-president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, is currently conducting his election campaign in Brussels under threat of extradition. But he is finding the city a lonely place: no other EU member states have even come close to recognizing a Catalan republic. Evidently piqued, Puigdemont recently declared that the EU was ‘a club of decadent and obsolescent countries’ and that, if returned to power, he would convene a referendum to let Catalans decide if they wanted Catalonia to remain a member of the Union. Puigdemont’s comments were disowned by other nationalist leaders, revealing further tensions within the separatist camp.
Whatever the outcome of the election, breaking the deadlock will depend on the strategies of both Rajoy’s administration in Madrid and the nationalist leadership. Rajoy now appears willing to discuss greater fiscal autonomy for the region in an attempt to diffuse tensions – a long-held demand among Catalan nationalists. This would allow the separatists to claim some measure of victory, although it falls well short of the outright independence that supporters expected.
Outside Catalonia, many Spaniards will be irritated and see a new deal on fiscal autonomy as caving into Catalan nationalism. And any meaningful settlement will leave a fiscal black hole for the national budget – more funding for Catalonia will mean less for the rest of Spain. Either way, managing voter expectations on both sides of the argument – let alone the national finances – will be a tricky problem for both Madrid and Barcelona. Far from resolving the Catalan question, the elections of 21 December herald the start of the next phase of the saga.