What’s next for Catalonia after secessionists’ historic loss?

The secessionists are down, but not out, say analysts. And an amnesty law and complex government formation talks mean there’s uncertainty ahead.

Socialist candidate Salvador Illa waves to supporters after the announcement of the results of the elections to the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, Sunday May 12, 2024. The Socialists led by former health minister Illa won a majority of 42 seats, up from their 33 seats in 2021 when they also barely won the most votes but were unable to form a government. They will still need to earn the backing of other parties to put Illa in charge.(AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Socialist candidate Salvador Illa waves to supporters after the announcement of the results of the elections to the Catalan parliament in Barcelona, Sunday May 12, 2024. The Socialists led by former health minister Illa won a majority of 42 seats, up from their 33 seats in 2021 [Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo]

Madrid, Spain — When Catalonia’s regional elections on May 12 saw its pro-independence parties lose their combined overall parliamentary majority for the first time in four decades, many proclaimed the result as constituting the end of an era.

Yet, more than two weeks later, the contours of what comes next for Catalonia are far from clear – and the passage of controversial amnesty laws for Catalan nationalists in Spain’s parliament on Thursday has also injected more drama into an already complicated political landscape, say analysts.

Back in early May, Spain’s beleaguered ruling party, the Socialists, appeared to have secured a major electoral triumph in Catalonia, their tally in the region going up from 33 to 42 deputies in a parliament of 135 seats.

Meanwhile, pro-secessionist formations, including the centre-right, hardliners Junts+, who took 33 seats; and the previous Catalan rulers, the more moderate pro-independence ERC who won just 20 seats; finished well behind. That performance led to the resignation of ERC leader Pere Aragones.

End of the process

Analysts believe that the dramatic dent in the secessionist parties’ support likely represents the electoral finish line for the “procés”. That’s a term (meaning process) used by Catalans to define the political turbulence that from 2012 onwards pivoted on widespread, but by no means universal, demands for a regional referendum on Catalan independence, which took place in 2017.

Germa Capdevila, Catalan political analyst and editor of the Catalan-language magazine Esguard, said that the secessionist electoral setback can be explained by rising disappointment with Catalonia’s current crop of pro-independence politicians. This translated, he said, into the lowest voter turnout for a Catalan regional election –  barring one held during the pandemic – since 2006, and a corresponding drop in secessionist support.

“The separatists had thought certain politicians were going to make their dream [of independence] come true. But in fact, they seem to be overly focussed on other questions, like negotiating a better agreement with Spain about the way Catalonia is currently run,” Capdevila said.

Lluis Simon, a pro-independence supporter living in the secessionist heartland city of Girona, suggested that Catalans were exhausted by the years of tumult.

“After so many crises and so much turmoil and some people even ending up
in prison, people have voted for calm,” argues Simon. “It’s a bit like what happened recently in Scotland, where things went as far as they did down the road to independence. But now people have opted for peace.”

What’s next for the pro-independence movement?

Both Junts and ERC were in celebratory mood this week following the approval of amnesty laws which are set to pardon hundreds of their activists who have faced court charges over the turmoil. The highest profile case is that of former regional president Carles Puigdemont, one of the key leaders in the movement who fled to Belgium that autumn, reportedly in the boot of a car.

However, the amnesty law still faces multiple potential hurdles before it can take full effect. These range from planned appeals by Spain’s main opposition People’s Party in the country’s Supreme Court against the law, to potential legal issues raised by judges with either the Constitutional Court or the broader European justice system. The judges have two months to lodge their appeals. Resolving them could take much longer.

Puigdemont is currently said to be mulling over a return to Catalonia, possibly in September or possibly much sooner. But after May’s elections and its significant drop in pro-nationalist support, regardless of the date of his return, times have moved on.

Still, whatever Puigdemont’s future holds, Oriol Bartomeus, a research professor at the Institute of Political and Social Science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said that while the May 12 elections signalled the political demise of the process itself, the results do not represent a death-knell for the separatist movement.

“The pro-independence movement in Catalunya is stronger than it was before the procés started in 2012, and it will continue to survive, probably until hell freezes over,” said Bartomeus.

“However, we’ve been living through the fallout and consequences of the procés since 2018, a kind of no-man’s land. What happened in the regional elections is that we’ve finally left that no-man’s land behind and, possibly, entered a new era.”

When will Catalonia get a new government?

Meanwhile, though the Socialists are the biggest party now in the Catalan parliament, they remain well short of the 68 seats they needed for the absolute majority that would have guaranteed an end to 14 years in opposition.

Still, they start any coalition negotiations with smaller parties from a stronger position than pro-secessionist parties.

Weeks, if not months of negotiations are now forecast for the ultra-fragmented parliament, with a deadline of August 25 for the confirmation of a new president and government. Failing that, the Catalans will return to the polls.

“The most likely scenario is a Socialist government in Catalonia because the only realistic alternative to that is more elections,” said Bartomeus. “I think fresh elections would constitute a kind of political suicide for all the different parties.”

Simon concurred with Bartomeus that a Socialist government in Catalonia is currently the most likely outcome, but others, like Capdevila, said they were less certain.

“The kind of coalition that it would require is borderline impossible. If the ERC supported the Socialists, say, after the huge setback they suffered in the elections, it could finish the ERC off. They can’t do it,” he said.

The ERC themselves have already insisted they will not facilitate the Socialists’ path to power in Catalonia, although a lengthy round of consultations with their party members about the party’s future policies and leadership is now under way. The only certainty for now, it seems, is further delays.

The situation is further complicated by the continuing power plays in Madrid, given that Junts+ and ERC are currently propping up the minority national Socialist government in exchange for a legal amnesty. Now that the amnesty has been definitively passed after a tortuous passage through parliament, the spotlight will focus on how it applies to the estimated 350 people facing charges for their involvement in the process, with the legal fate of Puigdemont one key question.

On Thursday evening Puigdemont hailed the passing amnesty law as a “historic event in the long and unresolved struggle between Catalonia and the Spanish state.” But as for his political future, what he can actually achieve when he returns to Catalonia and its deeply fragmented regional parliament is hard to predict.

“Puigdemont is doing the same as he has for the last few years, which is try to survive by making people believe he is still in a position to fight for the presidency of the Catalan Government,” said Bartomeus earlier this month.

“But in reality, that’s almost a pipe dream. In terms of seats, the parliamentary mathematics just don’t add up for him. The fact Puigdemont holds the keys to power in Madrid is important. But it has little to no bearing on what he can actually do politically in Catalonia.”

While the question of who will govern in Catalonia remains uncertain, in Madrid, the elections have given the ruling Socialist party a major boost at a time when the opposition PP is widely predicted to win the upcoming vote in the European Union election.

“This regional victory in Catalonia is a really good result for the Socialists’ morale,” said Bartomeus. “Polls show the PP’s advantage is dropping slowly and the Socialists are closing the gap. If that trend is reflected in the European elections, even after a narrow defeat, the Socialist government would be a lot more stable, and they would be more or less guaranteed to stay in power until 2025.”

But those national and continental aspirations count for little when it comes to Catalonia’s next government. The region appears set for a major reshuffling of its political players as they try and see who can work with whom to come to power.

“So the road ahead for Catalonia is anything but straightforward,” said Capdevila.

Source: Al Jazeera