Interpreting the Catalan elections

Yesterday’s vote has confirmed that Catalonia’s politics will remain polarised.

Catalonia election celebration Reuters
People react to results in Catalonia's regional elections at a gathering of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) in Barcelona, Spain [Albert Gea/Reuters]

The challenge of assessing the outcome of yesterday’s regional elections in Catalonia is that several actors in this crisis can claim different forms of victory – and are doing so – from different frames (majority in terms of seats neglecting share of votes, etc.). This, uncertainty and a strong component of post-truth politics in the secessionist camp, have been the defining features of a full-fledged crisis that has seen competing narratives about democracy, rule of law and basic constitutional covenants, first and foremost among the clashing camps in Catalonia. Such diametrically opposed framing and narrative building have also shaped the political framing elsewhere in Spain and at the international level.

Given the complexity of the results, their myriad implications and the renewed uncertainty about what comes next, it is important to perhaps distinguish between big read takeaways and deeper changes in the political and social landscape in Catalonia, which are sure to condition the region and Spain as a whole.

Big read takeaways

1. The secessionist parties retained their wafer-thin parliamentary majority. This was slightly down from the 72 seats out of 135 they obtained in the September 2015 parliamentary elections, to 70. They claimed that as a victory, especially as their narrative largely hinges on conflating the whole of Catalonia and the Catalan people with their specific preference, and the latter with a majority in the Catalan Parliament (vs a Spanish “unionist minority”, as often claimed by former premier Carles Puigdemont and other leaders). This is key to their discourse.

The narrative of victimhood, with Puigdemont in “exile” in Brussels, some former government counsellors in prison and temporary direct rule from Madrid under article 155 of the Spanish Constitution (enacted in late October at the peak of the crisis), kept mobilised an already mobilised secessionist electorate, in spite of the political instability, division and economic damage wrought by the secessionist process. Expectations among non-secessionists and in the rest of Spain that that damage would see secessionists losing their majority, even by a few seats, have been dashed. 

2. The secessionists are still short of a majority of votes in Catalonia. The parties opposed to secession – though in different forms – have more than 50 percent of the votes, even if they fail to enjoy an equivalent number of seats, partly due to the electoral system. But that fact can be relatively overlooked by the current secessionist leaders, especially the more hardliners among them, who base their strategy on a parliamentary majority that allows them to retain control of almost all institutional and power levers in Catalonia.

3. This was a landslide win, in votes (over 1.1 million and 25.3 percent) and seats (37), for pro-Spain Ciudadanos (liberals). This is no doubt a historic win for many reasons. It is the first time since 1980 that a non-nationalist party clearly wins elections in Catalonia.

Ciudadanos was born in 2006 as a small anti-nationalist party in Catalonia, before going national in 2015, becoming the fourth Spanish party (some 15 percent of the vote). It has won in the most populated urban areas (including most districts of Barcelona), sneaking votes away from the Catalan Socialists (PSC), even in the latter’s traditional, lower working class strongholds. And it has won in spite of a political language, including elements of hate speech, commonly used by many secessionists, that aimed at tarnishing Ciudadanos’ legitimacy by labelling them as “Spanish”, born outside Catalonia or even “fascists”.

Led by the young Ines Arrimadas, the party ran a clear anti-secessionist campaign and endorsed the Mariano Rajoy government’s application of temporary direct rule. So, while the secessionists claim that the “Catalan Republic defeated the tripartite of article 155” (Ciudadanos, PSC and Rajoy’s Popular Party), the biggest advocate together with the Popular Party(PP), of article 155 (even of harsher forms of federal coercion than the one finally agreed to), actually won elections in Catalonia, somewhat denting the secessionists’ narrative. A pyrrhic victory nevertheless, as Arrimadas will be unable to get enough votes in Parliament to be elected the next Catalan premier.

4. This was a severe blow to Prime Minister Rajoy’s PP and the government. The PP has gone from 19 seats in the Catalan Parliament just five years ago to 11 seats in 2015, to a meagre 3 seats this year, and will have to humiliatingly join their foes from the anti-establishment, secessionist CUP (the other loser last night, from 10 seats to just 4) in the parliament’s Mixed Group.

There is a widespread perception in Spain that Prime Minister Rajoy’s bet on early elections (against the preference of some in his party who wanted a longer period of direct rule with elections later in 2018) has not delivered the political benefits he sought – mainly, defeating the secessionist process towards independence from Spain in polls. The loss of the secessionist majority that Rajoy expected has ultimately failed to materialise.

The other core objectives of reasserting the State’s authority and restoring political and institutional normalcy in Catalonia – especially after the worrying scenarios of civil strife in October – through last night’s well-attended, peaceful, elections, sadly, are of secondary relevance now, especially as the crisis and deadlock might deepen. Ironically, in a way, Ciudadanos, PP’s growing political competitor, are the other key beneficiaries of the application of article 155 by Rajoy’s party: They can claim victory on their own, even if remaining as opposition leaders in Catalonia.

In these circumstances, especially if the next Catalan Government goes on with unilateralism and ignores the other half of Catalonia, political instability and social tensions will go on, together with tensions with Madrid.


5. This was a severe blow to the leftist Podemos (Podem). Podemos is a Pablo Iglesias-led coalition of leftist parties in Catalonia, based on a rejection of independence (especially the unilateral independence pursued by Puigdemont’s bloc) and rejection of Rajoy’s policies too. It has also failed in these elections, further weakening Podemos in Spain as a whole.

That delicate balancing, perceived as slightly skewed against Rajoy and mute criticisms of the secessionists’ abridging of the constitutional framework in Catalonia and its social peace, has not worked. Podem has gone down from 11 seats and nearly 9 percent of votes in 2015 to 8 seats and around 7 percent. They can condition the next government in Catalonia and at times operate as a bridge builder, but will not be the indispensable kingmaker most analysts and polls had predicted.

Iglesias had portrayed the 2015 elections in Catalonia as a potential leap forward to winning in Spain and failed on both counts. This time around, the outcome has been even worse. Increasingly contested within Podemos – and after a lower profile campaign – the question is whether these elections in Catalonia could confirm Podemos’ (and Iglesias’) definite decline in Spain – and their falling behind Ciudadanos, the other contender for Spain’s so-called “new politics” (opposed to PP and PSOE’s hegemony in the state’s party landscape), which is now clearly reinforced at the national level. 


The elections last night confirmed that Catalonia remains a pluralistic society, not the nationalistic pretence of a sol poble (“one people” – aka, the nationalists). Alas, sadly, the vote – the closest thing to a real referendum on independence Catalonia has had in recent years, with over 80 percent of turnout – has also confirmed a deeply fractured polity, almost neatly divided into two main blocs – for and against independence – with similar percentages each. As I see it, in Catalonia, these blocs move mostly in their echo chambers and stick to competing narratives, though, to be plain spoken, only one – the current secessionist hardliners – seems to deny any social and political legitimacy to the other side. 

Catalonia’s politics will thus remain polarised, especially as the parties most seeking to build bridges (PSC, Podem) have not been reinforced. The national question will remain predominant, dwarfing other pressing social and economic questions. Deadlock will probably continue, even if the secessionists manage to overcome their differences and form a government (some do not rule out repeat elections in the spring).

In these circumstances, especially if the next Catalan government goes on with unilateralism and ignores the other half of Catalonia, political instability and social tensions will continue, as will tensions with Madrid. And so will the damage to Catalonia, as more companies will continue to take flight and establish their HQs in other parts of Spain (over 3000 since October 1).

There is a sore need of a serious concerted effort, first and foremost in Catalonia, to build bridges, offer mutual concessions and revamp political consensus. This should be followed by constitutional reform in Spain, including progress towards a real federalism based on power-sharing, more devolution but also rule of law, equal rights and institutional and federal loyalty among the different parts of the commonwealth too – principles that Puigdemont and his followers have been so prone to recklessly undermine. Bar this hopeful scenario, I unfortunately see but the further impoverishment of Catalonia, ruled by self-absorbed, provincial and clientelist elites: a shadow of hitherto cosmopolitan, modernising Catalonia that was so crucial in Spain’s own modernisation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.