Catalans went to the polls on Thursday. These were the first regional elections since Catalonia’s Oct. 1 referendum on independence rocked Spain’s political system.
With most of the vote counted, three parties that support Catalan independence from Spain appear to have won a narrow majority of the seats in parliament — Together for Catalonia, led by deposed President Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan Republican Left and Popular Unity Candidacy. But they appear to have fallen short of winning a majority of the votes.
Of those parties that will gain representation in parliament, Citizens, a party that supports Spanish unity, won the most seats and votes. The conservative Popular Party that governs Spain and — having suspended Catalonia’s regional autonomy — Catalonia lost support in a region where it has had little.
In an election dominated by the question of independence, the results reaffirm the division among Catalans and the need to find a negotiated solution on Catalonia’s status.
How did we get here?
Catalonia’s interest in independence from Spain began heating up after 2010. The region had negotiated an agreement on more autonomy and local authority, approved both by the Catalan and Spanish parliaments and in a Catalan referendum in 2006. But in 2010, Spain’s Constitutional Court declared some parts of that agreement were unconstitutional. Secessionist sentiment jumped from about 20 percent to 40 percent in polls. The question of independence has become the central theme of Catalan, and more recently, Spanish politics.
It’s a conflict between two ideas of the source of democratic power, as we wrote here at the time. Grounded in ideas of popular sovereignty, the Catalan secessionists and others believe that the Catalan people have the right to decide whether they continue to be a part of Spain. An overwhelming majority of Catalans support holding of a referendum on this question, approaching 80 percent in some polls.
In contrast, the Spanish government and others refuse to allow or accept such a referendum. They declare that doing so would violate the Spanish constitution, democratically approved by the Spanish people in 1978 — when the country made a transition to democratic rule after decades of dictatorship under Francisco Franco.
Each side proceeded according to its beliefs. The Oct. 1 referendum, called by the pro-independence Catalan government, brought the dispute to a boil. The referendum was illegal. Spain’s constitutional court had suspended it, pending a ruling on its constitutionality. But the Catalan government defiantly forged ahead anyway. The courts and the Spanish government took action to prevent it.
On the day of the referendum, the Spanish authorities sent police to stop the vote, who in some instances used force. Most Catalans who opposed the referendum on the grounds that it was illegal didn’t go to the polls; and so mostly pro-independence Catalans turned out, leading to a result in favor of independence.
After the referendum, the courts ordered the arrest of the leaders of two pro-independence associations, Catalan National Assembly and Omnium Cultural, because they had been involved in organizing protests that allegedly obstructed the police efforts to prevent the referendum. They remain in jail, pending trial.
On Oct. 10, the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence from Spain. The Spanish government responded by activating a never-before-used provision of Spain’s constitution to suspend the region’s political autonomy. The Spanish government dismissed the Catalan government, dissolved the Catalan parliament and called regional elections for Dec. 21. The region has since been governed from Madrid.
Anticipating that they might soon face legal repercussions, several members of the disbanded Catalan government fled to Brussels, including its president, Puigdemont, who challenged the fairness of the Spanish courts and declared he wouldn’t be able to get a fair trial. The Spanish courts ordered the arrest of six Catalan government officials, including Vice President Oriol Junqueras on possible charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. The courts also issued domestic and European arrest orders for deposed Puigdemont and the other Catalan officials in Brussels.
Legal debate surrounds all of the Spanish authorities’ decisions, including the serious charge of rebellion. Rebellion entails the use of violence, which was not apparent.
Two essential democratic principles are in conflict — a conflict that’s weakening Spain’s and Catalonia’s democratic institutions
Contrary to the caricature that the country remains Francoland, Spain is a democracy comparable to its Western counterparts, according to all the widely used measures of democracy. But its political leaders’ inability or unwillingness to find a political solution to the crisis is degrading political institutions in Catalonia and Spain, and could gravely undermine their legitimacy.
On the one hand, the Spanish government has acted as if the rule of law is the only thing that matters in democracy — and has made little effort to address the dissatisfaction of a large portion of Catalan society.
On the other, the former Catalan government acted as if the rule of law doesn’t matter at all. To advance its positions, it staged a referendum in violation of a court order and unilaterally declared independence. This exclusive appeal to the will of the people, disregarding shared political rules, is reminiscent of illiberal democracy.
Without a political solution, Catalonia and Spain risk deepening the degree to which Catalans believe in the impartiality and legitimacy of their shared political institutions. Increasingly, which institutions one supports appears to depend on political affiliation.
Bonnie N. Field is professor of global studies at Bentley University, and the author of “Why Minority Governments Work: Multilevel Territorial Politics in Spain.”
Astrid Barrio is professor of political science at Universitat de València.