What Spain’s election says about Catalan independence

A man sits in front of riot police as pro-Catalan independence demonstrators protest Nov. 16 outside the Barcelona Sants railway station. (Enrique Calvo/Reuters)
A man sits in front of riot police as pro-Catalan independence demonstrators protest Nov. 16 outside the Barcelona Sants railway station. (Enrique Calvo/Reuters)

On Nov. 10, Spaniards voted in the country’s fourth general election in four years. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Socialist Workers’ Party, received the most votes but failed to win a majority.

Once again, the Catalan separatist movement shaped the results. Sánchez’s willingness to de-escalate the crisis received substantial support, but Spain’s far-right Vox party more than doubled its seats in parliament, from 24 to 52, after calling out Sánchez for being too soft on the separatists.

This critique is only getting louder now that Sánchez has agreed to enter into a coalition government with the far-left party Podemos, which in the past favored a referendum in Catalonia. Sánchez also needs the support of one of the Catalan independentist parties to return as prime minister.

In October 2017, the Catalan government, led by separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, defied the Catalan legal order and the Spanish Constitution and made a unilateral declaration of independence after organizing a secession referendum. This triggered Spain’s biggest political crisis in almost 40 years, forcing the Spanish parliament to temporarily suspend Catalonia’s autonomy.

Two years later, the situation remains tense

Last month, the Spanish Supreme Court found nine of the leaders of the secession attempt guilty of sedition and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from nine to 13 years. This sparked protests on the streets of Barcelona and in other Catalan cities, resulting in heavy violence.

Although support for independence is diminishing, public opinion on the Catalan question remains divided within Catalonia and in the rest of Spain. In Catalonia, identity, geography and socioeconomic factors determine support for secession.

In the rest of Spain, although an overwhelming majority of Spaniards are against an independent Catalonia, those on the left and the right of the political divide view the conflict very differently. Here’s what you need to know.

Catalonia is split in half — and one half is shrinking

Although people outside Spain tend to think most Catalans want independence, that’s not the case. According to the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, the leading research institute on public opinion in Catalonia, less than half of the Catalan population favors independence. That percentage has decreased from 49 percent in 2017 to 44 percent today.

Even this 44 percent is misleading. When surveys give Catalans four options instead of a straight yes-or-no answer, only 34 percent choose the “independence” option — see the figure below. This number has come down from 40 percent in 2017.

What do you want Catalonia to be? Ongoing polling of Catalan opinions has asked this question since March 2006. Source: Prepared by the author, based on data from Catalonia’s Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió.
What do you want Catalonia to be? Ongoing polling of Catalan opinions has asked this question since March 2006. Source: Prepared by the author, based on data from Catalonia’s Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió.

The identity divide is crucial

Research suggests that in Catalonia, if your grandparents are Catalan and you speak Catalan at home, you are more likely to support independence than if you are first- or second-generation Catalan with a migrant background.

Socioeconomic status also determines Catalans’ views on independence. In a forthcoming study, Guillem Vidal and Carlos Gil find that large employers, managers, small-business owners and farmers tend to vote for pro-independence parties, while workers do not.

Catalans appear almost split on whether to support independence, and this is generating social conflict. But, surprisingly, Catalans show considerable disagreement when surveys ask whether there are “Two Catalonias,” one “independentist” and one “unionist.”

An overwhelming majority of those who vote for “unionist” parties think there are. By contrast, a significant majority of those that vote for “secessionist” parties disagree, either because they do not consider the other half “really” Catalan or because they are less exposed to these social tensions.

Spain is also divided

Earlier in 2019, as the trial against the secessionist leaders began, 58 percent of Spaniards believed the separatists had committed the crime of rebellion — more serious than the charge of sedition, for which they were sentenced.

The responses changed considerably depending on the survey respondents’ political leanings: 93 percent of supporters of the far-right Vox party agreed with the crime of rebellion, along with 87 percent of the conservative People’s Party (PP) and 73 percent of the liberal Ciudadanos. For voters on the left, only 44 percent of the Socialist party and 11 percent of the far-left Podemos supporters agreed with the more serious charge.

Outside observers tended to see the prison terms for the Catalan separatist leaders as harsh — but polling numbers suggest that’s not the case in Spain. When Metroscopia polled Spaniards again in June, when the trial ended, the majority (56 percent versus 32 percent) called it a fair trial. But again, there’s a clear distinction between right-wing (PP, Cuidadanos and Vox) and the Socialist voters, which form the “unionist bloc,” and the voters of the pro-referendum Podemos and the independentist parties in Catalonia.

These political divisions make it hard to see a solution

Polls from the Spanish Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas suggest that a majority in Catalonia thinks that a way to tame the secessionist fever is to further decentralize power. But the rest of Spain shows little appetite for such changes. Only 12 percent of Spaniards (including Catalans) want to see further decentralization, and only 8 percent are in favor of a secession referendum. The largest share, about 43 percent, back the current status quo of semi-federal autonomous regions, of which Catalonia is one.

In the run-up to the elections, Vox even suggested that pro-independence or regional nationalist parties such as the Basque Nationalist Party be banned altogether.

However, banning a party — like a binding secession referendum in Catalonia — would require constitutional reform. This, in turn, would require a two-thirds supermajority of the Spanish parliament — something impossible in the current fragmentation of the Spanish political system.

Spain is a relatively young democracy. With many failed constitutions in the past, Spaniards tend to be protective of the current one (from 1978) because it has lasted longer than any other and has coincided with a period of prosperity and stability.

Genuine federalism might be the ultimate solution, but given the latest electoral results and the difficulties forming a new government and building broad majorities, this isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Neither will an independence referendum for Catalonia.

Miguel Otero-Iglesias is a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute and a professor at IE School of Global and Public Affairs. He is also a research associate at the EU-Asia Institute at ESSCA School of Management in France.

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