The oracle of the public opinion has spoken and Catalonia, Spain and Europe would be wise to listen carefully. They should listen to it with greater attention than after the 2015 elections, and they should draw the necessary conclusions with all the lucidity and courage they can muster. They should welcome the lesson in realism and be aware of everyone’s strength, with the determination afforded by a majority renewed under such abnormal circumstances. Despite having some candidates in jail and half the government in Brussels, despite the events of the last few years and the uncertainties and anxieties of recent months, Catalans have sent a number of crystal clear messages that require a political interpretation from Madrid.
1. An extraordinary turnout. The voter turnout affords this election an undisputed legitimacy despite the conditions in which the campaign was conducted. While 75 per cent of the voting-eligible population went to the polls in 2015, last Thursday that percentage rose to 82 per cent, a figure which any democracy should be proud of. The day was remarkably uneventful, considering that the police crackdown of October 1 is still fresh on our minds. There are no silent or oppressed majorities in Catalonia, nor any alienated masses deceived by messianic leaders. Instead, we have a grown-up society that expresses itself freely and democratically. That society has returned a fresh pro-independence majority in parliament.
2. Ciudadanos is the new top dog in parliament, both in number of seats and popular vote. Their candidate, Inés Arrimadas, has managed to capitalise on the unionist bloc’s strategic voting. Catalonia’s hitherto leader of the opposition was able to win twelve extra seats in parliament, rising from 25 to 37, and during the campaign she proved to be a determined leader who thrives on close-quarters political combat. She will attempt to get elected president and form a government, but the chamber’s majority is unlikely to lend her its support.
3. Pro-independence parties have held on to their overall majority and only the candidate who manages to garner the necessary support in parliament can become the president of Catalonia. Therefore, the next president will be an elected MP from the Junts per Catalunya slate (JxCat) and Carles Puigdemont is determined to travel back to the Catalan government’s HQ. A pro-independence majority is feasible, but that does not mean it will be easy. In 2015 the pro-independence bloc had 72 seats in parliament whereas now they have dropped to 70, which is two more than the outright majority of chamber. Relations between JxCat, ERC and the CUP have also taken a toll in recent months and years, and are now strained. The separatist forces will have to prove that they can govern together, once they have reviewed their goals, calendars and strategies, which are currently at odds with one another. Will they manage to broaden the support base for a joint political platform that seeks to implement an urgent lowest common denominator? There is an immediate need to regain Catalonia’s institutions, obtain the release of the prisoners and form a good cabinet. The election results have given a mandate to regain the Generalitat and govern, but not to implement a republic unilaterally. Pro-independence ballots make up 47.5 per cent of the total. Negotiation must be the main instrument.
There are no silent or oppressed majorities in Catalonia: we have a grown-up society that expresses itself freely and democratically
4. President Puigdemont. Carles Puigdemont has won on the back of his simple, yet effective message: to get back Catalonia’s legitimate institutions and oppose the political bloc that approved the activation of Madrid’s direct rule (Article 155). The ticket that he improvised on the ashes of Convergència has achieved a result that was unthinkable only a few weeks ago. Puigdemont’s win within the secessionist bloc raises many questions about how he might be elected and sworn in, given his judicial situation in Spain. Likewise, his ministers will need to decide whether to come back to Catalonia or give up their seat in parliament.
5. The desire to bring back Catalonia’s legitimate institutions has clearly prevailed over the Article 155 narrative. Will those who supported the takeover of the Generalitat and its finances concede their defeat?
6. Two stable blocs. Catalonia’s pro-independence movement is no political fad. It is a far-reaching movement that will not allow itself to be defeated. Both blocs are now solidly established and the king-making parties have been weakened in the aftermath of such a polarised campaign.
7. If there is one clear loser to emerge from this election that would be Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy and his Catalan candidate. Rajoy’s Partido Popular has obtained the worst result since democracy was restored in Catalonia. The Spanish PM and his deputy Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, who handles all Catalan affairs, had both got personally involved in the campaign. Their defeat is unquestionable and should have repercussions in terms of the strategy which they have followed so far. The Catalan people have decided that Rajoy’s interlocutor must be a fugitive from justice, accompanied by several political prisoners. The outcome of the elections does not allow Madrid to continue to behave like they have done to date. Secessionists have held on to their majority in Catalonia and the PP have got the smallest share of seats in parliament. That fact is what makes a difference.