Thursday’s election-cum-referendum —the snap plebiscite-like vote of December 21— returned an indisputable verdict that suggests two clear headlines. The first and most relevant: with the highest turnout in history (over 80 per cent) the pro-independence bloc has won again, renewing its overall majority but falling short of attaining 50 per cent of the popular vote. The second: the unionist parties were able to rally their voters as never before and, at their spearhead, Ciudadanos was the most voted party, obtaining the largest number of seats in parliament. However, their success did not shake the solidly hegemonic pro-independence majority. Weakened, and wedged between the two blocs, is Catalunya en Comú-Podemos.
Catalonia’s pro-independence parties have secured a more than remarkable victory, especially when you consider the exceedingly adverse conditions in which they campaigned. Their merit is not merely down to meeting the exceptional challenge of the last few months, with their main leaders in prison or exiled, but also to the fact that the exceedingly high turnout affords them an unprecedented legitimacy. Puigdemont’s newly-minted political group got the lion’s share of the vote within the separatist bloc, closely followed by ERC, who was everyone’s favourite initially, with the CUP trailing far behind. The parties that support independence are ideologically diverse, which is their greatest asset when it comes to luring voters, but their worst handicap when the time comes to govern and agree on a shared roadmap for independence. Once again, managing the victory will be no walk in the park. Without giving up any long-term goals, they will need to pragmatically take onboard the recent lessons and prioritise the objective of regaining Catalonia’s government institutions and the release of the prisoners. Likewise, they will also need to accept the need to govern in order to broaden the Catalan people’s support for independence.
Truth be told, even though they fell short of their expectations, Catalonia’s unionist parties have achieved a remarkable result, with Ciudadanos taking the first place where all other non-Catalanist parties had previously failed. They were aided in this by the split in the pro-independence bloc, with JxCat and ERC obtaining a fairly similar result. Undoubtedly Ciudadanos wooed many unionist voters away from the PP, which took a nosedive in what constitutes a truly severe punishment for Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy. Faced with its inability to build a political alternative to Catalan separatism, now the Spanish government must also accept the outcome of the Catalan elections and understand that political dialogue is necessary, that a persistent democratic majority cannot be sidelined and ballots cannot be fought with the judiciary arm. The time for dialogue and politics has come, a time to turn a new leaf after the direct rule imposed by Article 155, a path that has been defeated at the polls. The other main Spanish party, the PSOE, should also take this lesson to heart, as their great leap forward in Catalonia has failed to materialise. Some deep reflection by everyone is very much called for.