Longview: An analysis of the Catalan elections outcomes

The 14th of February regional elections in Catalonia saw the Socialists become the most voted party (23% of the vote), closely followed by the separatist parties ERC and JxCat (21% and 20% of the vote). The separatist parties keep their absolute majority of the regional parliament seats (74 of 135). However, participation in the election dropped to 54% of the census, compared to 79% in 2017. Though not unexpected, the election’s key outcomes, apart from the Socialist victory, were the rise of the far-right unionist party Vox and the collapse of the centrist pro-union Ciudadanos. The right-wing party has become the 4th biggest political force in Catalonia (7.6% of the vote). The pro-union conservatives, PP, also lost support compared to the previous elections. The demise of Ciudadanos and PP has made Vox the leading unionist party on the right.

Figure 1: Results of the 2021 regional Catalan election.

The post-election scenario is still not clear, as two different coalition governments can be formed. The first would be a left-wing option led by the socialists with support from the ERC separatists and the far-left ECP (regional brand of the national Podemos party). To a certain extent, this coalition would mimic the block at the national level, which keeps the Socialists and Podemos in government with the support of ERC in the national parliament. However, the ERC’s leader, convicted and jailed for sedition over the 2017 secession attempt, has rejected this option and favors the second option: a separatist coalition with JxCat and the far-left CUP. This has been the situation since 2017, with ERC and JxCat holding the regional government and being supported by the CUP. However, the far-left separatists are ambivalent in their desire to either support a separatist government with the ‘right-wing’ JxCat or to form a broad leftist coalition. Despite the Socialists’ attempts to achieve the necessary supports and the CUP ambivalences, one can expect the latter to support a separatist government if it reaches some leftist concessions. As an interesting note, Carles Puigdemont, former Catalan regional president and fugitive from the Spanish justice, is having a pivotal role in the negotiations to form a government since he controls the JxCat party from his hideout in Belgium.

As the Financial Times reports, the separatists are now looking to the Scottish National Party for inspiration

A separatist government will continue the chronic independentist challenge that has plagued Spain over the last decade. With no solution to the conflict in sight, all the social conditions that have created this deep rift among Catalans and between the region and the rest of Spain are still in place despite the separatist project’s absolute failure. As the Financial Times reports, the separatists are now looking to the Scottish National Party for inspiration. In particular, ERC aims to negotiate with the Spanish government, which depends on their parliamentary support, to achieve a legal and binding referendum. JxCat, on the other hand, supports yet another illegal – according to Spanish law – and unilateral referendum. Despite these plans, the region’s future is one of chronic blockage that the Socialist promises of more privileged access to funds and regional powers are unlikely to solve. Low-intensity violence in Catalonia’s streets has become a recurrent feature of the region over the past years, with recurrent flashpoints appearing regularly and being incited mostly by radical left separatist factions. Despite years of violent mobilizations and clashes with police, no deaths have yet occurred, but the potential for casualties to occur at each flashpoint remains constant. Police investigations have also been launched into potential terrorist plots by radical left separatists.

Socialists are pursuing a policy of creating a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around Vox

The unionist side remains fragmented and uncoordinated, with relatively low social mobilization power and no power in the policymaking process in Catalonia. Ciudadanos and PP’s debacle reinforces this assessment since now the two main unionist parties are the Socialists and Vox, which do not have any common ground. Furthermore, the Socialists are pursuing a policy of creating a ‘cordon sanitaire‘ around Vox, preferring to talk and negotiate with separatists parties. The lack of impact that unionist parties have had in the past years is one reason why Ciudadanos has lost 90% of its votes since 2017. The PP, on the other hand, has lost 77% of its support over the past decade. The Catalan population’s polarisation over the past decade has been reflected too in the demise of the two moderate center-right unionist parties, which the far-right Vox has overtaken.

The meaning of these elections is mostly related to Vox, which is on the rise nationally compared to the declining PP and Ciudadanos and threatens to become the main right-wing party soon. Vox’s rise benefits Sánchez’s Socialist Government, which has been fomenting the country’s polarization. Sánchez has followed a similar strategy to that of François Mitterrand in the 1980s, who encouraged the rise of the Front National to keep the French Socialists in power. The corruption scandals that plague PP, their ideological inconsistency and their weak performance as a parliamentary opposition further reinforce the indication that Vox is going to keep growing and taking votes away from Ciudadanos and PP. The Socialists’ victory in Catalonia could indicate that the party has not been punished for its perceived disastrous management of the coronavirus pandemic. However, the Catalan electoral dynamics are different to the rest of Spain, so this assessment might not be right.

Vox has become the most voted party among the lower classes in Catalonia

The Catalan elections have more interesting results. Vox has become the most voted party among the lower classes in Catalonia. This is consistent because, traditionally, support for independence has been more substantial in middle-high and high-income levels. But it is more interesting when analyzing Vox from a national perspective. Vox was born and grew as an ultraconservative nationalist party that held neoliberal economic positions. This contraposes Vox to other right-wing populist parties in Europe like Le Pen’s National Rally, Salvini’s Lega or even Boris Johnson’s and the Brexit platform. Over the past year, Vox has been turning towards more populist economic views, in what Spanish commentators have referred to as the ‘lepenisation‘ of the party. The results in Catalonia can, in part, be interpreted as a success of its protectionist and populist turn, and one can expect Vox to intensify and deepen its economic nationalism in the future. A more left-wing economic program of the far-right in Spain could lead them to take votes away from the left in the future.

The Editor: Guillermo Pérez Molina

Guillermo Pérez Molina is a MA student at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and holds a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. He has internship experiences in finance, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Spanish Embassy in London and the Elcano Royal Institute. His research on Colombian counterinsurgency strategy will be published in the upcoming Strife Journal, Issue 15. 

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