Why Catalonia's regional election means little for the question of independence

Elsa Tarring examines the not-so-exciting implications of the Catalan regional election.

Elsa Tarring
21st February 2021
Indepedencia de Cataluna, Catalonia Referendum, People protesting on Las Ramblas for independence from Spain
Elections for Catalonia’s regional parliament took place on Sunday 14 February, and the results suggest a majority for three pro-independence parties, but this isn’t the first time the Parliament of Catalonia has been led by separatists and it seems unlikely it’ll be the last, signifying no real change for the region. 

Although the results have not yet been ratified, all indications are that the separatists will secure a majority. The Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), whose leader Pere Aragonès is predicted to be Catalonia’s new President, Together for Catalonia (Junts) and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) are set to secure 33, 32 and 9 seats respectively, meaning they’ll hold a majority with 74 seats in the 135-strong assembly. The Socialists’ Party (PSC) and Vox, two unionist parties, are only expected to gain 44 seats.

While this might seem like a sure-fire success for the separatists, a similar result was achieved in both the 2015 and 2017 regional elections, in which the same pro-independence parties claimed a majority of seats.

So why then has Catalonia not already declared independence from Spain? Well, it tried following the 2017 election when the Parliament of Catalonia held an independence referendum, but the attempt failed due to conflicts with the central Spanish government.

Declared illegal by the Constitutional Court of Spain for breaching the 1978 constitution that emphasises “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”, the referendum was violently suppressed by police, who physically prevented people from entering polling stations and forcibly shut down protests.

But, unwilling to back down, the Catalan government ensured the referendum went ahead, and more than 2 million people managed to vote, 92% of whom did so in favour of independence. 

So, on 27 October 2017 the Parliament of Catalonia declared independence from Spain despite the ruling that it was illegal, provoking the Spanish government to invoke article 155 of the constitution, which gave it the ability to assume control of Catalonia’s autonomous powers. They refused to recognise the declaration of independence, fired Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and scheduled elections for its new president. 

Since the failed attempt at separatism, tensions have remained high, and in 2019, Spain’s Supreme Court jailed nine Catalan politicians for their part in the illegal referendum, showing that the government is now more reluctant than ever to give up its most affluent region.

Not only is the unsuccessful referendum a prime reason why Catalonia won’t now become an independent state following last week’s election, but the three leading separatist parties are also divided on their desires for the region, meaning they’ll struggle to unite politically.

The ERC is much less confrontational than its likely coalition partner, Junts, which promised a repeat of 2017’s declaration of independence in its electoral campaign, and heated discussions have already begun between the two parties regarding whether to invite the non-separatist En Comú Podem party to form a coalition. 

So, as much as the results of this recent election are an accomplishment for Catalan separatists, they haven’t achieved anything they hadn’t already, and the parties’ conflicting opinions on the future of Catalonia suggests they’ll fail to band together.

While this election has brought independence once again within reach, Catalonia remains unable to break away from Spain.

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