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Analysis

Catalonia remains hub of conflict

Separatist victory complicates impasse

by Danae Kyriakopoulou in London

Fri 22 Dec 2017

The evolving crisis in Spain over Catalan independence has been a rollercoaster. For those expecting a clear verdict on the secession movement, yesterday’s vote for a regional parliament in Catalonia is at best a disappointment. The vote follows an extraordinary series of events starting with an unconstitutional, flawed, and violence-studded referendum on Catalan independence on 1 October. Next came a unilateral declaration of independence by Carles Puigdemont, at the time head of the Catalan government, on 27 October. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded by triggering Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy, before firing the regional government and calling new elections. Several separatist leaders were jailed while Puigdemont himself fled to Brussels, where he remains.

Turnout – an important prerequisite for a ‘decisive’ outcome  – was high in yesterday’s vote. Despite being the first ballot in decades not to be held on a Sunday, 82% of people voted, the highest share on record since democracy began in 1977. The result itself is far from conclusive. Partly thanks to an electoral system of proportional representation but with compensation for the regions, the three separatist parties together managed to achieve a narrow majority, with 70 seats in the 135-strong Catalan parliament. This was despite winning just 47.5% of votes, a worse performance than in the last elections in 2015. The result defied expectations for a hung parliament, although Ciudadanos, the centre-right anti-independence party, won the highest share of the votes (25.4%). The triumph of Ciudadanos came at the expense of Rajoy’s Partido Popular, which suffered its worst performance in Catalonia, having earned a mere 4.2% of the vote, corresponding to just three seats.

The real winner, however, was Puigdemont. Despite being physically absent from the campaign trail, his Junts per Catalunya party came at the top of the pro-independence bloc, defying expectations and outperforming the rival Esquerra Republicana. He has since claimed that victory for separatists in yesterday’s election constitutes a triumph for the secessionists over Spain’s ruling powers. 'The Spanish state was defeated. Rajoy and his allies lost,' he told reporters.

The question for the bloc is what to do next. From technical difficulties (Puigdemont faces arrest if he returns to Spain and some of the candidates on which the majority depends are in jail) to fundamental political differences (over a gradualist v. radical approach to independence), the road to forming a Catalan government is beset by obstacles. A period of intense coalition talks is set to follow, with a clear resolution of the political impasse looking improbable for the near term.

This poll included, the Catalan conflict has so far been largely interpreted as a simple clash between Madrid's legal duty to address a rogue separatist government, and the popular legitimacy of the Catalan cause seen as national liberation and struggle against oppression. As I wrote in the immediate aftermath, neither interpretation is right and simplifications like these endanger an already fractured Spain.

The events of the ‘Catalan autumn’ did not come about in a vacuum. Rather, they were the product of a collection of tensions, covering Catalan and Spanish nationalism, Spain’s own constitutional contradictions, and the wider crisis of the Spanish state and the EU. The poll could not and did not resolve these problems, and they will continue to dominate the Catalan question.

Catalan autonomy remains suspended under Article 155. Investments have retreated. Many essential funds remain frozen. Politicians are waiting to face court cases. In the short and medium term, Catalonia will remain a hub of conflict. 

Danae Kyriakopoulou is Chief Economist and Head of Research at OMFIF.

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