Benoît Pellistrandi. – Feb. 15, 2021
Historian, senior professor at Lycée Condorcet
In December 2017, Catalan voters had to elect a new regional parliament after the Spanish government decided to apply Article 155 suspending regional autonomy. On October 1, 2017, they held a unilateral referendum on self-determination, and on October 27, they proclaimed the independence of Catalonia. The same evening, under this article 155, the regional government was replaced by the tutelage of the central government and the president of the government, Mariano Rajoy, by virtue of the transferred powers, could dissolve the Catalan regional parliament.
The December 2017 elections saw a record turnout: 79.1%, very far above the average for this type of election. The separatist parties – Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan Republican Left), Junts pel Cat (Together for Catalonia from Carles Puigdemont) and the CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) – had obtained a new parliamentary majority. In pain and division, an executive had been formed. First chaired by the activist Quim Torra who obeyed the orders of Carles Puigdemont, it was led from September 2020 by Pere Aragones. But the parliamentary majority being unable to vote a budget, this parliament was dissolved at the end of 2020 and new snap election called for February 14, 2021.
Held in difficult sanitary conditions, the elections held this weekend had a threefold significance.
They would give an idea of the evolution of the balance of power in Catalonia after three years marked by the trial of former politicians who had chosen a unilateral and illegal strategy of breakup.
They would allow us to understand how the Catalan conflict is evolving.
Finally, they would shape the future of national politics since, in addition to being a test for the Sanchez government, the balance of power in Catalonia cannot fail to have an effect on the contours of Pedro Sánchez’ parliamentary majority.
In other words, this exercise was supposed to make it possible to know whether Catalonia continued to be an element of political blockage or if, on the contrary, a new long-term strategy was possible. The results of February 14, 2021 indicate first that Catalonia remains a lock in Spanish politics and, when we write Spanish, we mean the two political scenes of Catalonia and the Spanish nation.
Has independence won?
During election night, the three pro-independence parties insisted that the total number of votes cast on them exceeded 50% (exactly 50.9%) for the first time. They renew their parliamentary majority by a millimeter but decisive development. Indeed, Junts pel Cat passes behind Esquerra: 32 seats against 33 (34 against 32 in the previous parliament). The “pragmatic” option of the party of Oriol Junqueras and Pere Aragones wins over the radical option of the formation of Carles Puigdemont and Laura Borras. Between them, these parties do not have an absolute majority: they depend, once again, on the radical far left – the CUP – which doubles its representation (9 seats instead of 4). However, the CUP is an unpredictable partner: in 2015 it obtained the head of Artur Mas and therefore contributed to the emergence of the hitherto secondary figure of Carles Puigdemont. In its denunciation of corruption, it had already announced its refusal to invest Laura Borras, indicted for embezzlement of public funds. By going from 70 seats to 74 out of 135, the separatists are strengthening their hold on parliament.
If we break down the results by province, we can see, once again, the traditional political geography of Catalonia. The rural provinces are overwhelmingly pro-independence while Barcelona is noticeably less.
We can enrich this approach by pointing out that in Vic (province of Barcelona and capital of militant independence), Junts pel Cat obtains 42.2% of the vote, ERC 20.2%, CUP 10.1%. The Socialists with 10.6% look pale… In Girona, of which Puigdemont was mayor, the separatists obtained 61% of the vote. And both in Vic and Girona turnout is above the regional average (57.5% and 57.6% respectively).
In other words – and this is a fact that has been verified since the first regional elections in 1980 – this election favors nationalist formations.
In addition, the electoral law ensures an over-representation of the three least populated provinces to the detriment of that of Barcelona. A Barcelona MP represents 50,000 voters, her colleagues from Girona, Lérida and Tarragona between 17,000 and 22,000. Here again, it is known that with a more balanced representation, the separatists would never have had a parliamentary majority .
But if the theoretical discussion can take up these arguments, the political reality is indeed that of a balance of power favorable to the separatist formations which consider themselves re-legitimized and strengthened in their struggle.
On the anti-independence side, the panorama has been completely upset by the resurgence of the Socialist Party of Catalonia and the collapse of Ciudadanos-Ciutadans, the centrist party which, in 2017, embodied resistance to the secessionist project. Another radical novelty: the entry into force of the hard right – Vox – with consequently the worst result of the Popular Party in Catalonia since 1980.
The Socialists are once again becoming the first non-independence political force and even the first political force in Catalonia. But this success has a trompe-l’oeil side: the PSC was until 2011 the first Catalan party for the general elections and, from 1980 to 2006, hovered around 25-30% with a historic success in 1999 of 38.2%. The Socialists are recovering. But this news is important: I have always thought that the weakening of the Socialists between 2010 (18.3% of the vote) and 2017 (13.9%) had been the window of opportunity seized by the separatists to radicalize their positions. The PSC is an articulating arm between Catalonia and Spain: it was broken. It is now in plaster and fragile, but it’s coming back.
The centrists know a rout which can mean their disappearance. Already at the national level, between April and October 2019, they had gone from 57 seats to 10. This time the scenario is repeated in Catalonia where they were born as an intellectual and moral response to independence, its lies and its illusions. In fact, the centrist ideal of the voters has been betrayed by political apprentices who have been intoxicated by their quick successes. Unable to face up to their responsibilities, they turned out to be so disappointing that the sanction lived up to the hopes raised. It is to be feared that their fate may be the dustbin of history.
On the right, the situation becomes extraordinarily complex. Vox has won an incredible bet: with 11 elected officials and 7.7% of the vote, the hard-right party is establishing itself as a real alternative to the Popular Party. How could the PP claim to rule Spain with less than 4% of the vote in Catalonia? The success of Vox is catastrophic for Pablo Casado, the leader of the PP. Between August and October 2020, he changed his political line. Since the November 2019 ballot, he had chosen a very right-wing position creating tensions with liberal, centrist and Christian Democrats of the PP. The idea was to stifle the growth of Vox by bringing voters radicalized by the Catalan crisis and the migration issue back to the PP. But, faced with the lack of tangible results, Pablo Casado chooses to return to the centrist essence of the PP and refuses to join in the non-confidence motion that Vox presents against Pedro Sánchez. However, with this result in Catalonia, the magnitude of which no polling institute had appreciated, Vox becomes the outlet for radicalized voters. The climate of tension at the national level, a climate that Pedro Sánchez deplores as well as he skillfully maintains, allows the right-wing electorate to be divided. This division prevents Casado from considering any return to power for many years and many electoral deadlines. And above all, this overtaking in Catalonia may suggest the same phenomenon at the national level which would be even darker for the prospects of regaining power by the Spanish right.
What does abstention mean?
The voter turnout for the February 14, 2021 election was the lowest in the history of Catalan regional elections since 1980. It reached 53.55%. But if we remove the blank and invalid ballots, the votes cast represent 52.34% of the total electorate.
Of course, the first nuance to independence success comes from this data. The 50.9% of the vote represents 26.64% of all Catalan voters. In 2017, the 48% represented 37.5% of this same total. Numerically, the independence camp has lost more than 720,000 votes when the non-separatists have lost 900,000.
The legitimacy of the election cannot be called into question, but its ability to express a general will, especially if we are talking about a desire for independence, can be questioned. With barely more than 25% of an electorate, you cannot build a Nation or a State.
The abstention can be explained first by the epidemic context (see note 1). The conditions of the campaign, during which attendance at rallies was allowed while family and friends gatherings of more than six people remain prohibited, and the fear of contagion during the vote no doubt prompted many voters to stay home. Postal voting has exploded (+ 350%) but this represents only 5% of voters.
It is also explained by discouragement and weariness. Discouragement of anti-independence activists who no longer know which party to vote for. Ciudadanos was losing momentum. PP has been residual in Catalonia for a long time. There remained the PSC and Vox: the two options are antagonistic. Moreover, if the PSC refuses independence, it is not hostile to political dialogue, without specifying its scope and themes. Lassitude also of voters who observed how the outgoing regional government had been paralyzed since May 2018 by internal quarrels between the pro-independence parties. Some pro-independence activists express real doubt as to the sincerity of Esquerra or Junts pel Cat. What if all of this was just a posture? The esteemed success of the CUP (9 seats) clearly shows the hope of radicalization nourished by a significant part of Catalan society (6.7% of the vote). In addition, the CUP continues to denounce the patronage and affairism of Junts pel Cat, the new name of Jordi Pujol’s Convergence and Union party. And there, the power of the networks formerly built with method and tenacity from 1980 to the present day by this political party manifests itself. Its conversion to combative independence was its lifeline in the face of the sinking of the revelation of the 3% scandal . And the ex-Convergence achieved what the Italian Christian Democracy did not: reinvent itself and subsist thanks to its social and clientele fabric.
Voting has taken place. A new parliament is in place. But the crisis in political representation is more serious today than yesterday. This is not just a Catalan question.
What is the Catalan “territorial problem”?
What seems specifically Catalan is the “territorial problem” as the separatists say. There is a problem. But what is it and what does this expression “territorial problem” designate?
To listen to the leaders and activists of the independence cause, the problem stems from a situation of oppression or even colonization (one of the candidates, the former president of the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce, said, during the campaign, of the “non-Catalans” of Catalonia that they were “colonists”). The Spanish state, which came directly from Francoism, is suffocating Catalan society. And to call the refusal to proceed to a self-determination referendum, the bringing into question before the justice of the government authorities of the time, the police repressions of the demonstrations, mainly that of the vote of October 1, 2017. Of course, that it is to take the effects for causes, but it also means ignoring the current status of Catalonia and the institutional architecture of the Spanish state. We will not come back here to the description of this very decentralized system. Suffice it to say that the strength of Catalan institutions has given the Catalan political scene a density unparalleled in the rest of the country and that Catalonia alone conditions the stability of Spain.
Another reason would be the Catalan “deficit”: the region would contribute excessively to national costs and this would have penalized it permanently. Josep Borrell in his day denounced this budgetary myth (see Las Cuentas y los cuentos de la independencia – Accounts and tales of independence, 2015). Economic historians have demonstrated the close interweaving of the relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish market (see Gabriel Tortellas, Cataluña en España. Historia y mito, 2016). Here again, the argument is thin.
Two emotional issues remain: the first is the history of Catalonia, the second is the demand for the “right to decide”. In the current construction of the Catalan dream, we must denounce the history of Spain, which reads as a continuous domination and a permanent suffocation of Catalonia. The territorial problem would therefore be a desire for justice, or rather for revenge. The difficulty is that, independent or not, Catalonia will not erase its history … it will rewrite it as we see in secondary school textbooks. The truth does not matter, as long as we have national intoxication … As for the “right to decide”, it is an invention to justify a vote of self-determination, impossible in the Spanish institutional framework (the sovereignty of the Spaniards is one and indivisible). For it to exist, it is necessary to give birth to a “Catalan people”.
Where is the Catalan people?
The question is there. Is there an entelechy that nationalist action will reveal in all its effectiveness? Is it a mobilizing myth? Or does it mask a racist conception of the political community?
These substantive issues cannot be addressed on rally stages, nor behind the scenes of negotiations between parties which are offices representing powerful material interests of elected officials, nor in the invective of social networks or urban demonstrations. By constantly opposing the Catalans to the Spaniards, the good to the “bad”, the pure to the unclean, Catalan politics is locked in the scheme of Carl Schmitt (friends vs. enemies).
It is for this reason that it remains a double lock blocking both the Spanish political agora and the future of Catalonia. February 14, 2021 remains the illustration of these negative forces .
 The date was set at a time when the retreat of the epidemic suggested that the ballot would be held without major difficulty. At the beginning of January 2021, the Catalan government chooses to move the date to May 30. But seized by the Socialist Party of Catalonia, the Catalan Supreme Court considered that this decision was illegal because the regional government could not move a ballot already officially and legally convened. The date of February 14 was maintained despite the disagreement of the separatists.
 The Socialists get 23 of their 33 MCPs in Barcelona, the PP gets its 3 MCPs in the Barcelona constituency alone. Vox manages to have elected representatives in all four constituencies while the centrists only have them in Barcelona (5) and Tarragona (1). The CUP, too, succeeded in electing candidates in all constituencies.
 As early as 2000, Pasqual Maragall (socialist) had implicated Jordi Pujol. “You have a problem, – he told him in the Catalan parliament-, and this problem is the 3%”. This sentence was enough to neutralize the issue of corruption. Fifteen years later, all of Catalonia now knows the extent of the network of corruption in place.
 We will examine in another contribution the possible scenarios following this snap election. The complexity and reversals of Catalan political life call for caution and the object of this analysis wanted to focus on the electoral significance of February 14, 2021.