Snap regional parliamentary elections
21 December 2017
Result: Pro-independence parties did not gain a majority of votes (47.5%) but they won a majority of seats (70) and could thus form a coalition if they can agree on a governing agreement. Ciudadanos, the anti-independence centrist party, topped the polls with 25.4%, while Carles Puigdemont's party Junts per Catalunya came in 2nd with 21.6% of the vote. Prime Minister Rajoy's party only won 4.2%, a poor showing for the party in charge of the central government.
The independence drive has been stuck in limbo since some separatist leaders were arrested and are being tried for rebellion, and Carles Puigdemont has been in exile in Belgium despite the arrest warrant put out against him by a Spanish court (he was recently arrested in Germany on his way back to Belgium from Finland). The Catalan parliament has been unable to elect a regional president and the clock is ticking toward potential new elections in the region, which will automatically be triggered in two months barring the election of a president.
- Catalonia is one of 17 semi-autonomous communities within Spain’s constitutional monarchy; it has its own 135-member parliament, elected every 4 years, through a proportional party-list system, with a 3% vote threshold to enter the chamber.
- The region has historically supported greater autonomy from the central Spanish government, and a pro-independence parliamentary bloc has been growing since 2010, gaining a majority of seats in parliament in the 2015 elections.
- On October 1, 2017, an unconstitutional referendum on independence was held, during which riot police clashed with voters to prevent them from voting. With a 42% turnout, Catalan authorities reported that about 90% of voters chose independence, but irregularities and disruption clouded the results.
- Madrid declared the vote illegal and invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution which imposed direct rule over the region and called for snap elections.
- Catalan government officials and civil society members who supported the referendum were arrested (some have been released), and regional ex-president Carles Puigdemont fled to and still remains in Belgium, where he has attempted to campaign.
- Pro-independence parties:
- Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC): founded in 1931; left-wing; social democracy; republicanism; it joined the governing coalition in 2015.
- Junts per Catalunya (JuntsXCat): center-right; coalition formed in November 2017 between Puigdemont’s Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCAT), the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia and some independents.
- Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP): far-left; independent Catalonia outside of the EU and NATO; it formed an ad hoc pro-independence alliance with ERC and PDeCAT in 2015 but refused to renew the coalition this time.
- Anti-independence parties:
- Ciudadanos (C’s): centrist; liberal; pro-EU; founded as a Catalan regional party against independence but has since become a national party.
- Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC): center-left; Catalan branch of the national Socialist Workers’ Party.People’s Party of Catalonia (PP): right-wing; Christian democratic; Spanish nationalism/unionism; Catalan branch of the national People’s Party, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s governing party in Madrid.
- Catalunya en Comu (CatComu): left-wing; coalition of far-left Podemos party, the Greens, and United Alternative Left; it supported holding an independence referendum but seeks a consensus-based middle ground for Catalonia.
Impact on U.S. Interests
- Spain is an EU and NATO member; it contributes troops to the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan and to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence battlegroup in Latvia; and hosts a component of NATO’s ballistic missile defense shield at Rota naval base.
- Spain has been governed by a minority government led by the right-wing People’s Party since 2016, after two inconclusive rounds of national elections; the country is recovering economically from the 2008 financial crisis but unrest over Catalonia may slow its economic progress.
- The U.S. has stated that “Catalonia is an integral part of Spain, and [it] supports the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united”.
Key Issues to Watch
- Polls give pro-independence forces a very thin lead, but within the margin of error, High voter turn-out is anticipated which could favor pro-unity parties but could also skew polling data.
- Russian disinformation operations were active during and after the referendum as social media sought to increase societal divisions and support pro-independence voices.
- The EU has remained mostly silent as Spain experiences its most serious constitutional crisis since emerging from dictatorship in 1975, though officials have called for calm and dialogue despite Puigdemont fleeing to Brussels and multiple pro-independence demonstrations (as well as pro-union ones) taking place.
- Despite the intense focus over the past two months, election results may be very similar to 2015, where pro-independence parties held a slight majority of seats in the regional parliament despite not receiving a majority of votes in the election.
- Should this be the case, the Rajoy government would likely invoke Article 155 again and possibly annul the results of the elections, further hardening positions on both sides, deepening Spain’s constitutional crisis, and potentially threatening Mariano Rajoy’s minority government.
Data source: GESOP/El Periòdic; Feedback/El Nacional.