The “separatists” have won.
That, at least, was how international wire agencies reported another narrow victory for Catalonia’s divided and disparate independentistes in Sunday’s elections.
Just like their Scottish counterparts, supporters of sovereignty for the north-east corner of Iberia do not care for the s-word which foreign reporters use to describe them.
But Catalonia’s three pro-independence parties – centre-left Esquerra Republicana, left-wing CUP and centre-right Junts – really did secure another historic victory in what Spain calls a regional poll.
And – albeit amid a low turnout – for the first time supporters of a sovereign Catalan state have secured not just a majority of seats, but of votes too.
Yet this, Catalonia watchers warn, is no breakthrough. The nation – or region, depending on your stance – remains locked in constitutional deadlock: central Spanish political and judicial forces are highly unlikely to OK a Scottish-style referendum on independence.
Catalonia election: Catalans go to the polls amid independence debate
An attempt to organise a poll back in 2017 was countered with a brittle, legalistic response. Breaking up Spain, the country’s constitutional court ruled, was illegal. A referendum did go ahead. But it was boycotted by unionists, some of its organisers were jailed, and voters were beaten.
Madrid’s stance has not changed: Catalonia, increasingly polarised, is stuck.
Michael Keating, professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen, has long kept tabs on all things Catalan.
“It is a mess and we can’t see a clear way out,” he told The . “We are just deadlocked again. Like the last few elections in Catalonia, this one has just has not produced an outcome.
“Basically, it is 50-50. There has been a small shift to the pro-independence side, and that takes it just over the line to a majority of voters and of seats.”
As in Scotland, politics in Catalonia comes in 3D. People and parties split on three axes; left-right; libertarian to authoritarian; and union to independence.
Unlike in Scotland, this three-dimensional politics is more fully reflected in a diverse palate of parties from which voters can choose.
Sunday elections saw fully eight parties or coalition tickets secure seats. No single ticket gets anywhere near a majority on its own.
Working out who can govern is so hard that La Vanguardia, one of Barcelona’s main newspapers, has developed its own online calculator to help readers do so, the wonderfully named “pactógrafo”.
The results? Well, the three pro-indy parties – with their very different ideologies – could rule together. But so too could Esquerra with the now main unionist party, the PSC, the Catalan wing of Spain’s ruling socialists, provided they could lure one of the smaller left groups, either pro-indy CUP or indy-agnostic red-green coalition called En Comú Podem, the Comunes.
The latter is now looking like more of a realistic prospect than the former.
Yesterday the leader of Esquerra, Pere Aragonès, was reported to be trying to build an alliance of all three independence parties and the Comunes. That would give him 82 out of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament and the keys to the Generalitat, the historic government of Catalonia.
Would he consider a deal with the Socialists? That, Aragonès said, would be like mixing “oil and water”.
The Socialists have also been declaring victory. The PSC, took more votes than anyone else and were tied with Esquerra on seats, with 33 each. Socialist leader Salvador Illa had been tipped to forge a “progressive alliance” with the pro-indy and indy-agnostic left?
Ahead of the elections former health minister was described as a game changer in Catalonia after becoming a household name for leading Spain’s pandemic response.
Yesterday he said would talk to anybody bar the far-right and staunchly unionist Vox, which made its first electoral breakthrough in Catalonia in the elections.
But as long as Esquerra was committed to independence, he said, a coalition would be an “impassable road”.
A coalition which crossed the independence-union rift might just have moved the Catalonia out of its stalemate, said Keating.
“There seemed to be a possibility a few months ago that the Esquerra would do very well, go well ahead of Junts, and do a deal with the Socialists,” he said. “That has disappeared now. They seem to be sticking to a pro-independence coalition. I don’t see where that goes because it is an untidy coalition; they are not only all over the place on tactics on independence but they go to the extreme left to pretty hard right.”
He added: “The only way to break the deadlock is to get a government with nationalists and non-nationalists.
“Esquerra and the socialists, who agree on social economic issues, would have been a possibility.
“That would have given a government that was prepared to think of a range of alternatives.
“With the socialists in government in Madrid, that was a rare opportunity to have an interlocutor in the central government. We seem to have lost it.”
This has been how politics has recently worked in the Basque Country.
Daniel Cetrà, a research fellow at Scotland’s Centre on Constitutional Change, followed the elections from Barcelona.
Politics during the pandemic had been lacklustre, and dominated by dull procedural talk of who would join which coalition, or who would veto what deal.
The political analyst said the pro-independence side had held ground “despite deep internal disputes and a controversial handling of the pandemic and the “alleged ‘Illa effect’, according to which Illa would boost the Socialists’ results and form a ‘constitutionalist government’”.
Mr Cetrà stressed that low turnout helped pro-independence parties get across the 50% mark. The pandemic, he suggested, kept voters home – and hardcore unionists in particular did not have an imminent threat of independence to force them to the polling stations.
He added a note of optimism, at least for the Catalan politicians still in jail or exile for organising the 2017 vote.
“In Catalonia, votes move around within each bloc ‘(independentista’/unionista) but otherwise are rather entrenched,” Cetrà said.
“The more pragmatic or softer options within each bloc (Esquerra and the PSC) are now dominant, although in the case of ERC this is only by a narrow margin.
“This internal realignment makes it easier to create spaces for dialogue with Madrid, where the coalition government often relies on the support of Esquerra. This dialogue will not result in a negotiated independence referendum but could entail a ‘pardon’ for jailed Catalan leaders.”
Would a new pro-independence government be more stable than the last one? That, says Cetrà, “remains to be seen”. For right now, Catalonia has a pandemic to handle.