2012 Catalonia Elections: Post-Election Report

Continuing our series of election reports, the following post-election report on the forthcoming elections in the Catalonian province of Spain is provided by Duke University political scientist Laia Balcells.  Her pre-election report can be found here.


The Autonomous Community of Catalonia (Spain) held parliamentary elections this past Sunday. The results gave a clear victory to Catalan nationalist/separatist parties, even though none of them individually obtained a majority of seats. In my pre-electoral post, I outlined three possible scenarios that could have resulted from the elections. We currently find ourselves the scenario that has the highest probability of leading to a self-determination process in the region. Indeed, the two main parties, right-wing Convergencia i Unio (CiU) and left-wing Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), included the call for a referendum in their party manifestos for these elections, and ERC is historically more committed to secession than CiU. Nonetheless, there are many complications and complexities in the current situation, which we shall examine.

First, despite the fact that conservative nationalist party CiU won the elections, it received less support than expected and the supposed leader of the secessionist process, Artur Mas, has been hurt. Indeed, there was widespread anticipation for a significant victory for CIU, but the party did not win more than 50 seats (in a 135 seats Parliament) and it lost over 90,000 votes and 12 seats from the previous elections in 2010. None of the pre-electoral polls predicted this outcome (the average estimation was 60 seats for CiU), so this has been a bitter victory, which tasted almost like defeat. Mas has lost ground as a leader, and is now challenged by his main rival within the party, Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida. Duran is a Christian democrat with moderate views on the territorial conflict (he is against independence).

In contrast to CiU, the left-wing separatist party ERC obtained the best results in the history of the party, becoming the second strongest force in Parliament with 21 seats, slightly ahead of the Socialist party (PSC-PSOE), with 20 seats, and Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), which obtained 19 seats. ERC is now pushing for a self-determination referendum, but providing support to a CIU government will imply concessions on the social side. ERC, whose results are largely due to its left-wing character, is in the complicated position of having to reconcile its positions in the two-dimensional Catalan political space with those of CIU. Paradoxically, if CiU had obtained slightly better results, ERC would be in a more comfortable position than it is in now.

Second, the voting patterns reflect the fact that the nationalist cleavage is highly salient in Catalonia, with majoritarian support for parties with a secessionist agenda and even broader support for parties that support a self-determination referendum (this includes Iniciativa per Catalunya-Verds, ICV). But it has also become clear that in times of crisis people think in economic terms—in other words, that thinking about the nation does not imply overlooking which type of economic policies they want. (I believe that this has interesting implications for the study of voting behavior in two-dimensional policy spaces). Hence, the Great Recession might have been a double-edged sword for the secessionist movement: while it has contributed to its growth, voters have punished the CiU government for its austerity and liberal policies. This punishment not only has benefited ERC but also other left-wing parties: the former communist party ICV has obtained 13 seats, and a new radical left secessionist party (CUP) has entered Parliament with 3 seats. Both parties are located on the extreme end of the ideological spectrum, and the CUP demands are connected to the social movement 15M (the domestic analogue of Occupy Wall Street). Furthermore, Ciutadans (Cs), a populist anti-Catalan party, has obtained 9 seats, capturing votes from both the Spanish right (PP) and left (PSOE).

Party preferences aside, a majority of Catalans woke up Monday with mixed feelings regarding the elections. Support for independence has shown to be majoritarian in the country, and yet the medium- and long-term prospects for the status of Catalonia within Spain are unclear. If ERC and CiU do not seal a deal, the referendum will not take place in this term. Thus, the draining public debate about self-determination will be undoubtedly extended. The elites in Madrid see this option with optimism, but Catalan nationalism has a long history of persistence (even under adverse circumstances such as a 40-year dictatorship), and secessionism is unlikely to vanish anytime soon.

In the short-term, the relationship between the central government and the new Catalan government now seems even more complicated than in the past two years. The Catalan government is weakened and the Parliament is more fragmented and polarized. After a heated electoral campaign, PP and CIU seem to be unwilling to cooperate. Absent other financing channels, highly indebted Catalonia will need aid from the central state in order to be able to function. But the PP might be willing to punish the secessionist move by CiU, straining the Catalan government even more. And this scenario is likely to generate further burdens on the general population, which are likely to lead to increased social and political discontent.

Overall, these elections have generated unexpected outcomes and they have some very interesting implications. One is that the electorate in Catalonia has shown to be sophisticated and able to think and vote in a two-dimensional political space: Mas has not been able to use Catalan nationalism instrumentally in order to avoid economic voting and therefore punishment. A second implication is that the political space of Catalonia now resembles –more than ever before- that of an independent country; the two main political parties in the Spanish political arena (PP and PSOE) are minoritarian in Catalonia, and the two main parties in the Catalan political arena (CiU and ERC) are Catalan. Third, the level of participation has achieved record levels for a regional election, resembling that of Spanish legislative (i.e. “first order”) elections; in other words, voters that in the past considered regional elections irrelevant have mobilized for this occasion. Finally, because of the extraordinary turnout, the results have provided a good picture of Catalan society, which has shown to be against the current economic policies and in favor of a “right to decide” on their territorial status.

The weeks to come will tell us if Catalan leaders have the capability to collude and implement the mandate of the voters. The latter will not be without important external constraints, both political and economic. On the one hand, the central PP government has already said that they do not want CiU to coalesce with ERC, and they have made clear that they would consider illegal a self-determination referendum. On the other hand, economic policies are highly conditioned by Madrid and Brussels, and there is little margin for an Autonomous Community with no taxation capacities. My sense is that Spanish and European elites should take the electoral results in Catalonia seriously: they are saying more about Spain and the EU than they might think. On the one hand, discontent for economic policies is becoming widespread across Spain and the rest of Southern Europe. On the other hand, self-determination issues are salient in the Basque Country, Scotland, and Flanders. Maybe it is time to look for broad solutions.

8 Responses to 2012 Catalonia Elections: Post-Election Report

  1. David Lizoain November 28, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    What is fascinating about Catalan politics right now is the struggle over how political conflict here is framed. I think Laia’s partisan loyalty is getting in the way of her analysis and that her report is tendentious.

    Here’s a link to the actual results: http://www.parlament2012resultats.cat/09AU/DAU09999CM_L2.htm

    The party that received the most votes, Convergencia i Unió (CiU), ran on a platform that was not explicit in its support for independence. They were also the biggest loser on the night.

    The party that received the second largest number of votes was PSC-PSOE (but fewer seats), not ERC, which you would infer from reading the above. This is my party and it was the second biggest loser on the night.

    The fragmentation of the parliament is quite spectacular, considering that the two largest political forces did not arrive at 50% of the vote.

    In terms of votes, ERC’s total is closer to that of the fourth-placed PP than to the socialists. Right-wing unionism achieved a better result than left-wing separatism if we look at how people voted.

    It would be interesting to see some evidence for the assertion that ERC gained votes on account of economic issues and not on account of being clearer on the national question than CiU.

  2. Laia Balcells November 28, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    First of all, I have no partisan loyalty, and even if I had it I would not let it enter the report. I justify why I say that the results of ERC are historical: it is the first time that it is the second force in the Parliament, regardless of the number of votes. Second, you can read some excellent pieces on vote transfers by Ignacio Jurado in ElDiario.es that show that the votes that ERC gained were not coming from CIU, and that therefore were not coming for “being clearer on the national question than CIU”.
    Best regards, Laia

    [Note: At request of the author, this comment was slightly edited from the format in which it originally appeared.]

  3. Calidonia Hibernia November 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    How do you read the ERC negative on government agreement with CiU? Is CiU capable of sustain a government alone in the present situation? Is there an increasing probability of new anticipated elections, sooner or later? Congratulations for this report and the other one publlished in El Diario http://www.eldiario.es/piedrasdepapel/Cataluna-secesion-debate_6_73202708.html.

  4. David Lizoain November 28, 2012 at 3:17 pm #

    Hi Laia, and thanks for taking the time to read my comments.

    I agree with you that the results of ERC are historical (in that they are now the second parliamentary force) and that they are big winners. But “[b]est results in the history of the party” is only correct if we are not talking about votes obtained, share of the popular vote obtained, or number of seats won (they did better in 2003 on all counts) and limiting ourselves to the post-Franco era. We differ in our definition of best.

    I remain skeptical of the assertion “Support for independence has shown to be majoritarian in the country”? Especially (and thank you for the Ignacio Jurado piece) if ERC gained votes for economic motives. I freely concede that might be my bias blinding me to reality, but I would like to see the evidence.

    You refer to the PP and PSC-PSOE (which you elide into PSOE) as Spanish, Ciutadans as anti-Catalan, and ERC and CiU as exclusively Catalan. I would not describe the party spectrum in terms of this binary, and I think it’s problematic to go down this road, but again, that’s just, like, my opinion, dude.

    I know you are a brilliant political scientist, but I think still think the arguments in your piece are skewed.

    Best regards,

  5. Ken Dubin November 28, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    Laia, I find your characterization of Ciutadans quite misleading.

    First, why single them out as populist? After all, the early elections called by the governing CiU were a blatant attempt to turn citizen anger at the crisis against Madrid and away from CiU’s own enthusiastic embrace of austerity (and numerous corruption scandals) by playing the nationalist card. ERC has consistently placed its nationalist priorities ahead of its progressive ones. Are these not populist appeals? The fact that Catalan nationalists consistently brand Ciutadans “Lerrouxista” (a populist from the 1920s and 1930s) doesn’t make it true. Meanwhile, readers should note that CiU’s leader, Artur Mas has announced that he will not call the referendum on independence if ERC refuses to enter his government (which they are unlikely to do, it appears); sure reeks of populism to me.

    Second, the fact that C’s positions itself as a party representing citizens who identify themselves as simultaneously Catalan and Spanish hardly merits the disqualification of “anti-Catalan;” anti-independence, clearly, but it is most tendentious to suggest that the two are the same thing. I suggest a reading of their electoral program, which is filled with largely modest proposals for strengthening Spain’s (and Catalonia’s) political institutions and perfectly reasonable calls for reversing some of the worst excesses of austerity and the privileging of Spain’s always privileged banks over its citizens.

    Finally, data on C’s vote gains suggest that they were largely concentrated in the working-class suburbs of Barcelona and that most appear to have come from the Socialists, not the PP. The rapid collapse of the PSC’s support since their loss of the Generalitat in the last elections has certainly contributed to the surge in support for left pro-nationalist options like ICV. However, given that most of the voters who have abandoned PSC surely identify themselves as simultaneously Spanish and Catalan, it’s hardly surprising that C’s too has risen spectacularly while support for the strongly Spanish nationalist PP has remained largely unchanged.

  6. David Lizoain November 29, 2012 at 4:55 am #

    I’m a big fan of this blog, but I don’t agree that Laia’s changes amount to a slight edit, since they alter the context of my response. If the comments merit a suppression, they also merit an apology. The alteration of the record is not conducive to a free exchange of ideas, to say the least.

    • Joshua Tucker November 29, 2012 at 5:36 am #

      David: My apologies, and let me be clear that I made the decision to alter the original comment. As a blog with no financial model, we rely on the generosity of many who are willing to contribute time and effort to enhance the content we can provide on the blog. I had to balance the request of a contributor who felt she had hit “reply” too quickly with maintaining an atmosphere that is “conducive to a free exchange of ideas”. If in view of this development you would like me to delete your comments, just let me know and I will do so.

  7. Ken Dubin November 30, 2012 at 5:57 am #

    Here’s the link to data, in Spanish I’m afraid, for the evolution of the vote in a number of working class suburbs of Barcelona from the 2010 to the 2012 regional elections. Taken together, these cities represent a significant percentage of the total population of Catalonia (Including L’Hospitalet, which is its second city). Several things are noteworthy here. First, the enormous increase in participation, driven in no small measure by polarized opinion around the Independence drive (those who identify as “only Catalan” are a distinct minority in these municipalities, but clearly those who do favor independence abandoned CiU in droves in favor of ERC and and ICV). Second, the biggest gains in every town are recorded by C’s, while the PP barely moves. This suggests that those who are opposed to independence clearly distinguish between the economic policies proposed by the PP and those proposed by C’s. Again, the populist claim does not stand up to scrutiny. http://www.lineasrojas.org/blog/2012/11/27/dulce-derrota-del-psc-psoe/