2012 Catalonia Elections: Pre-Election Report

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


On November 25th the Autonomous Community of Catalonia, in Spain, will hold Parliamentary elections. These elections are early, taking place only 2 years after the conservative nationalist party Convergencia i Unió (CiU) retook power in the region, which had been governed by a left-wing coalition during the 2003-2010 period. Artur Mas, the Catalan Prime Minister, called for the dissolution of the Catalan Parliament and new elections on September 20th after a meeting with Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister. In that meeting, Rajoy responded negatively to the request of a “Fiscal Pact”: a bilateral arrangement that would give Catalonia more fiscal autonomy in line with the tax agreements of the Basque Country and Navarre in Northern Spain. According to Mas, the fiscal pact was the only viable solution for a suffocating Catalonia, which despite being a net contributor to the Spanish state is one of the most indebted Autonomous Communities in the country. His early call for elections served different purposes and has important implications for both Catalonia and Spain. This piece aims to shed some light on the main causes and likely consequences of these elections.

First, the calling of early elections was a political move that allowed Mas to win some time in a situation of political and economic gridlock. CiU does not have a majority of seats in the Catalan Parliament, and it has been relying on the support of the Partido Popular (PP) in order to implement austerity measures in the region throughout 2011 and 2012. In exchange, CiU has provided support to PP in the Spanish Congress for the approval of critical pieces of legislation such as the labor market reform. Yet, the relationship between these parties has eroded since the spring of this year when the Catalan government (la Generalitat) started to suffer from major liquidity problems. In July 2012, CiU announced the end of cooperative relations with the PP because the central government was ignoring pleas for measures to give oxygen to Catalan finances. Without the PP support in the Parliament, and without liquidity in the Government, Mas could not do much more than calling for early elections.

The timing, however, has not been casual: in September 11th 2012 (Catalonia’s National day) over 1.5 million people marched on the streets of Barcelona. The lemma of this year’s march was a clear-cut secessionist one: “Catalonia, a new state of Europe”. The participation was overwhelming (i.e. 20% of population in Catalonia) and it provided Mas with a great opportunity to negotiate a new fiscal arrangement with Rajoy. After the expected negative answer from Rajoy, Mas was in good shape to call for elections, and to receive a new mandate: the celebration of a referendum of self-determination in Catalonia before 2016, if he obtains a sufficient majority in the Parliament. Thus, Mas joined the secessionist discourse despite the fact that CiU has never been a genuine pro-independence party.

In the last six years, public opinion in Catalonia has grown increasingly favorable to secession.

Polls show a remarkable rise in the support for an independent state vis-à-vis other territorial arrangements: from 14% in 2006 to 44% in 2012. In a November 2012 survey, when people were asked about their vote in a potential secessionist referendum, the responses were 57% “yes”, 20.5% “no”, and 14.3% “would not vote”. Economic factors have had a non-negligible role in this trend: in the last two years Catalans have observed an important decline in their life conditions caused by salary cuts, a retrenchment in public services, and a rise in taxes. An important share of Catalans perceive themselves as net contributors to a collapsing Spanish state, with significant levels of corruption, and with public investment systematically biased towards other regions. According to some survey data we collected in a project with José Fernández-Albertos and Alexander Kuo in July 2012, people who reported a decline in salary during the recent crisis were significantly more pro-independence than others. As compared to citizens of other regions, Catalans were similarly favorable to interpersonal redistribution, but they did not favor the current levels of interregional redistribution as much. As of November 2012, 52.5% believe that their life conditions would improve if Catalonia was an independent state.

Yet, the economy is not the only factor at play: survey trends show a 10 point rise in support for independence taking place right before the crisis hit Catalonia, in particular during the years in which the new Catalan Constitution (the Estatut d’Autonomia) was curtailed by the Spanish government, first, and by the Constitutional Court, later. The economic unease has only added to political discontentment, and to the feeling by many Catalans that they do not fit in a Spanish state that is reluctant to become a fully-fledged federalization. Besides, in the last months the PP has made calls for further political centralization and cultural homogeneization of the country, which have been perceived as ruthless aggressions in Catalonia.

Identity issues, in spite of the economic contraction and an unemployment rate of 22.56%, therefore dominate the current electoral campaign. Catalan nationalists (e.g. CiU, ERC, SI, CUP) make claims for independence; Spanish nationalists (e.g. PP, Cs) make warning calls against it. Those who have a federalist discourse (e.g. PSC), or stay ambiguous between federalism and independence (i.e. ICV) do not sound credible and have poor electoral prospects. And no one seems to be able to provide a short-term solution for Catalonia’s economic nightmare.

But the elections will surely be relevant. From my perspective, there are three possible scenarios issuing from the results in the Catalan ballot box:

1. A secessionist process scenario: a combination of Catalan nationalist parties (e.g. CiU ERC; CiUERC+SI) obtains a majority of the seats. Mas calls for a referendum. Despite the fact that the referendum is not likely to be recognized by Spain, it gives democratic legitimacy to the self-determination process. The medium-term outcome of this path is highly unpredictable at this point: Rajoy is not Cameron, and the PP government is making threats to deter Mas from the referendum (e.g. declaring it illegal). Some members of the Spanish military have even mentioned armed intervention in Catalonia to defend the “inviolable unity of the Spanish State”. The EU, on its end, delivers ambiguous messages regarding the permanence of Catalonia in the union if there is a breakup.

2. A fiscal pact scenario: CiU obtains a majority of the seats. Mas makes a credible threat of a self-determination referendum to Rajoy, who concedes on an agreement that improves Catalania’s fiscal capacities. CiU then renounces its secessionist demands, and ERC and other minority parties remain as the only ones asking for independence.

3. A stalemate/centralization scenario: Catalan nationalists do not obtain sufficient support in the elections and things remain at a standstill. Mas has a hard time governing given the economic and political gridlock. This scenario would probably imply asking for another bailout to the Spanish state and new attempts at centralization.  (Given the results of the polls, this is however the least likely scenario)

In a nutshell, even if CiU obtains a majority, a secessionist process will not be an automatic outcome of the November elections in Catalonia. Furthermore, all of the above is without taking into account the debt crisis of the Spanish state itself and the potential bailout from the EU, which is likely to have an impact on the overall context in which Spain and Catalonia will be bargaining. Mas and Rajoy are playing a “chicken game”, but Rajoy and Merkel are doing so too. And there is no easy way to predict the outcome of such a multilevel quagmire.

[Photo courtesy of  SBA73 and utilized under a Creative Commons license.]

12 Responses to 2012 Catalonia Elections: Pre-Election Report

  1. Benjamin November 14, 2012 at 11:29 am #

    Interesting analysis. It would interesting to know what would be the social strength and cohesion of a new state whose inhabitants were only supporting the secessionist process only after the crisis hit hard their pockets.

    Which percentage would be considered enough to legitimate the process? What would happen to the people that voted against it but have lived all of their lives there?

    Interesting times are coming.

  2. jonathan hopkin November 14, 2012 at 12:33 pm #

    Benjamin hits the nail on the head – even if the ‘yes’ vote were to win, there would certainly be a very large minority voting ‘no’ or actively abstaining. If half the country is being asked to join a new state against their will, the secession process is going to be very difficult to manage (the referendum would almost certainly be declared unconstitutional, and arguments about how to share out assets and liabilities of the Spanish state could get nasty very quickly). The PP is in power with a big majority in Madrid, making the standoff much worse than it would be with a socialist government. All in all, the last thing EU policymakers want to have to deal with right now.

    • Pere Garcia November 14, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

      The fact is not to become independent but also regain the independence wrested by force in 1714, as other countries in the past. The feeling of a vast majority of Spaniards, is that Catalonia is not part of Spain, but belongs to Spain.
      It would be good to know the percentage of people who today would vote NO, does it coerced by fear and threats with which we are bombing a while ago from Madrid.
      Every year the central Government of Madrid receives from Catalonia about € for taxation, not returning under any circumstances. Could you imagine what a little Country can do with this amount?
      I deeply appreciate your interest in our situation.
      Thanks a lot.

  3. Juan Rodríguez November 14, 2012 at 2:21 pm #

    I guess this interesting forecast do not pay much attention enough to the party politics that lies behind the political facts described by the author. Of course, there are relevant structural elements on the ‘demand’ side of the scene. However, there is also an elite-driven side of the game: the ‘secessionist strategy’ seems to allow the ruling party to avoid the electoral costs of its social and economic policy; and at the same time, this strategy is definitely eroding its main adversaries (PSC & ERC). But all these incentives will finish the day after the election. How can CiU keep the game ‘on’ without putting in risk its own party cohesion (not everybody within CiU agrees with the ‘final’ scenario of a secessionist bet). PP and PSOE will not the be the ‘silly irrational’ actors that most of the nationalist leaders try to show. The contradictions of the ‘secessionist’ strategy will arise immediately, as J.Hopkin argues in the previous comment. And the collapse of the PSC might paradoxically foster a new competitive strategy on the left space of the political game. ERC and SI are not definitely the best partners for the time to come: so Laia Balcells’ scenario 2 seems to be the more likely and deserves more explanation, according to the party politics that will start again the day after the election.

  4. Marc Aureli Nieto November 14, 2012 at 7:48 pm #

    I can asure you that scenario 2 would be an auto-destruction for CIU. At this point, any hypothetic offer from Spain (e.g. Fiscal Pact) would like to be voted by the people in a referendum with the independence as the other option. This article doesn’t mention a very important thing: The 09/11 demonstration was not organized by any party. It was organized by a non-political association called ANC (Catalan National Assembly) which is present in every city and most of the villages in the country. And this article does not mention as well that between 2009 and 2011, associations group called ‘Catalunya Decideix’ (Catalonia Decides), organized hundreds of popular referendums all over the country asking for the independence of Catalonia where almost 1.000.000 people voted. The people is pushing hard to reach the referendum and one of the options has to be ‘Independence’. In Catalonia, people are leading. And the politicians have to move or they will go backwards. I only see one scenario: 1.

  5. Albert Sese November 15, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Another important issue to take into account, slightly mentioned by Laia Balcells, is the possibility that an independent Catalunya can find itself out of the European Union, due to the veto that Spain will enact, most presumably followed by other European partners.
    If the next scenario of an independent Catalunya doesn’t contemplate a new state within the EU -as the massive 9/11 demonstration claimed- the positive support on a future referendum is likely to decrease over 20%. While this remains a basic concern, none of the European leaders have tackled the issue with a common strategy. The EU treaties don’t contemplate this scenario, and the different political parties in the European Parliament have contradictory opinions about the outcomes of such a process. The Scottish example, which is taking place in parallel towards the same uncharted destination, could contribute to the pursuit of an objective solution.

  6. Karlo Basta November 15, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    Well, the problem with scenario 1 is that Mas has already been hedging by saying that he’ll pursue the referendum only if he wins the majority. The independentist parties (a group to which CiU now belongs) are certain to win the majority among themselves, but, if Mas is to be taken seriously, this will not be enough. It has to be a CiU majority. I think he is well aware of the obstacles in the way to the referendum itself, to say nothing of independence. So he is giving himself a way out of it.

    At this point, the real question is how far either side is willing to push. For the Catalan nationalists, the question is what do they do if Madrid declares the referendum as illegal. Or, if they do hold the referendum, there is a solid turn-out, and there is a clear majority in favour of independence, what does Mas do if Rajoy still does not budge? Do they engage in civil disobedience? I’m not sure doctors and lawyers and businessmen in Catalonia have too much appetite for this.

    On the flip side, what does Madrid do if the Catalan government does declare a referendum? Does it ban it outright? And how do they do this? Arrest members of the Generalitat? Or do they let it play out (and risk that it results in significant support for independence) and then simply declare it unconstitutional?

  7. Laia Balcells November 15, 2012 at 10:05 pm #

    Thank you everyone for your excellent points. There are indeed many unknowns and uncertainties. The election results are maybe the least of the enigmas.
    More soon.

  8. Jordi Estarás November 24, 2012 at 6:07 am #

    There is no democracy under the rule of catalan nationalists. They are the new fascists of 21st Century. Spain, a democratic country within the EU, must find the way to protect freedom and democracy, now challenged and at risk in the hands of these nationalists. Many catalans, myself too, live in peace with our dual loyalty to Catalonia and Spain as a whole. We do not need to decide who we love more, father (Spain) or mother (Catalonia). We live fine with both!

  9. txuss martin November 24, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    Catalan nationalists are the new fascists because they express the desire to DEMOCRATICALLY decide what they want to be???? Come on, man! Who do you think you are, insulting people just because they have different ideas from you? I’m at least as democratic as you are, as anti-fascist as you are, and I’m a Catalan independentist from Spanish origins (my two parents came from Spain). It’s perfectly legitimate that you want to be Spanish AND Catalan, if that’s how you feel, but WHY do you need to deny other people their right to decide who they want to be? WHY? Do you want to be Spanish and Catalan? Nobody will deny you this right. Even when Catalonia becomes independent, you’ll be able topreserve your beloved Spanish citizenship (dual citizenships are a very common reality for millions of people). Or do you think that anybody who wants to segregate from a state is just a fascist? Do you think the same of Scottish people, who also want to organize a referendum to become independent from the UK? Or of the people from the TWO THIRDS of the actual states, which were created in the last 100 years?

    • Jordi Estarás November 29, 2012 at 9:13 am #

      Beg your pardon… two thirds of European states want to break up into little new states?… are you serious?…. where do you get that nonsense from?… That goes beyond any common sense we may make use of… Please, do not threath my intelligence!!!
      Be real, usually, if not in all cases and situations, reality is what it is and not what we would like it was.

  10. Jordi Estarás November 29, 2012 at 7:25 am #

    Nationalist Catalans are, indeed, fascists when:
    1st. It is forbidden by law to be able to attend school in Spanish, there is only Catalan.
    2nd. There have been several decisions from High Court in Spain stating that every citizen has the right to choose the vehicular language to follow studies and Catalan government has, literally, said that : “We will not follow the rules, it does not apply to us.”
    3rd. A citizen of a little town close to Barcelona had a Spanish flag hanging from his balcony… he has received several letters threathening his life and telling him to “leave catalan soil”.
    4th. the most important three words for a Catalan nationalist are “Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty”… well, what a coincidence… the extreme-right faction in the European Parliament, where you could find individuals like Mr. LePen, until its break-up (due to fights among them) used to be called “Identity, Tradition and Sovereignty”
    5th. Catalan nationalist bans and logos used the slogan “Catalunya desperta’t” (Catalonia, wake up!)… another coincidence, German nazis used the slogan “Deutschland Erwache” (Germany, wake up!)
    6th. Catalan nationalist claim that their “nation” is a thousand years old… again, another coincidence with the nazi german Thousand years Reich proclaimed by Hitler.
    7th. Very often they claim to be “of a different ‘race’ compared to the rest of Spain”… Race?… again… perhaps Aryan race?….
    I could continue giving more and more examples of a very suspicious nazi environment which modulate and shape the Catalan nationalist spirit… Make no mistake: Catalan nationalists are the newest type of european neo-nazis!!