Comparative Politics

2012 Catalonia Elections: Post-Election Report

Nov 28 '12

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.