Comparative Politics

2012 Catalonia Elections: Pre-Election Report

Nov 14 '12

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; CiU+ERC+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.]