Catalonia is about to celebrate its oddest election since the region’s autonomy was restored in 1979, during Spain’s transition to democracy. In October, after the region voted for independence in a referendum that had been declared illegal by Spain’s federal courts, the Catalan parliament declared independence — and Spain’s central government promptly took over the regional administration and called Thursday’s new regional elections.
As a result, several of this election’s candidates are either in prison or have moved to Belgium to avoid an order of arrest by a Spanish judge. That includes the leader of the front-runner party (Oriol Junqueras, from the center-left Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC) and the last regional president (Carles Puigdemont, the candidate of the centrist Junts per Catalunya, JxC). And the leaders of the two main civil organizations (Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez) supporting independence remain imprisoned on charges of sedition.
So what’s likely to happen?
The players and the polls
The Catalan political sphere has for decades been divided along two axes: first, left to right; second, support for more independent self-government to support for more unity with Spain.
Now that is changing. Thursday’s elections are likely to consolidate a realignment seen over the latest elections, by which support or rejection of independence appears to trump everything else. Some parties are “pro-independence,” which includes Puigdemont’s center-right JxC, Junqueras’s center-left ERC, or the extreme-left CUP. Others are anti-independence, or, as they are sometimes called, “constitutionalists,” a designation that includes the social-democratic PSC, the conservative PP, or the strongly anti-independence Ciudadanos (Cs).
The left-wing Catalunya-en-Comú (CeC) — supported both by the Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau and Spain’s national Podemos party — does not clearly fit in either classification. It opposes independence but rejects being part of the constitutionalist block.
In the last election in 2015, pro-independence parties won a majority of seats, although they failed to get more than 50 percent of the votes. Their determination to conduct a referendum of self-determination in opposition to the central government led to the recent crisis. Polls currently suggest that that pro-independence parties majority is now in peril while constitutionalists, particularly Ciudadanos, could increase their vote share, driven by an increase in turnout.
However, in a time of crisis like this one, election polls need to be taken with a grain of salt. That’s especially true when there are so many parties competing with overlapping ideological positions, and so many undecided voters who may not make up their minds until the very last minute.
That being said, three outcomes look plausible:
Scenario 1: A new pro-independence coalition
The three pro-independence parties — ERC, JxC, CUP — could win a majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament. If that happens, they are likely to form a coalition, or at least a minimum agreement to govern together. That wouldn’t be easy. There are some tensions between ERC and Puigdemont’s party, which have had differences in strategy in the last months and during the campaign.
Nevertheless, if this happens, these parties would claim a renewed democratic mandate to negotiate with the central government over independence — and would almost certainly be rebuffed by the Spanish government. Spain is not likely to change course unless the pro-independence vote is so overwhelming that international pressure insists it accommodate at least some of the independence block’s demands. However, such an outcome is highly unlikely.
Scenario 2: A cross-block coalition
Pro-secession parties will probably be unwilling to settle for anything less than another referendum on independence. Constitutionalists deem such a referendum as an illegal breach of the Spanish constitution. That leaves little space for compromise between parties from different blocks.
However, Catalunya-en-Comú (CeC) has proposed a left-wing coalition with PSC and ERC. A similar coalition has governed previously. But it’s unclear whether these three parties would have enough seats to form a government. What’s more, the distance between the pro-independence ERC and the constitutionalist PSC is very large. Unless one of them were to shift positions on that axis, it’s hard to imagine these two parties as governmental partners.
Another possibility would be a pro-independence-led government with external support from CeC, a scenario that could resemble the first one described above. However, the obstacles here are similarly challenging. First, CeC would surely demand the end of unilateral secessionist demands. Divisions among the pro-independence parties would make that extremely difficult. Second, CeC has promised to oppose any government that includes center-right parties that supported austerity measures during the financial crisis; that rules out Puigdemont’s party.
Scenario 3: Constitutionalist coalition
PSC, Cs, PP and CeC could win a majority of seats. However, CeC has explicitly ruled out the possibility of agreeing to form a government with Cs and PP. This leaves two options. First, PSC, Cs and PP have a majority of seats on their own, which polls suggest will be very unlikely. If that happens, these three parties would likely form some kind of coalition or minority government. Second, the central party in the block, the PSC, could form a single-party minority government with external support from Cs and PP on the right, and from CeC on the left. The PSC have seemed to be flirting with this option during the campaign; it is the only constitutionalist party that could reach out to the left-wing CeC.
But all three possibilities face highly challenging obstacles, both in winning enough votes on the day of the election, and in negotiating successfully the formation of a government thereafter. It’s all made much more difficult by the extremely polarized climate, and with Spain literally running the regional government.
A lot will depend on exactly who goes to the polls; turnout will likely affect the size of the two blocks. But no matter what the final distribution of seats is, forming a government and recovering self-rule will be anything but easy.
Laia Balcells is an associate professor at Georgetown University.
José Fernández-Albertos is a permanent fellow at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, in Madrid.
They are co-authors, with Alexander Kuo (Oxford University), of this article on preferences for regional redistribution in Spain.