A man buys a newspaper featuring the results at the Catalan regional election at a news stand in Barcelona on Dec. 22. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

The result of the election held in Catalonia on Dec. 21 appears contradictory. On the one hand, parties advocating independence collectively won a majority of seats. On the other hand, the party that most strongly opposes independence, Citizens, came in first place.

The election came amid enormous political unrest. In October, the Catalan government held a referendum on independence, even though Spanish courts had declared it illegal. After the results came in, the Catalan parliament unilaterally declared independence — after which the Spanish government suspended Catalan autonomy and jailed many pro-independence leaders.

In the wake of such dramatic events, we might have expected citizens to shift their votes significantly.

That’s not what happened. Some parties did gain or lose votes. But strikingly, overall support for pro-independence parties has remained surprisingly stable. The total vote for pro-independence parties went from 47.8 percent in the previous 2015 election to 47.6 percent in 2017.

We see this as evidence of a deeply polarized society. After years of conflict over Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum and on independence itself, Catalans have divided into two opposing groups — based on family origin, as measured by first language.

Here’s how we did our research

The Making Electoral Democracy Work (MEDW) project conducted an online survey over the seven days before this week’s regional election, with 1,500 respondents obtained from Survey Sampling International. Respondents were weighted so that our sample is representative in terms of age, gender, education, province, the decision to vote and vote choice. We asked Catalans how strongly they support or oppose independence, on a scale from 0 to 10. The figure below shows the results. Just under a third of respondents strongly oppose independence, while a slightly smaller proportion strongly support it. The other third of Catalans place themselves somewhere in between the two extremes.


Support for independence

We split the sample into three groups. We consider everyone whose support for independence was less than 4 on the scale to be opponents of secession; that came to 35.9 percent of the sample. We consider anyone who answered more than 6 to be a supporter, which came to 47.6 percent. And we consider those who gave scores from 4 to 6 to be ambivalent, making up 16.4 percent of the sample.

The figure below shows our respondents’ positions on the independence issue by whom they said they would vote for. An overwhelming majority of those who said they would vote for one of the three pro-independence parties — Together for Catalonia (JxC), Catalan Republican Left (ERC), and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) — said they favor independence. Supporters of the three parties that clearly oppose independence — Citizens (Cs), the People’s Party (PP), and the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC) — oppose independence, though not as strongly as those who support it. Finally those who voted for Catalonia in Common-We Can (Comú), which has been more ambivalent about its position, are almost equally divided among the three groups.


Position on independence by vote choice

Very few Catalans are changing their positions

Most Catalans voted for a party on the same side of the independence divide this time as in the last regional election in 2015. We asked survey respondents which party they voted for in 2015.  In 2015, 95 percent of Catalans who voted for a pro- or anti-independence party in 2015 voted for a party on the same side of the debate this week. An additional 61 percent of those who voted for an ambivalent party continued voting for an in-between option; the rest of the voters who voted for an ambivalent party in 2015 split their votes roughly equally between parties on each side this time. The major change in 2017 has been a shift away from the smallest parties in each group toward the largest.

Catalans’ positions on the independence issue also influenced how they feel about recent events in Catalonia. In the figure below, you can see Catalans’ reactions to three important decisions made by the Catalan and Spanish governments over the past three months — decisions supported by less than half of the population. A solid majority of those who favor independence supported the Catalan government’s illegal referendum on Oct. 1; supported the Catalan government’s Oct. 27 independence declaration; and opposed the Spanish central government’s decision to suspend Catalan autonomy. Overwhelming majorities of those who oppose independence took the opposite positions on these actions.


What most distinguishes these opposing groups? Their first language.

Since the late 19th century, a tremendous number of people have migrated to Catalonia from other regions of Spain. Today, most of the region’s population has roots elsewhere in the country. Most of these descendants of migrants have Spanish as a first language. The rest have learned Catalan first.

Among Catalans whose first language is Spanish, support for independence is 29.5 percent. Among those whose first language is Catalan, it is at 77.5 percent.

With such deep divides, it is difficult to be optimistic about Catalonia’s future. No clear majority either favors or opposes independence.

However, 48 percent of those who favor independence still identify to some extent with Spain. One of us previously did research that found that conflict between parties makes Catalans with ambivalent identities adopt more extreme attitudes on the independence issue. If parties stop arguing over independence, Catalan society may come back together.

Eric Guntermann is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of political science at Université de Montréal and the research coordinator for Making Electoral Democracy Work.

André Blais is professor in the department of political science and holds a Research Chair in Electoral Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is the principal investigator for Making Electoral Democracy Work.