The voters of Catalonia took part in an historic election yesterday that could signal the beginning of independence for the region from Spain in a move that will radically shake up the map and the politics of Europe.
The winning parties, collectively under the banner of Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) captured 62 of the seats in the Catalonian Parliament, and along with pro-independence CUP, who won a further 10 seats, there will be a majority of members in favour of secession when the new Parliament sits.
During the run-up to the campaign, Junts pel Si leader Artur Mas has signalled that a pro-independence government will see the region break away within 18 months, beginning negotiations with the Spanish authorities within days of taking office.
However, the Spanish Government has been adamant in its opposition to Catalan independence, repeatedly denying the people of the region a binding referendum on the subject and decrying last November’s plebiscite on the question to be unconstitutional and illegal.
Catalonia is one of the most economically successful parts of Spain, contributing as much as a fifth of the country’s GDP, as well as being home to over 7 million people and the cultural centre of Barcelona. It has its own distinct language of Catalan and came under brutal repression under the Franco regime of the 20th century. It is because of the different economic and cultural climates in the region compared with the rest of Spain that the move towards independence has grown over the last decade, with many feeling that their efforts are subsidising the rest of Spain which suffered heavily during the recession of the late 00s and early 10s. The austerity programme of the Spanish Government has hit Catalonia hard, and many see independence as the only way of preserving their own way of life.
While this is the closest Catalonia has come to independence since it was subsumed into Spain during the early 18th century, there are still many obstacles in its path. Firstly, a coalition will need to be formed by the collectivist Junts pel Si, which comprises both left and right wing parties that are working for an independent state, and the CUP, which are a more radical left-wing party that are in favour of faster separation but only if there is a popular mandate for it.
Crucially for the coalition building, the pro-independence parties did not win a majority of the votes cast, getting 47.8% off a 77.4% turnout. Whether the CUP’s loyalty is to the principle of a mandate or to independence remains to be seen.
Should a coalition be formed, Catalonia would then likely need to opt for a unilateral declaration of independence as the Spanish Government has steadfastly held to its position that secession is illegal and forbidden by the country’s constitution. While democratically it seems shaky that such as UDI should be declared when over half the population do not vote with it, the Spanish Government is refusing the chance for the people of Catalonia to exercise their right to self-determination. Unlike with Scotland, Spain is denying the chance of a referendum to Catalonia because of how damaging it would be to their economy and to their rule, particularly with separatists in the Basque country still making their own case for independence. Losing Catalonia would be more than losing a part of itself, it could mean the end for Spain in many ways.
The momentum is clearly towards independence for Catalonia and the efforts of Spain to stifle the insurrection may turn out to backfire. Being denied a democratic voice is one sure way of campaigning for independence, and Spain is providing the Yes camp with a very solid democratic argument for any potential campaign to come. It’s time for Spain to call the bluff and call a referendum. The result will be close but it looks like if there’s any result to be had at the moment Spain need to act quick before losing its crown jewel and plenty more besides.