Catalonia’s election result is a serious rebuff for the Spanish government, which called Thursday’s poll after putting the region under direct rule in October. Mariano Rajoy’s government wanted to nip the independence mood in the bud. Instead, parties that favour independence have been returned with a narrow majority in the new Catalan parliament in spite of, and perhaps because of, the jailing and exile of key leaders. Yet the result is hardly a triumph for these parties, which although winning 70 of the 135 seats, had the backing of only 47.5% of the votes in a very high turnout. There is no mandate for Catalan independence there. But there is no mandate for the status quo either.
Both sides behaved provocatively in the course of the crisis. While Madrid dug in against change, the separatists called an illegal referendum which voted overwhelmingly for independence on 1 October, with a majority of Catalans boycotting the poll. Mr Rajoy’s government overreacted, using violence against voters and imposing direct rule that triggered the jailing of political leaders. It is not surprising that his party saw its vote fall by half this week.
Yet nor is it surprising that the big surge in the election was for the more centrist unionist party Citizens, which came top of the poll. The party’s leader, Inés Arrimadas, seems unlikely to form a new government. But those who do so would be wise to learn from her success in such polarised times. This is a new situation and a new opportunity.
If the two sides are wise, they will use this week’s result to wipe the slate clean to allow parliamentary politics to resume. The Madrid government should revoke direct rule and ensure an amnesty for jailed and exiled Catalan leaders, including Carles Puigdemont. But the separatists should accept that the 1 October independence vote is null and void. The two sides must negotiate – in Spain – to agree a richer form of devolution for Catalonia that celebrates Spain’s diversity of identities. Some militants on both sides will be obdurate, but the lesson of this week is that a principled compromise is what the situation now requires.