Catalan separatists must govern in a way that addresses the plurality of opinions revealed in the regional election, Spain’s prime minister has said, as Catalonia’s newly elected officials vowed to begin moves to break away from Madrid.
“The Catalan government must govern in the interest of all Catalans, not just one part,” Mariano Rajoy said in his first remarks since Sunday’s regional election, which was billed as a de facto referendum on independence. “They need to build a government that governs for all Catalans, that overcomes the divisions that have dominated in recent years and returns to constructive dialogue.”
Rajoy welcomed a result that he interpreted as a firm rejection of independence by many voters in the region. “Yesterday we saw the plurality of Catalonia,” he said. “Those who proposed to break us apart didn’t have legal backing, or the backing of voters. Less than four out of 10 Catalans supported their plans.”
Nationalist coalition Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) won 62 seats in the election, while the far-left pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy, known in Spain as CUP, won 10 seats, paving the way for an alliance between the two parties that could give secessionists control of the region’s 135-seat parliament.
The result pitched the independence movement into a grey zone, leaving it open to varying interpretations. As secessionists declared victory on Sunday, others pointed out that pro-secessionist parties only won 47.8% of the vote, shy of the 50% they would have needed to move forward if Sunday’s vote had been a real referendum.
Rajoy said on Monday he was willing to enter into a dialogue with the newly elected regional government, but said any conversations would have to contemplate actions within the scope of Spanish law. “Dialogue is healthy and democratic. What is insane and anti-democratic is to try and break the law,” he said.
“I am not going to talk about either the unity of Spain, or sovereignty,” he added.
His remarks implicitly ruled out any possibility of the government negotiating a referendum on independence for the wealthy north-eastern region. Rajoy and his governing People’s party (PP) argue that a referendum – such as that held in Scotland last year – would be illegal in Spain, as the country’s constitution does not allow regions to make unilateral decisions on sovereignty.
Despite mounting pressure from Catalan leaders in recent years, Rajoy has held firm, weary that any concessions made to Catalonia would probably have to be extended to separatist movements across Spain. On Sunday, as Catalans queued to cast their ballot in a historical election, the head of Spain’s Basque country voiced his desire to hold a consultation on independence. “I believe in the possibility of a legal and negotiated consultation,” the region’s premier, Iñigo Urkullu, said at a rally for his Basque Nationalist party.
The PP is also conscious of the looming general elections, due by the end of the year. While analysts say Rajoy’s tough stance on independence could garner the party votes in other regions, Catalans gave the PP one of its worst showings in recent years, handing it 11 seats on Sunday, down from 19 in the previous elections.
Many Catalans opposed to independence instead put their confidence in centre-right Ciutadans, the regional arm of Ciudadanos. Pledging to change the financing system for Spanish regions and more clearly distribute competencies between central and regional governments, the party nearly tripled its number of elected officials from the 2012 regional elections, from nine to 25, making it the second strongest party in the new Catalan parliament.
The Catalan leaders behind Junts pel Sí reiterated that the election had delivered the mandate they needed to move forward with independence. “If one reads the results responsibly, the message is clear,” said Raül Romeva, who fronted the Junts pel Sí ticket. “What we have to do now is listen to the will of the people, and move the process forward.”
He pointed to the 1.74m votes obtained by the parties that made up Junts pel Sí and CUP in the 2012 election. On Sunday, the same pro-independence parties won 1.95m votes.
Negotiations with the CUP would begin soon, said Romeva. Hammering out a potential alliance looks to be the first hurdle for Catalonia’s separatists, as anti-austerity CUP said repeatedly during the campaign it would not support a government led by regional president Artur Mas, whom it blamed for implementing austerity measures in the region.
Mas brushed off questions as to whether he would step down to allow the independence process in Catalonia to move forward. “Whether or not I’ll be the president is not important,” he said. “The important thing is whether these 72 pro-independence politicians agree to follow the roadmap towards the creation of our own state.”
• This article was amended on 29 September 2015. An earlier version quoted Rajoy as saying four out of 10 Catalan voters didn’t support independence, rather than less than four out of 10 Catalans supported the plans.