Catalonia's regional election unlikely to heal bitter divisions

Spain’s PM hopes anti-independence ‘silent majority’ outside Barcelona turns out to vote – but crisis could last for decades

They are known as the silent majority, a multitude of depoliticised, working-class Catalans living in the industrial towns around Barcelona who, when asked, say they want nothing to do with independence.

In simple terms, these are the people who will cheer Barcelona football stars such as Andrés Iniesta or Gerard Piqué when they wear the club’s colours, and cheer them just as loudly when they don the red shirt of “la Roja”, Spain’s national team. They are far more likely to do that than enter a voting booth.

On Thursday night it will be established whether this social group, whose families mostly migrated to wealthy Catalonia from poorer parts of Spain, really exists – or at least whether its members have shaken off their apathy and voted, as the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will be praying.

Only if they turn out in force and help to overturn the parliamentary majority enjoyed by the separatists at elections in 2015 will the government in Madrid be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Even then, it will only be a relative letup in a bruising political conflict that is set to run for years, decades, or generations.

Any other result – another separatist victory, or a messy split that fails to provide a working majority – will keep the crisis bubbling. It may also mean Rajoy maintaining direct rule.

Why elections are being held

On 27 October, less than an hour after secessionist Catalan MPs voted to declare independence, Spain’s senate gave the country’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, power to assume control of Catalonia. As well as sacking the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, and his pro-independence government, Rajoy called snap elections to be held on 21 December.


Although Puigdemont is in Belgium and his former vice-president Oriol Junquerasis in jail pending possible charges including rebellion and sedition, both they and their parties are going to contest the election. More than a dozen Catalan leaders face charges, but all are eligible to stand so long as they are not convicted and barred from public office. Among those also running are the anti-independence, centrist Ciutadans or Citizens party, the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya, En Comú Podem-Catalunya en Comú coalition and Spain’s ruling conservative People’s party.

What it means for independence

Pro-independence parties used the polls two years ago as a de facto vote on splitting from Spain and Puigdemont’s coalition set about paving the way for the unilateral referendum. Pro-independence parties will be looking to use next week’s vote to maintain their momentum. Opposition parties will be looking to capitalise on the frustrations of the roughly 50% of Catalans opposed to independence.

How voting works

Members of the 135-seat Catalan parliament are elected using proportional representation. The seats are divided into four districts: at least 3% of the vote in each district is needed to win seats, and 68 seats are needed for a majority. The electoral system is weighted in favour of less populated rural areas.

It would be wrong to see this vote, though, as Catalonia against Spain. Instead, it pits Catalans against Catalans, making the election both starker and more representative than the chaotic and illegal independence vote organised by the separatist government on 1 October – which produced dramatic and disturbing images of police beating their way into voting stations to snatch away ballot boxes.

These are extraordinary circumstances, with Catalonia split into two increasingly angry halves and polls showing that those who preach moderation or compromise are the least likely to succeed.

A bitter campaign in which the Catalan electorate is being told to punish one side or the other for their behaviour over the past months has done nothing to heal wounds.

One side is outraged that police batons were used during the 1 October vote, that some of its leaders are now in jail and that Rajoy later imposed direct rule. This, it says, is the final proof of Madrid’s iniquity.

Spanish police prevent people from entering a polling station in Barcelona during the 1 October vote.
Spanish police prevent people from entering a polling station in Barcelona during the 1 October vote. Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images

The other side is furious that the separatists used a slim parliamentary majority – backed by less than 50% of Catalan votes – to force a confrontation with Madrid before declaring a muddled form of independence that turned out to have no substance to it. That, they say, has sowed the seeds of division, fractured Catalan society and driven away both money and jobs.

And yet both sides must continue living together. “What Catalonia needs is a future, not a settling of scores about the recent past,” wrote Laia Bonet, a Catalan socialist, in La Vanguardia newspaper. That may be true, but it is not how voters are being encouraged to think.

A separatist victory would do little to clear things up and may provoke splits in the independence movement’s own ranks. Hardcore separatists want to return to the path of civil disobedience, but the leadership appears to have realised that, with the European Union having turned its back, that route is blocked. Just restoring the self-government that Catalonia usually enjoys and seeking an amnesty for its own leaders may absorb much of the movement’s energy.

Apart from that, there is little indication of how it would drive the independence campaign forwards. “Tell us what you plan to so with the road map that you left only half-completed,” said the disillusioned separatist writer Bernat Dedéu in the pro-independence “Tell us how you plan to combat the violence of the state against the people.”

In this rarified and confrontational atmosphere, with the unpredictable “silent majority” so important, opinion polls cannot be trusted. The latest by the Catalan regional government, for example, had to be statistically adjusted after failing to find a sufficient number of people to answer its questions.

The only certainty is that whoever wins on Thursday will face two daunting tasks: mend the divisions between Catalans and make peace with Madrid.


Giles Tremlett

The GuardianTramp

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