THE CATALAN REGIONAL ELECTIONS DECEMBER 2017: A PRIMER FOR FOREIGNERS
- 22nd December 2017
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On Thursday 21 December 2017, Catalonia’s unicameral regional parliament held a snap general election after its prior parliament had been dissolved by Madrid, for supporting a declaration of Catalonia’s independence from the rest of Spain. The election results were a catastrophe for Mariano Rajoy, because they have confirmed that a clear majority of voters either want independence or, at the very least, a lawful referendum on the matter. So Catalan politics has just come full circle.
There are 135 seats in the Catalan regional parliament, elected by the D’Hondt system, a so-called “closed-list” proportional representation system. Under this system, Catalonia is divided into four constituencies in each of which political parties or groups present lists of candidates in order of priority. A voter votes for a single party. The seats are then divided between the parties in proportion to the number of votes received by each party. Once election results are counted, elected representatives are appointed from the party lists, starting with the top-named candidate working down. The system is highly proportional, in the sense that there is a close correlation between the number of votes each party receives and the number of seats it receives in the parliament.
The Catalan regional parliament is parliamentary, in the sense that the President of Catalonia is not elected independently but is elected (or dismissed) by a majority of the members of the Catalan Parliament. There are 135 seats in the Parliament, and therefore the support of 68 deputies is required to appoint a President after an election. Although they stood on separate party lists in December 2017, the two leading pro-independence parties this time stood separately and together achieved 66 seats. This is up from 62 seats they obtained in the 2015 elections. Of these parties, JxC is centre-right and his headed by Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader in exile in Brussels. ERC is left-wing, and is headed by Oriol Junqueras, Puigdemont’s deputy now in prison in Madrid. It will prove virtually impossible to divide these two parties, whose immediate agendas for all intents and purposes are co-aligned. Hence the pro-independence movement has won an astounding victory. They need a maximum of two more votes to appoint the post-election President. They will have plenty of choice as to where to find those two extra votes.
It is impossible for an anti-independence coalition to form a government over these numbers. That is because another four seats are held by CUP, a far-left pro-independence party. A further eight are held by CatComu, whose attitudes towards independence vary but at the very least support self-determination and the holding of another referendum. This is as bad for Madrid as independence. That is because, as the world is now starting to realise, a full and fair independence referendum would result in a clear net “yes” vote. There are various unfolding catastrophic scenarios awaiting Madrid in the near future, but one of them is that the pro-independence coalition appoints as President of the Generalitat, Catalonia’s regional government, either a man exiled in Brussels or a man In prison in Madrid.
A number of other themes in the regional elections should be observed. PP, the Madrid-based party of Mariano Rajoy, was virtually wiped out in the elections. It was reduced to 3 seats. PP’s name in Catalonia is so spoiled that nobody will enter into a coalition with it. The main anti-independence party is now confirmed as Ciudadanos, obtaining 37 seats. This party describes itself as centre-right but doesn’t have any substantial political agenda apart from opposing independence or further autonomy from Madrid.
Concerns have been raised about this party’s illicit political financing, the political inexperience of its candidates (its leader is 36 and with no prior political experience; hers is about the average age), and the potential for ballot-rigging. The meteoric rise of this party in just a few years with a massive electioneering budget is concerning. The party is associated with questionable electoral engineering practices elsewhere in Spain. Perhaps most alarmingly, it is extremely difficult to find anybody in Catalonia who admits voting for this party. Either support for Ciudadanos is treated as a guilty secret nobody wants to acknowledge; or the party’s performance at the polls does not actually reflect its level of popular support. The latter might be indicative of electoral corruption.
PSC, the Barcelona branch of the Madrid Socialist Party, has had a recent spate of poor electoral performances again confirmed. CUP lost seats (10 to 4), amidst a change of leadership and an improvement in the party’s image that had been seen as somewhat unprofessional. The overall pattern of the recent Catalan elections is one of Catalonia’s politics becoming ever more detached from those of Madrid. Catalans vote ever less in substantial numbers for political parties with national Spanish roots. This bodes ill for those who would keep Spain from disintegrating. The prevailing political dynamic Is in favour of fragmentation towards Barcelona.
The pre-election opinion polls were approximately accurate, with one exception. They dramatically under-estimated support for JxC, Puigdemont’s party, that transpired to be much more resilient to its leader’s exile than had been expected.
It is possible that a person in exile or in prison now be appointed President, but this would accelerate the Catalan crisis still more and would surely render Catalonia ungovernable: something it does not need. Madrid cannot now let either of these people return to Barcelona as free men, or its humiliation will be complete: but it may be forced to. The prevailing dynamic of the forthcoming coalition negotiations will surely turn upon the identity of the new President, which prima facie ought to come from JxC as the largest coalition party but in respect of which there may be a few surprise candidates.
Nothing has been resolved by recent events in Catalonia. Madrid’s policy towards the region has only been to foment discontent, and bolster the support of those who advocate independence. Once a coalition government has been formed, the next stage in resolving this crisis can only be to force a negotiated resolution to the immediate crisis upon Madrid. Irrespective of the future of the Catalan independence movement, the Spanish Constitution must be reformed to grant Catalans greater cultural and institutional autonomy that are cornerstones of their aspirations for independence.
Most fundamentally, a new fiscal autonomy pact must be negotiated with Spain. This way Catalonia’s principal grievance, the arbitrary withholding of Catalan tax revenues by Madrid to service its sovereign debt, might be abated. A safe and stable future for Catalonia far from assured. The Catalan crisis may still be in its earliest stages. The world must continue watching Catalonia, and with greater attention that it has hitherto exercised. Otherwise the Catalan crisis is at risk of spinning out of control into the Catalan catastrophe.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. www.matthewparish.com