January 27, 2021


SPAIN: Catalan elections and coalition infighting still main risks to watch

BY Antonio Barroso

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( 4 mins)
  • Assuming the 14 February Catalan elections take place (a court must still confirm that the vote can be held), its results are likely to have an important bearing on national politics.
  • A defeat of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) at the hands of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) would probably complicate cooperation between the two parties at the national level.
  • Intra-coalition bickering between the socialists and Unidas Podemos poses the biggest risk to the government’s economic reform program.

Timing matters

While the Catalan regional government has tried to postpone the 14 February vote on safety grounds due to Covid-19, a court has temporarily invalidated the delay. In a preliminary ruling, the judges opened the door to postponing the elections if further restrictions are adopted nationwide to fight the coronavirus. A final decision on the matter is expected to be taken before 8 February.

Beyond logistical issues, the delay also has political significance. One month ago, the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) announced that Health Minister Salvador Illa, the government’s most visible figure in the management of the pandemic, would be the lead candidate of the PSC (PSOE’s sister party in Catalonia). Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s move is designed to take advantage of Illa’s popularity. The announcement did indeed materialize in a small bump in opinion polls for the socialists, who seem to be in a position to win the election potentially. A delay of the vote could dissipate such an effect and work in favor of the secessionist parties, ERC and Together for Catalonia (JxCAT).

Losing by winning

While Illa’s popularity might certainly help the PSC, the socialists’ strong standing in the opinion polls is, in fact, part of a longer trend of a realignment of Catalan (and Spanish) politics. The decline in support for Ciudadanos and Podemos over the last two years gives the socialists an opportunity to claw back voters from both parties and lead the anti-independence camp. While a victory for the PSC is now a possibility, however, the Catalan electoral system underrepresents urban voters, which favors secessionist parties.

In any case, the socialists’ potential victory could make things difficult for the left-wing national government. ERC has been one of the main parties propping up the PSOE-Podemos minority coalition in the Congress of Deputies. The expectation was that ERC’s victory in the upcoming elections would allow it to break free from the shackles of the hardline secessionist JxCAT and deepen cooperation with the socialists both in Catalonia and nationally. A victory for the PSC would completely change that calculation, as ERC would not support a regional government led by Illa. Rather, ERC would be forced to cut a deal with the other secessionist parties, which would, in turn, severely complicate cooperation with the ruling coalition in Madrid.

Hard choices

A bad result for ERC would be negative for the government’s medium-term survival prospects but have a limited impact in the first half of the year. With the third wave of Covid-19 infections in full swing, the government is still likely to get the support of parties in parliament to adopt any measures to fight the effects of the pandemic. Rather, the government’s parliamentary weakness will probably become more problematic in H2, when a new budget has to be approved.

Beyond the elections in Catalonia, another issue to watch is intra-coalition bickering. The relationship between PSOE and Podemos has become increasingly riddled with tensions. The finalization of the government’s national recovery and resilience plan – a prerequisite to receiving EU funds from the facility of the same name – is one of the main points of contention. To satisfy Brussels’ demands, the socialists are pushing for changes to the pension system, some of which are opposed by Podemos. Moreover, the far-left party wants to make changes to the labor code that go farther to what the socialists are willing to accept.

The final compromise sent in a final draft to Brussels leaves substantial room for the government to define the measures to be adopted in these sectors in the coming months. However, the growing disagreement between the two parties does not bode well for the government’s ability to implement policy changes, especially as Podemos is probably set to torpedo any initiative that might look like a structural reform.

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