The regional election taking place in Catalonia this Sunday, 14 February, will determine whether the new Catalan government develops a more confrontational stance towards Madrid on the secession issue. On the national level, the vote could complicate cooperation between the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the ruling minority coalition of the Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos. A less cooperative ERC would make policy more uncertain, but the PSOE-Podemos coalition is expected to remain in power for the foreseeable future.
Opinion polls currently point to a three-way race between the socialists, ERC, and the hard-line secessionist Together (Junts) party. However, pro-independence parties have two advantages: a) the electoral system, which overrepresents less-populated secession-backing areas; and b) the expected low turnout due to Covid-19, which could affect non-separatist parties more prominently. Therefore, even if the socialists were to win a plurality of votes, ERC or Junts might still obtain more seats.
Given the new parliament's expected high fragmentation, government formation will probably be quite challenging, and a potential repetition of the election should not be discarded. In any case, the secessionists face better government-formation prospects since non-separatist parties are unlikely to form a united front.
The key variable to watch is which of the two main pro-independence parties comes on top in the election, determining who heads the next government. An ERC executive would maintain the current ambiguous approach of criticizing Madrid rhetorically but not adopting any unilateral measures. In contrast, a government headed by Junts would probably lead to a more confrontational stance, especially if it needs the support of the hard-line far-left secessionist CUP in the Catalan parliament.
A victory of ERC would also make it more likely that the party would be willing to continue supporting the ruling PSOE-Podemos coalition in the Congress of Deputies. In contrast, a defeat would only reinforce those within the secessionist party against cooperation with the national government. A recent parliamentary vote on the decree regulating the future implementation of EU funds gave a taste of what the coming months could look like. ERC decided not to support the decree, forcing the government to rely on the surprise last-minute abstention of far-right VOX to get it approved. In sum, a less cooperative ERC would make policy more uncertain.
At the same time, the government's parliamentary weakness is unlikely to threaten its survival, at least this year. The opposition remains fragmented and unable to mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. It is also likely that the socialists will be able to use the crisis's urgency to pressure the different parties into supporting the government's most important policy measures. The next big signpost for the government's stability is likely to be the budget for 2022, which will not be discussed until Q4.
As for the potential divisions inside the ruling coalition, Podemos' expected bad results in the Catalan election will create an incentive for the party to make even a bigger effort to differentiate itself from the socialists. While this will inevitably create further frictions, a break-up of the coalition remains unlikely since Podemos would be all but decimated in a potential early election.