February 15, 2021

Europe

SPAIN: Sanchez the biggest winner after Catalan election

BY Antonio Barroso

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( 3 mins)
  • The Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) is poised to lead the next Catalan government despite the victory of the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) in the 14 February regional poll.
  • An ERC-led government is less likely to push for unilateral steps towards independence and will make it easier for the party to cooperate on the national level with the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos.

The poll confirmed that the electorate is still split on the secession issue, with pro-independence parties obtaining around 50% of the vote (although with around 700,000 votes less than in 2017 because of the lower turnout). ERC (33 MPs in the 135-seat regional chamber) obtained one seat more than its main competitor in the secessionist space, Junts (32 seats). On the non-separatist side of the spectrum, the socialists (33 seats) became the largest anti-independence party, overtaking Ciudadanos (6 MPs), which lost 30 seats. Ciudadanos probably lost votes to the PSC and especially to far-right VOX, which entered the Catalan parliament for the first time with 11 seats.

Despite the PSC having won most votes, it is highly unlikely that its leader and former health minister Salvador Illa will become regional prime minister. The secessionist parties are already negotiating to form a government to prevent Illa from even going before the Catalan parliament to ask for its confidence. However, it is unclear whether they will reach an agreement quickly, given that ERC wants to extend the deal to Podemos, a move that Junts oppose. Moreover, ERC and Junts need the support or at least the abstention of far-left hard-line secessionist CUP, which might ask for unilateral steps in favor of secession that ERC might not be willing to accept.

In any case, the only alternative to an ERC-led government is new elections, which parties seem keen to avoid. However, whatever form the new government headed by ERC takes, it will probably be subject to considerable internal frictions. The virtual tie between the two main separatist forces means the election has not put an end to the fight for the secessionist movement’s hegemony. ERC will probably refrain from pushing for unilateral steps towards independence, focusing instead on obtaining a pardon for the Catalan politicians serving prison sentences. However, Junts will probably pressure the government to adopt a more confrontational attitude towards the central government.

Sanchez’s bet pays off

From a national standpoint, the elections’ results are positive for Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on two fronts. First, an ERC-led government will probably make it easier for the Catalan party to continue cooperating with PSOE and Podemos on the Congress of Deputies. Second, the victory of former health minister Salvador Illa in the elections confirms that the management of the pandemic has actually improved the electoral prospects of the socialists.

On the opposition front, Ciudadanos’s defeat in Catalonia could lead the party to increase its visibility by being more influential in the Congress of Deputies, which would bode even better for the central government’s ability to pass legislation. Meanwhile, VOX’s victory in Catalonia does not mean the party can currently overtake the People’s Party (PP) nationally as the largest right-wing force. The PP still controls several regions and has strong regional and local networks. However, the electoral volatility that continues to characterize Spanish politics means the PP should not take for granted its hegemony on the right of the political spectrum.

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