Catalonia is heading for a snap election. What now?

With pro-independence unity in question, there might be major changes in the next government composition and a shift in the unionist front

Catalan president and vice president Quim Torra and Pere Aragonès sit together at the Executive Council meeting in the Catalan government (by Bernat Vilaró)
Catalan president and vice president Quim Torra and Pere Aragonès sit together at the Executive Council meeting in the Catalan government (by Bernat Vilaró) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

February 2, 2020 11:10 AM

It is all set for the fifth Catalan election in 10 years. That is, the fifth time Catalans will have their say on the parliament composition since Spain's Constitutional Court famously ruled partly unconstitutional a law enhancing Catalonia's self-rule – which is thought to have been the spark for the pro-independence cause's dramatic rise.

Catalonia will hold a snap election probably in the spring, once the budget is passed between March and April, as President Torra announced on Wednesday.

The beginning of the current term in May 2018 after the December 2017 election meant the end of an eight-month direct rule period, and it will now come to a premature end, such as the three preceding governments.

Now, with the independence crisis approaching a decade old, some of its leaders in jail, others in exile, some weak signs of a thawing with Spain and the current pro-independence government failing to find stability and unity, what is the political situation of the country now and what could we expect in the upcoming election?

1. Pro-independence unity in question

The current term has come to a sudden end due to major discrepancies between the two pro-independence governing parties, Esquerra and Junts per Catalunya: the former has been avoiding to set direct clashes with Spain's legal framework since 2018 and has been a firm defender of dialogue with the Spanish government.

The latter advocates for a quite different approach to reach independence, prioritizing civil disobedience, while being skeptical of a negotiation with Madrid.

"The parliament speaker [Esquerra's Roger Torrent] has left Catalonia's presidency unprotected," said Junts per Catalunya's Quim Torra, talking about himself when announcing the snap election after the budget.

"Repression has to be fought without bending the knee," he added complaining about Torrent accepting Spain's judiciary decision to strip Torra of his MP status.

"We cannot go for a useless disobedience," Esquerra's MP Sergi Sabrià said on Monday to justify accepting Spain's decision.

The leaders of both parties have been sending messages of pro-independence unity since the election was announced – yet, Esquerra's exiled secretary general, Marta Rovira, warned in an interview with Rac1 radio station that the current clash could "demobilize" pro-independence voters and make the cause lose supports.

2. Major changes in government composition?

Since the beginning of the independence push in 2012, the two main parties of the movement have been cooperating to ensure the governance of the country – ever since 2015 both Esquerra and the political space now called Junts per Catalunya have been sharing government.

And then there comes the million-dollar question: could this change, given their lack of understanding, and the different strategies they are following to achieve a Catalan republic?

In theory that would sound unthinkable to a large part of campaigners, and besides this could anyway be one of the few combinations gathering a majority.

Yet, the current clash might open new scenarios and the far-left pro-independence CUP, giving an essential support to each government from 2015 while staying in opposition, has already said they won't give support to another such coalition "to do the same."

Recently some commentators have speculated on the possibility that Esquerra governs with the backing of the Socialists – since the same has occurred in Spain but with roles changed –, but the pro-independence force has already denied it.

Anti-austerity Catalunya en Comú, who are non-aligned in the independence question, could also play a key role – they have recently cooperated with Esquerra in the Catalan and Barcelona budgets.

The outcome of the election will help foresee the future executive's composition – the key questions to answer include whether parties in favor of a split with Spain keep their majority, who comes first between Esquerra and Junts per Catalunya, and whether left-wing parties - regardless of the national issue - have enough seats to form a majority.

3. Shift in unionist front

Another possibility would be that the unionist parties achieve the majority of the seats – yet, while polls see it unlikely, in the past few months there has been a major split in this camp.

The Socialists are governing Spain with Esquerra's support, while Ciutadans, the People's Party and far-right Vox have strongly condemned it.

Ciutadans, now in a downwards trend taking into account the last Spanish election, has suggested a unitary electoral roll along with the People's Party.

Ciutadans amassed 36 seats in the past election, reaching the top spot – now the Socialists look set to surpass Lorena Roldán's party.

Meanwhile far-right Vox is ready to make its breakthrough in the Catalan chamber.

4. Dialogue to take slow path

The Socialists and Esquerra agreed to launch a "bilateral negotiation table" between the Catalan and the Spanish governments over the independence issue by the end of January.

It was agreed that before that happens, a meeting between presidents would be held on February 6 – since Catalonia is heading towards a snap election, Madrid said on Thursday that the underlying issue would not be discussed between Pedro Sánchez and Quim Torra, and postponed the negotiation table until the next Catalan cabinet is formed.

While in the end Spain accepted holding the first meeting between governments ahead the vote, it is unlikely that any conclusion is reached – or even sought – in the run-up of the vote and with an interim cabinet pending a new one to take office.

5. Jailed, exiled leaders and 'dejudicialization' of politics

The jailed leaders are serving sentences and have been barred from public office, so in principle they will not be able to run in the election this time. Yet, it is expected that they play some role in the campaign – so far they have all been supporting a higher degree of unity in the independence camp.

Meanwhile exiled leaders such as Carles Puigdemont will be able to run, and potentially the former president could set foot in Catalonia for the first time since 2017 using his immunity as MEP.

In the coming months the EU parliament will vote on his immunity, but this could well be after the Catalan vote – he will also take into account that it is very unlikely that he is president again even if he runs. He would need to be MP, and to do that, he would have to quit as MEP – but should he do that, he would lose his immunity, thus meaning he would not be able to return to Catalonia. Spain has already denied the possibility for someone to be president by proxy.

At the same time, the Socialists committed to "leave the judicialization of politics" behind in Spain's government. They have suggested altering the 'sedition' section of the criminal code, which could bring positive changes for the jailed leaders.

Yet, gestures from Pedro Sánchez's government in favor of the pro-independence camp could lead to more votes for the far-right.