Six key questions for the future of Catalonia that the February 14 election will answer

A three-way race to win, the impact of Covid-19 on voter turnout, and whether pro-independence parties keep majority and finally reach 50% of votes are main conundrums

A voter casting their ballot in a 2019 election (by Gerard Vilà)
A voter casting their ballot in a 2019 election (by Gerard Vilà) / ACN

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

January 29, 2021 11:31 AM

Around 5.6 million Catalans are called to cast their ballot on February 14 to decide the identities of the 135 MPs who will represent them in the Catalan parliament, and who subsequently will pick a new president for the country a few weeks later.

This election seems to be a battle between three parties, but the results – and the turnout – are very uncertain due to the impact of Covid-19, which might still force an eleventh hour postponement of the vote.

Despite the exceptionality of this election, the results will still open a new scenario in the Catalan political arena. The resulting chamber and government will have to face society's hottest topics, including the independence issue, the pandemic and economic recovery; all of this provided that there is no deadlock and the election does not require repetition.

Here are the six main questions for the future of Catalan politics that the election will answer.

Will the election take place despite Covid-19 and what impact will it have on turnout and result?

The election was set for February 14, but the sharp worsening of Covid-19 in January led parties to agree on a delay. All of them accepted holding the vote on May 30 except for the Socialists.

The postponement ended up in the Catalan high court, which decided to provisionally annul it and return the Election Day to February 14. But magistrates are still deliberating and by February 8, in the middle of the campaign, they could still rule that the vote cannot take place and accept the delay.

If polling stations do in fact open on February 14, experts expect a drop in turnout, despite the enhanced safety measures in which the vote will take place. The all-time low abstention of 20% in 2017 will be most likely be surpassed, despite an increase in mail-in ballots already registered. It is hard to say at this stage whether the abstention will evenly impact on parties, or if some will be more affected than others.

Who will be the winner?

There is a three-way race to top the election. Pro-independence left-wing ERC has topped most of the polls in the past few months, but some recent surveys predict that the Socialists (PSC) could overtake them. Especially since a last-minute change of frontrunner in the form of Salvador Illa, who after having enjoyed increased visibility as Spanish health minister, is now trying to become president for PSC.

Closely following them is Junts per Catalunya, the current senior government partner. Most polls place them in third position, like they did in the past election, but in 2017 they ended up second, ahead of ERC, against all odds.

These three parties are expected to garner between 25 and 35 seats each, very far from the majority, at 68, so coalitions will be needed to avoid a deadlock and a repetition of the election.

Will pro-independence parties keep majority, or will unionists avoid it for first time in a decade?

It is still unclear. Most polls take for granted that pro-independence parties will keep their almost decade-long majority of 68 seats at least, but a recent major poll, the Spanish government-funded CIS, predicted 58 to 71 MPs for those who want a split with Spain.

JxCat – or their predecessors – and ERC have been in charge of the country's governance ever since 2012, when they launched the independence push. Together with CUP, they respectively amassed 74, 72 and 70 seats in the past three elections, displaying a slight downwards trend.

Those against secession want to put an end to this era and they think they have a good chance at this on February 14.

Both blocs mobilized their supporters more than ever in 2017, but whether they will both be able to do it again remains an unanswered question.

Will a far right party enter parliament for first time?

Most likely, yes. Far-right Vox did not run in the past Catalan vote, and only began to surge in the polls in 2018, a year before they achieved their first seats in the Spanish congress and most regional parliaments in Spain.

The Catalan election is the last one of the cycle for Vox, who is set to garner a handful of seats – more than 10 would be a major surprise – but is unlikely to play a key role in the country's governance, unless unionists amass the majority of seats. Even so, any talks with the Socialists seem as of today like science fiction.

Will pro-independence parties reach 50% of ballots for first time?

Achieving over 50% of the ballots has always been on the horizon for the pro-independence bloc. In all past three elections, 47% of those who took part voted for them, which saw them gain the majority of seats.

The 2019 European election marked the top result for them, at 49.7%.

Unionists have always fought back against those in favor of a Catalan republic by arguing that they have always been the minority, despite winning the election.

Some polls show that this could change and the desired 50% could be achieved. In this event, it is not clear whether pro-independence parties would take a different approach in their struggle to departure from Spain.

What will be the resulting governing coalition? Or will the election have to be repeated after a deadlock?

The post-election alliances are not clear at all. Chances are that JxCat and ERC will repeat their alliance to form a joint pro-independence government, but two issues could deter it.

Firstly, they have been constantly clashing in cabinet since 2018 and a climate of mistrust continues, which might frustrate any chance of reaching deals.

The second one is that they might not amass enough seats and they could need CUP to swear in a president; the anti-capitalists have done it twice while staying in opposition, but they seem reluctant to repeat it.

ERC wants a large coalition government of all those supporting a referendum, that is to say including JxCat, CUP and Catalunya en Comú – Podem (CatECP), but the others have denied this possibility.

ERC, CUP and CatECP (the Catalan allies of Podemos) as left-wing pro-referendum forces could be an alternative, but they would need some other party in opposition ensuring the governability. Could the Socialists be the ones, mingling pro-independence and unionist blocs for the first time in a decade?

Indeed, CatECP's dream government would be one including themselves, ERC and the Socialists, but Salvador Illa only considers the possibility of imitating the Spanish executive, which is led by Socialists, and also includes Podemos.

In any case, the Socialists and the rest of unionists (Ciudadanos, the People's Party and far-right Vox) want to see the pro-independence rule brought to an end. If they get enough seats to make it, would an alliance with such a wide range of ideologies be possible?

If none of the above work, Catalans would be forced to repeat the election at some point in July.