Axed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont (C) smiles during a press conference on December 22, 2017 in Brussels, a day after the Catalonia’s regional election. Catalans flooded to the polls in a crucial election that could mark a turning point for their region, just two months after a failed secession bid triggered Spain’s worst political crisis in decades. / AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNAND
With their leaders in exile or jail, Catalan separatists scrambled Friday to reap the benefits of defeating Spain’s central government in a divisive regional election.
Madrid had called Thursday’s vote after secessionists declared independence on October 27, amid Spain’s worst political crisis since democracy was reinstated following dictator Franco’s death in 1975.
The vote was widely seen as a moment of truth on the independence question, a hugely divisive issue for the wealthy northern region, that has rattled a Europe already shaken by Brexit.
But with the secessionists maintaining their parliamentary majority, the move to call snap polls appeared to backfire against Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who had sacked the regional government and dissolved its parliament.
Still, in a clear indicator of the gulf over independence afflicting Catalan society, anti-secessionist centrist party Ciudadanos won the biggest individual result with 37 of the 135 seats in the regional parliament.
Unless the three pro-independence lists fail to clinch a deal to work together in the coming months, however, they will govern Catalonia with 70 seats — two less than their previous tally.
“This is a result which no one can dispute,” deposed leader Carles Puigdemont said from self-imposed exile in Belgium.
“The Spanish state was defeated. Rajoy and his allies lost,” he told reporters.
‘Biggest loser is Rajoy’
Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia list secured the best result of the three separatist groupings.
“The biggest loser of election night was the People’s Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, which obtained only three seats,” said Antonio Barroso, a political risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence in London.
How the independence camp will rule remains a mystery, however — and should its leaders fail to put their house in order, Catalans may even have to return to the polls.
“It is unclear whether Puigdemont will be able to be re-appointed… as he will be arrested if he comes back to Spain,” Barroso said.
“As a result, the investiture process will be far from straightforward, and the risk of new elections in 2018 remains high,” he added.
“The investiture of a new first minister is likely to be a protracted and noisy process,” he said.
Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium and tried to rally international support for the separatist cause, faces charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of funds in Spain.
Other independence leaders, including Puigdemont’s former deputy Oriol Junqueras, are behind bars pending trial.
In a news conference in Brussels on Friday, Puigdemont said he was ready to hold talks with Rajoy outside of Spain.
Rajoy had yet to respond early Friday afternoon. He has repeatedly said there can be no talks unless separatists abandon their independence drive.
So far the EU has backed Rajoy, saying it supports constitutional order, and that it is an internal matter for Spain.
The European Commission stressed its stance remained the same regardless of the result of the vote.
‘Sit down and talk’
Ciudadanos’s candidate Ines Arrimadas saw the glass half-full for the anti-independence side.
The fragmented vote result shows Spain and the world “that here in Catalonia there has never been a secessionist majority”, she told reporters.
One pro-independence voter, 50-year-old marketing specialist Francesc Portella, said of Thursday’s result: “The message to Spain is, sit down and talk.”
Rajoy may speak in the afternoon after a meeting of his party, which saw its number of seats in the Catalan parliament slashed from 11 to just three.
Pablo Casado of Rajoy’s PP party warned the separatists that “whatever new government rules the region, (the separatists) know the consequences for breaking the law.”
Crucially, however, the pro-independence camp is not expected to attempt another breakaway from Spain but rather try to enter into negotiations with Madrid.
For all the talk that the separatist cause had been legitimised, analysts predict a softening around the edges of the independence bid.
The Catalan business elite, some of whose members have close links with Puigdemont’s party, “know that they have to give a fresh boost to tourism and the economy”, sociologist Narciso Michavila told AFP.
At stake in the crisis is the economy of a region that has seen its tourism sector suffer and more than 3,100 companies — including the largest banks, utilities and insurers — move their legal headquarters out of Catalonia.