Last Sunday, Catalonians went to the polls to renew their Parliament, since Artur Mas had decided to convoke early elections two months ago. These elections looked like a referendum about the independence of Catalonia, the richest province of Spain.
Indeed, it was the central topic of the campaign put forward by Artur Mas, the Generalitat president and Convergencia i Unio (CiU) leader, who wished to send a clear signal to Madrid and Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government, leaning on a part of the Catalonian population increasingly in favour of a secession with Spain.
Analysing the results, Artur Mas seems to have succeeded but he is far from the objectives he had targeted. His coalition is ahead (with 50 MPs) but lost a dozen of seats in comparison with 2010. Esquerra Republican de Catalunya (ERC, the Catalonian Separatist Left) benefited from the decline of CiU, increasing its share to 21 seats, and seems the real winner of the ballot, to the detriment of the Catalonian Socialists (PSC, 20 seats) and the Conservatives (Partido Popular, 19 seats) who, however, made some progress.
Now, the Catalonian head of government is obliged to find a compromise with the ERC to lead his project of independence for Catalonia. Indeed, the separatist leader hoped for an absolute majority, in order to act freely and get a better bargaining position vis-à-vis Mariano Rajoy. Let us remember that the PP leader and Spanish PM refused, last September, to grant Catalonia the same fiscal autonomy as the Basque Country. Catalonia asked for it in order to face with the crisis which still hits the province, and also because it considers its financial contribution to the Kingdom as too high.
With early elections, Mas hoped to establish a new power struggle in favour of his province and to put Rajoy with his back to the wall. In a context of strong separatist breakthrough in the province – symbolized by a grand rally in Barcelona with about 1 million participants, according to the organizers – Mas wanted to enjoy this success and shake the sceptre of independence to make Madrid give in better. Such a strategy involved the promise of a referendum on the status of the province in 2014, in spite of the opposition of the central government who bases on the Constitution (which does foresees such a possibility).
The Left separatists’ breakthrough partially changes the situation for president Mas insofar as he needs the ERC to lead his projects in optimal conditions. The logic would be that ERC and CiU reach an agreement about holding an auto-determination referendum. Nonetheless, the progress of the ERC is a kind of disowning for the outgoing Catalonian government, which applied for a time an austerity policy in order to reduce the abyssal deficit of the region, undermined by a high unemployment rate. It is highly probable that the ERC will demand some clear guarantees regarding the economic and social orientations of the future government, condition sine qua none to consider a ruling coalition, indispensable for the CiU and Mas anyway to govern.
Artur Mas’ relative victory will probably have major impacts on the CiU’s strategy. Results show that Catalonian voters, although seduced by the separatist option, are not yet ready to take this path and put their destiny in the hands of a party, especially taking into account the political and economic aftermath. The CiU and Artur Mas will have to answer to the Catalonian people’s concerns about social and economic policies before thinking about and defending independence. To be clear, a referendum at some time in 2014 seems to be questioned, Mas having to get a solid ruling coalition to maintain himself in power and to get in a better position vis-à-vis Rajoy.