On the 12th of May, Catalans (a region and arguably a nation in the North-East of Spain) went to vote for a new Regional Parliament in a snap election The election resulted in pro-Independence Catalan parties losing their majorities in the parliament to anti-Independence Spanish parties. 

Election Results 

The centre-left Catalan Socialist party (PSC) led by Salvador Illa came top of the polls winning 42 seats (falling 26 seats of an overall majority) with 28% of the vote. PSC is the Catalan Branch of the national Spanish Socialist Workers Party whose leader, Pedro Sanchez, is the current Prime Minister of Spain. 

Meanwhile, the incumbent pro-independence ‘Esquerra Republicana’ (Republican Left of Catalonia) party came in third, winning twenty seats and losing thirteen. Esguerra’s leader, Pere  Aragonès, announced his retirement as leader after the poor election results. While some other independence parties did gain seats in total, pro-independence parties won sixty-one seats in the parliament (compared to seventy-four seats in the 2021 election). This means that for the first time since 1984 Catalan nationalist parties do not comprise a majority in the Catalan Parliament. Is Catalan Nationalism therefore dead? And if so, how did it come about?

The end of ‘El Process’ – the history of the Catalan Independence Movement 

Catalan independence has a long history dating back to the 1800s which is intimately intertwined with the history of the formation of Spain. However it makes sense to understand the contemporary rise of Catalan Nationalism as emerging as a result of the repression of the Francoist regime. Under Franco (a right-wing nationalistic military dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 until 1978) Catalan devolution was abolished. Franco also imposed repressive language policies which severely restricted the use of Catalan in the public sphere and even the private sphere (such as only allowing babies to be given ‘Spanish names’). In the immediate aftermath of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalan Independence was a ‘fringe’ political viewpoint – associated with violent terrorist groups such as Terra Lliure. However, since then the Catalan Independence movement has grown in popularity as the Catalan Nationalist movement became more polarised. A key turning point was the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy, which would have declared that Catalonia was a nation and given Catalonia more financial autonomy – but it was declared unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court. The Catalan backlash to this judicial decision (and the new Conservative government in Madrid) helped the independence movement who now began to talk about ”El Process’ (the steps towards Catalan Independence) and led to a gradual increase in support for independence. This culminated in referendums, which were first held in some municipalities and later organised by the Catalan Parliament in 2014 and 2017. Both these referendums showed significant majority support for a Yes vote, but turnout in both referendums was under 50%. Catalans against Independence largely abstained as they viewed the referendums (not sanctioned by the Spanish government) as illegitimate.  Throughout this time period, the Spanish government had entered into a prolonged political showdown with the Catalan Government. Meanwhile, the Spanish conservative government sided with the Spanish Constitutional Court (who had decided that a referendum was unconstitutional). When the 2nd independence referendum had taken place – the Spanish government tried to disrupt the vote, by seizing ballot papers beforehand – and on the day of the referendum Spanish voters beat  Catalan voters, injuring them. The 2017 binding independence referendum culminated in a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (which was almost instantaneously suspended) by then President Puigdemont and led to Catalonia being governed under the direct control of the Spanish Government.  Moreover, orchestrators of the declaration of Independence were arrested and imprisoned –  while Puigdemont fled the country to flee persecution from the Spanish Government. 

The Future for Catalonia 

With Puigdemont still in-exile, many thought that the conflict would heighten and remain increasingly polarised. However, the arrival of a new left-wing minority government in Spain (who is forced to rely on nationalistic Catalan parties) has arguably led to a less polarising approach that has decreased the salience of constitutional issues in Catalonia. The recent Amnesty Law, currently going through the Spanish parliament, demonstrates that Sanchez has taken a more conciliatory approach to the ‘Catalan’ Issue (even if it is arguably forced by his parliamentary position). PSC’s electoral success in the recent Catalan Parliament election might suggest that Sanchez’s gamble has paid off.

The new Parliament has until mid-August to pick a President of the Parliament, who has to be approved by a simple majority of the parliament. However, it seems likely that the parliament will struggle to come to a consensus. This is because, while PSC’s Salvador Illa favours a left-wing coalition government (including the centre-left pro-independence party Esquerre Republicana) Esquerre has said that it wants to be in opposition and has ruled out this coalition. Meanwhile, Puigdemont wants to be president and has proposed that PSC abstains to allow him to become President with the support of other pro-independence parties which the PSC has rejected. The current impasse raises the likelihood of another snap election and the further revival of Catalan Nationalism.

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