GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 895, 17 May 2024

Catalonia and the Spain Elections: Decline of pro-independence voices
Neha Tresa George

In the news
On 12 May, Catalonia in Spain witnessed the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) led by Salvador Illa emerge victorious with 42 seats, with the pro-independence parties taking a backseat for the first time in a decade in the regional elections.
Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez congratulated Illa for the "historic result." In a post on X, Sanchez said it would mark the beginning of "a new era in Catalonia."

Issues at large
First, a brief note on Catalonia. Within Spain, the region has its language and distinctive traditions and a population of almost 7.5 million. It is also the richest and one of the most vital parts of Spain. Catalan separatism emerged in the 1850s with Renaixenca (rebirth), a movement to revive Catalan as a living language with its press and theatre. Even though the region attained a slight autonomy by 1913, Miguel Primo de Rivera who was the dictator of Spain repealed it in 1925. His policy led to the formation of a left-wing coalition party, the Esquerra Republicana, which attained victory in the municipal elections of 1931. The formation of the pro-autonomy Convergence and Union party in 1978 served as a political force for Catalonia. With the attainment of full autonomy in 1979, the region was granted “nation” status in 2006. The autonomy statute was struck down in 2010 when Spain’s constitutional government ruled that Catalans constituted a “nationality” but not, a “nation.”

Second, the emergence of the Catalan independence movement and separatism. Catalans who were already frustrated at the eurozone debt crisis were motivated by Scotland’s referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2014. Following a symbolic referendum led by the Convergence and Union leader Artur Mas, which Spain immediately challenged, the separatists won the regional elections in 2015. Tensions reached its peak in 2017 when the government led by Carles Puigdemont moved ahead with an illegal independence referendum which declared independence for the Catalan Republic.

Third, shift in people’s demand. Although Madrid had dissolved the parliament and called for a snap election after the referendum in 2017, separatists won by a slim majority, and the newly elected President vowed to continue fighting for independence. Puigdemont, the then President, had fled the region in fear of the charges against him with several others as they were alleged for their seditious policies. The widespread protests and police response led to one of the worst street violence in Spain. Nevertheless, the government, before the elections of 2024 led by Pere Aragonès, made the people shift their demands to improvements in social services rather than independence due to the drought-prone conditions and the increasing cost of living during his time.

Fourth, the rise of Pedro Sanchez. The Prime Minister of Spain who came to power leading a vote of no confidence against Mariano Rajoy in 2018 has a conciliatory approach towards Catalonia as he had received the backing of the pro-independence party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya to secure his position. Sanchez was observed to be acceding to the demands of Junts pel Sí, the political party led by Puigdemont by brokering an amnesty deal that would deprive them of their charges under the scope for “peaceful coexistence” in Catalonia. Whereas Puigdemont who had fled the region in fear of the charges against him,  intends to return Spain once the amnesty proposal becomes law. Despite several protests regarding the proposal in the country, Sanchez stood firm as the Junts have agreed to back his position in favour of it. Although the bill got approved in the lower house of Parliament, the upper house stalled it delaying its implementation. The election results indicated that Sanchez’s high-risk amnesty proposal has served its purpose by reducing the separatist tensions while at the same time helping to normalize Spanish-Catalan relations. The bill also plays a major role in diminishing the demand for independence among the people.

In perspective
First, the election results indicate a major gain for the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez; the party still needs 68 out of the 135 seats to form a government. To secure its position, the Socialist Party might have to seek support from the pro-independence parties of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan Republican Left) and the Left Wing Comuns. If a consensus is not reached, Catalans will again be summoned to vote in October.

Second, the state of the Catalan independence movement. The election results might indicate that Catalonia had gone cold on independence. With the amnesty bill’s proposal, Sanchez has managed to neutralize the separatist tendencies along with an improvement in Spanish-Catalan relations. Moreover, the realisation of severing ties with the EU also played a huge role in the results. According to experts, independence is no longer “a top priority for many voters”. The reason for this shift might be the discontent with the pro-independence parties and their governments.

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