In the light of the Catalan results both Madrid and Barcelona have some options, says Michael Keating, but the current political climate is unlikely to see an immediate breakthrough.
The September elections in Catalonia were called in order to try and resolve the independence issue. Unable to stage a legal referendum, First Minister Artur Mas, organized a ‘plebiscitary election’ in which the pro-independence parties would seek a mandate to establish a Catalan state. The two main nationalist parties, Convergència Democrática de Catalunya (centre-right) and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (left) presented a single list of candidates, Junts pel Si. A far-left pro-independence party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), stood on its own. All claimed that a majority between them would constitute a mandate, although there was ambiguity about whether a majority of seats would be enough, without a majority of the popular vote. The electoral system favours the areas outside Barcelona, where nationalist support is strongest.
In the event, the result settled nothing. Junts pel Si and CUP between them gained a majority of seats but fell slightly short of a majority of votes. It is not easy to see a way out but here are the options for the nationalists.
First, they could just declare independence unilaterally, a course to which CUP is inclined. Prominent members of the civil society pro-independence movements have long advocated this. Yet, without a majority of the popular vote, this looks democratically dubious. It is also formidably difficult as a practical matter, as it would require international recognition and the loyalty of citizens to the new state.
Second, there could be negotiations with Spain, but this depends on Madrid showing a willingness to compromise that it has not hitherto displayed.
Third there could be another Catalan election. This is possible if CUP does not support the renomination of Mas as First Minister and the parliament is deadlocked.
Fourth, the nationalists could do nothing for now and wait for the outcome of the Spanish elections in December.
On the Spanish side, one option is to suspend the statute of autonomy for Catalonia, especially if there are moves to independence. This would test the loyalty of police and civil servants in Catalonia and would be seen as a huge provocation.
Second, Madrid could open negotiations for concessions and compromise. This is not going to happen under the present Spanish government of the Partido Popular (PP), which is very rigid in its attitude and will want to take a tough line on Catalonia to win votes in December in the rest of Spain.
Third, after the Spanish elections in December, if there is a continued PP government, things will likely be much the same. Even if they lose their majority, they could form a coalition with Ciutadans/ Ciudadanos (Cs), a party founded in Catalonia to oppose nationalism, and which now has high levels of support across Spain. This would mean an even harder line. Cs actually came second in the Catalan elections, albeit well behind the winners, demonstrating a growing polarization within Catalonia.
Fourth, if the PP and Cs between them cannot gain a majority in Spain, there is a possibility of a left-wing coalition resting on the Spanish Socialists (PSOE) and Podemos (the left-wing populist movement), with support from smaller and regional parties. This is the only scenario in which a compromise is likely.
There are four elements for such a deal: a fiscal pact allowing Catalonia to keep more of its money; stronger protection for the Catalan language, especially in education; a recognition of Catalonia as a nation within Spain; and some sort of popular consultation on the future of Catalonia. This might not be an independence referendum but perhaps a multi-option, non-binding vote. Five years ago, such concessions might have defused the whole issue but it is possible that things have now gone beyond that. Such a deal would also have to get through the Spanish constitutional court, which is now highly politicized and unsympathetic to accommodating Spain’s internal nations.
Many people in Catalonia have been looking to Scotland for guidance. Certainly, the referendum was a means of resolving the immediate question in a democratic and agreed way, but it did not settle the issue once and for all. We are going to live with this question for a long time to come.