Catalan elections: strong pro-independence vote falls short of overall majority

With a hugely increased turnout of 77% (10 points more than in 2012), the Catalan elections gave an overall majority of seats to pro-independence parties, which, however, did not get an overall majority of votes.

The results showed the strength of the pro-independence feeling but at the same time they can only be described as a disappointment for the Junts pel Sí (JxSí) joint list, which went down in percentage terms and in number of seats, as compared to the results of its component parties in 2012.

artur-masArtur MasJxSí had been set up as a joint initiative of the bourgeois nationalist party CDC of Catalan president Artur Mas and the left nationalist ERC, together with some pro-independence civil society organisations. The aim was to turn the Catalan parliament elections into a plebiscite on independence, seeing that the Spanish state and the ruling PP party had blocked all attempts by Catalonia to exercise the democratic right of self-determination.

At the same time it was a manoeuvre on the part of Artur Mas to attempt to save his own very unpopular government which had been carrying out austerity cuts, privatisation of public services, repression against social movements and had been tainted by a series of corruption scandals.

In the previous election in 2012, ERC and CiU (the alliance of which CDC was then a party of) had received 1.6 million votes (44.4%) and won 71 seats in the Catalan parliament, giving them an overall majority. Their stated aim was to achieve an overall majority which would allow them move towards a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and a Catalan Republic within 18 months.

thumb resultatsCAT15Click for full details of results

Despite the fact that the elections became polarised around the issue of independence, becoming de facto a plebiscite, the vote of JxSí was around the same as the ERC+CiU vote in 2012, 1.6 million. With an increased participation, this meant their percentage was down to 39.5% and they lost 9 seats, retreating from 71 to 62.

CUPIf we were to add the JxSí votes to those of the other pro-independence party, CUP, they have a combined 47.7% of the total vote, a massive result, particularly if we consider the relentless barrage of threats and attacks against the pro-independence camp that we witnessed during the campaign. In fact those threats had the opposite effect. The total vote for parties who advocate holding a referendum on independence is now 59.4%.

JxSí was the most voted list in every single county and in all the four provinces of Catalonia. However, this masks a real divide in the strength of the pro-independence feeling, which reflects a class division. Thus, the six counties where the combined Yes vote has not achieved 50% are the most populated and those with the highest concentration of working class votes. The same can be said of the city of Barcelona, where the middle and upper class Sarrià Sant Gervasi district voted 49.7% for independence, while support for independence in the working class Nou Barris district was barely 29%. This was repeated in the working class towns around Barcelona, where support for independence was low: Sant Adrià del Besós 24%, Santa Coloma de Gramanet 19%, Cornellà 22%, Hospitalet 24%. In fact the combined pro-independence vote did not achieve 50% in any of the 10 Catalan towns with a population of over 100,000. In a pre-election opinion poll carried out by the Catalan government polling institution, 63% of those who described themselves as being “upper-middle class or upper class” were in favour of independence, while the figure was only 37% amongst those describing themselves as “lower-middle class or lower class”.

Also defeated were both the right-wing Spanish ruling party PP and the main Spanish opposition party, the social-democratic PSOE. Despite fielding a hard core right-wing racist candidate, hoping to agitate around Spanish chauvinism, the PP lost around 100,000 votes and 8 of the 20 seats it had in 2012. The Catalan wing of the PSOE, PSC, held up in number of votes but still lost 4 of its 20 seats in what was its worst result even in a Catalan parliament election.

There were two clear winners in this election, the right-wing Spanish nationalist populist Ciutadans (Cs) and the anti-capitalist, pro-independence CUP (Popular Unity Candidatures).

Cs increased its vote by 450,000 votes, a massive increase from 275,000 to 754,000, almost trebling its seats from 9 to 25 and becoming the second largest party in the Catalan chamber.  It is particularly worrying that, as well as winning a lot of votes from the right-wing PP, Ciutadans was able to win a big share of the increase in participation, many of them former Socialist Party voters in the working class towns and cities of Barcelona’s “red belt”. Thus, Cs became the largest party in traditional left and working class strongholds of Hospitalet (Catalonia’s second city), Barberà del Vallès, Esplugues, Gavà, Ripollet, Rubí, Sant Adrià del Besòs, Sant Andreu de la Barca, Sant Boi and Viladecans. In the city of Barcelona, Cs became the largest party in the working class district of Nou Barris.

catalunya-flagThe polarisation of the vote along national lines, the careful populist approach of Cs which hid its real programme of cuts and privatisation under a thick coat of rhetoric in favour of public services and social spending and, above all, the lack of a credible alternative to the left, all benefited this party. Its result puts it in a good position for the Spanish general election in December.

The other winners of the election were the CUP, the radical, anti-capitalist, pro-independence party. It jumped from 126,000 votes and 3 seats in 2012, the first time it stood in the Catalan parliament elections, to a massive 336,000 votes and 10 seats this time, just 12,000 votes below the Spanish ruling party PP.

The CUP have been able to capture the radicalisation of a large layer of youth and also of pro-independence voters who rejected the JxSí list as being too connected with Artur Mas and the record of its government. It is true to say that the penetration of the CUP in the traditional working class areas is still weak, but it has increased significantly since 2012. A layer of working class youth who come from families who emigrated to Catalonia from other parts of Spain in the 1960s and 1970s, and whose family language is Spanish, voted for the CUP.

Its message during the campaign was one of rupture, a clear break with the status quo, both regarding the national question by breaking with Spain and on the social issues, advocating not only a clear break with austerity but also a break with capitalism. This radical message has clearly paid off.

However, because of their own success, the CUP now find themselves in a difficult situation. JxS does not have an overall majority and thus requires the vote of at least some of the CUP members in order to be able to form a government. If the CUP were to abstain and all other parties vote against, no government could be formed and there would have to be new elections. The CUP has already said that it will not vote for Artur Mas as he is too associated with the right-wing policies and corruption of the previous period, but they will come under a lot of pressure. The argument will be: you are for independence, JxSí shares that aim, let’s agree on a common front and leave politics for later on, when we have a Catalan Republic. This is the classic two-stage approach which would be fatal for the CUP as it would destroy the level of support they have won on the basis of their anti-capitalist line.

Even if JxS would agree to remove Mas from the equation and find another, more acceptable, candidate for president, something which the CUP has asked for, that would still leave the question of the CUP participating or giving support to a government which would include members of the right-wing CDC. This will be a test for the CUP.

Finally, there is the issue of the results of Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot (CSQP, the joint list set up by Podemos and ICV, the Catalan equivalent of United Left). Just before the calling of the elections, in June, an opinion poll showed that a list which would replicate the formula used in the municipal elections in Barcelona (a broad alliance of parties to the left of PSOE and social movements) would get 30 seats and could become the most voted list in the Catalan elections. In the end, CSQP was barely able to maintain the results achieved in 2012 by ICV on its own and with an increased participation lost two seats, down to 11. This is a bad result and it is important to analyse the reasons for it as they have a bearing on the forthcoming Spanish elections in December.

First of all, CSQP was hindered by the very strong polarisation of the election in favour and against independence. The position of CSQP which was to concentrate on social and economic issues was squeezed out. However, this was not helped by the fact that CSQP did not have a sharp and radical approach to either the national question or the socio-economic issues.

On the national question its programme was confused. Its official founding statement said one thing (an autonomous constituent process for Catalonia, not subordinate to a Spanish one), but then its election programme seemed to say something different (an independence referendum negotiated with Spain). In either case, to many Catalans this seemed a very unlikely proposition, as Spain had already rejected any attempts to hold a legal referendum, and Podemos is not seen at the present time as a viable option to change Spain in the December elections, having gone down from being the first party to being the third in opinion polls.

Furthermore, in the first part of the election campaign, the Spanish leaders of Podemos (Pablo Iglesias and Errejón) which were very prominent, were concentrating their attacks on Artur Mas, putting an equal sign between him and Spanish president Rajoy. This, which is fundamentally correct, should have been accompanied by a stronger and clearer rejection of the reactionary campaign of attacks against Catalan independence parties on the part of the Spanish state and ruling party. This was not done, or not enough.

The correct idea that Podemos does recognise the democratic right of Catalonia to decide if it wants to remain in Spain, while arguing “stay with us and let’s kick out Rajoy together”, was weakened by the lack of a radical approach on how to get a referendum and how to kick out Rajoy.

While being strong in its criticism of the austerity policies of the Catalan government, CSQP was not advancing any alternative. This was made worse by the very strong identification of CSQP and Pablo Iglesias with Tsipras and Syriza in Greece. This became a liability, as many saw how Tsipras had capitulated to the troika. In this, the CUP was able to outflank CSQP from the left.

Finally, the process by which CSQP had been set up was very top down and bureaucratic as opposed to the genuine rank and file and more democratic participation process which was used successfully in the setting up of Barcelona en Comú, the list which won the municipal election in Barcelona.

The lessons here are clear: what is needed is a sharp opposition to capitalism and broad based democratic platform around such a programme. This is precisely the contrary of what has happened with Podemos in the run up to the Spanish elections. The rank and file “circle” organisations have been emptied out, the message has been moderated and watered down and instead of a genuine effort for unity we have seen the behind the scenes manoeuvres of the apparatus.

As for Catalonia, it is very unlikely that things will move significantly before the December Spanish election. Artur Mas and CDC will face great difficulties in forming a government and will get no substantial concessions (which is at the end of the day what they are seeking) from Spain. The ruling PP will want to use the threat of separation as capital to shore up its vote. A defeat of the PP in December, however, could open up the situation. The election of  a government in Spain which made substantial fiscal and self-rule concessions to Catalonia could direct the justified aspirations of a large part of the Catalan people towards the idea of a united struggle for fundamental change. However, the unity of Spain is one of the main pillars (together with the Monarchy and the impunity of Franco's crimes) of the 1978 regime and any change in relation to that would put into question the whole edifice. Short of revolutionary change, is difficult to see how that could happen. 

It is not too late for Podemos to sharply change course, to return to its radical roots and pose the question of breaking with the 1978 Constitution, granting a referendum to Catalonia and fighting for a Republic, while at the same time fighting capitalism head on, as the root cause of austerity and cuts. Only a radical programme of socialist transformation can offer a way forward.