By Camille Shen
In a world where Donald Trump communicates to the American public through Twitter, the prospect of a global leader ruling his nation through social media seems plausible some time in the near future. For ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, that time is now. Puigdemont suggested in early January to preside over Catalonia through Skype, and it seems that with the results of the December elections, Catalans won’t have to take him up on that offer (for now).
Puigdemont, of course, is in exile after a series of tumultuous events occurred in Catalan politics. On October 1, Catalonia held an independence referendum that Madrid deemed illegal under the Spanish Constitution. As such, the Spanish police were ordered to physically bar Catalonians from voting; unionists were urged not to vote at all. The result was a referendum in which 90% voted in favor of independence, but only 42% of the electorate participated. In response, Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, a passage that allows the national government to adopt “necessary methods” to force a regional government to comply with its interests. This effectively removed Catalonia’s regional government, imposed direct rule on the area, and dismissed its Parliament. Puigdemont called Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s sacking of the entire Catalan government one of the “worst attacks against the people of Catalonia” since Franco. On December 21, the Catalan people elected a brand-new Parliament to fill those empty seats. The outcome: a majority in Parliament for the secessionist movement, but a majority popular vote for the unionists.
Polls have consistently predicted a hung Parliament; however, Catalonia’s three pro-independence parties, JuntxCat, ERC, and CUP together won an absolute majority of 70 seats of the total 135. Secessionists won 47.5% of the popular vote, while the unionist bloc took 57 seats and 43.4% of the vote. Puigdemont’s JuntxCat party took the most seats, the former President describing the victory as won under “exceptional circumstances, with candidates in prison, with the government in exile and without having the same resources as the state.” This comes as a significant blow to the Spanish government, who had hoped to put an end to the independence movement with the election. Furthermore, Rajoy’s conservative People’s party saw a major defeat, securing only 4 seats and hence, for the first time, rendering them unable to form a parliamentary group of its own in the Catalan parliament. This loss has implications that reach far beyond Catalonia, as it could signify the end of its hegemony over the center-right in Spain. Rajoy’s already low popularity ratings coupled with this crushing loss may spell out end of the People’s Party’s control in Madrid and usher in an ever-growing far-right movement.
However, while the separatist movement’s triumph may reinvigorate its supporters and grassroots, this can only lead to further tensions with the Spanish government. Madrid has been a staunch opponent of secession, and given their response to the October 1 referendum, it can be expected that Rajoy will continue to do everything within his power to prevent secession– possibly even an extension of direct rule. But with little power in the Catalan Parliament, it is unclear how Rajoy’s People’s Party will fare in the future. On the other hand, the Catalan Citizens party, which won the most seats of any party, 36, believes the election has demonstrated strength among Catalan unionists. Inés Arrimadas, the party leader, stated, “We have sent a message to the world that a majority in Catalonia is in favour of the union with Spain. For the first time, a constitutionalist party has won a Catalan election.”
As 2017 draws to a close, the new year seems to bring only uncertainty for the future of Catalonia as the region battles between separation and union. While the outcome of the election gave pro-independence parties a much-needed advantage in Parliament and bolstered morale among secessionists, pro-union leaders still came out with a victory of the majority of the popular vote. However, one thing is clear: even under the “worst attacks”, the election has demonstrated that Madrid’s previous hardline tactics will not work to suppress the voice of the Catalan people.