Catalans will head to the polls on 14 February to elect a new parliament, in a critical juncture for both the independence movement and those opposing it in Catalonia. This election will resolve which party leads the independence push among the centre-left ERC (G/EFA) and Junts (NI), while also testing the strength of PSC (S&D)—the regional branch of PSOE—a year after the Sánchez II government took office.
It has been over three years since the previous election in Catalonia, and thus one might be inclined to think that the Catalan political cycle is back to normality. But the institutional stalemate is still very evident, as both the pro and anti-independence options maintain a constant 50% of popular support. The main leaders of ERC, Junts and left-wing CUP (GUE/NGL) are still in jail or settled in Belgium and Switzerland, with a much more favorable judicial situation. These circumstances can hardly be compared to any other regional election in Europe
1. ERC/Junts: who will lead the independence push?
After former regional president Quim Torra (Junts, NI) was barred from office, last September, Vice-President Pere Aragonès (ERC, G/EFA) took over the presidency on an interim basis. This marked the first time an ERC president led the Generalitat (Catalan regional presidency) since the 1930s. In this upcoming election, current Spanish MP Laura Borràs will head the Junts list, whereas Aragonès will be ERC’s candidate.
Both parties differ on the ideological stance and on their roadmap for an independent Catalonia. On the former, ERC stands on the centre-left, with progressive views on taxation, civil rights and participation of the public sector in the economy. Junts has a more ambivalent position, having moved from their predecessor CiU’s centre-right to a more socially progressive stance and a mix of liberal and socio-liberal economic policy proposals. The following chart illustrates this evolution, albeit self-identification questions are prone to be biased. In the case of Catalonia, some commentators have warned against voters identifying a pro-independence stance with an overall left-wing ideology.
On their national views, their differences are arguably as clear. Junts aims at reinforcing the direct confrontation with the Spanish central government, even if their manifesto is not clear on the timing by which Junts would declare independence should they win the election. ERC looks at a more medium-term strategy, exploring dialogue options with the Sánchez government and expanding support within domestic voters to go well over the 50% of pro-independence. So far, the strongest showing was in the 2015 election when independence was supported by 47.7% of the voters.
2. PSOE/Cs/ECP: who will try and form an alternative coalition?
In all the elections between 1982 and 2015, the centre-right, regionalist CiU (formerly ALDE) had won the most seats in the Catalan parliament. Liberal Ciudadanos (RE) achieved a major victory in 2017 by surpassing the seat tally of both JxCAT (CiU’s successor) and ERC, but it proved powerless against a seat majority for pro-independence parties.
This time around, the main actor in the anti-independence bloc is the centre-left PSC, PSOE’s regional branch. Salvador Illa, Minister for Health in the Spanish government until late January, will lead their list, and aims at gaining back many of the voters that opted for Ciudadanos in 2017. As a candidate, Illa will leverage on his experience in the central government and his popularity among Ciudadanos and left-wing ECP (GUE/NGL) voters. He will try to form an alternative coalition that leaves what he labels a ‘lost decade’ of independence push behind.
For such a coalition to come about, Illa will need the support of Ciudadanos, left-wing ECP (Podemos’ branch in Catalonia), centre-right PP (EPP) and at the very least an abstention from national-conservative VOX (ECR). ECP would much prefer to include ERC under a progressive coalition, but both PSC and ERC have made it public that such an option is not on the table. Even with all these players backing Illa’s quest for presidency, this seems an unlikely scenario: only the latest CIS poll shows an anti-independence majority of seats.
3. How many parties will enter parliament?
The Catalan political system had traditionally featured only five parties: the abovementioned centre-right CiU, centre-left PSC, pro-independence ERC, left-wing ICV (now part of ECP) and centre-right PP. With the irruption of Ciudadanos, in 2006, and left-wing CUP, in 2012, the number raised to current seven:
All polls show the future parliament to be the most fragmented one in democracy, with three additional parties having a chance to gain a regional MPs:
- PDeCAT: The JxCAT list that ran in 2017 has two main successors: Junts and PDeCAT. PDeCat is a both economically and socially liberal party, more aligned with the traditional political positions of the regionalist centre-right space in Catalonia. PDeCAT supports independence but has a bigger focus on the day-to-day management of the regional government. They are polling between 2-3% and could achieve between zero and two MPs.
- VOX: After entering the parliament for the first time in the Andalusia regional election in 2018, the national-conservative VOX has gained MPs in most regions of Spain. They are polling between five and seven per cents (five to eight seats) in most polls. Some polls put them above the left-wing CUP and centre-right PP, which would make them the 6th largest party in parliament.
- Centre-right PNC, modelled after Basque regionalist PNV, is another splinter from JxCAT with a more neutral stance towards independence. No poll shows them entering the parliament.
Correction: earlier version of this article erroneously stated that VOX had MPs in all regions of Spain except Galicia, this has now been rectified.