MADRID â€” The results of Sundayâ€™s Catalan election have reshaped the regionâ€™s political landscape and are likely to influence Spainâ€™s approach to the push for Catalan independence.
In a tight three-way race, the unionist Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) secured 23 percent of the vote and 33 seats, the same number as the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which narrowly emerged as the leading pro-independence party at 21 percent, ahead of Together for Catalonia (JxCat) at 32 seats.
The first-ever overall victory for the PSC means its candidate, the moderate Salvador Illa, will attempt to form a government. He is unlikely to succeed, given the hostility he faced during the campaign from nationalist parties, who signed a document pledging not to work directly with him.
However, his win means the PSC is now the leading pro-union force in the region. That strengthens the position of Spainâ€™s Socialist prime minister, Pedro SÃ¡nchez, who took a gamble by allowing Illa, his health minister until last month, to run in this election.
But the result also increases the independence movementâ€™s overall parliamentary presence. The three main pro-independence parties â€” ERC, JxCat and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) â€” upped their majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament to 74 from 70. They also clinched the significant benchmark of more than 50 percent of the popular vote, which will embolden the movement in its repeated demand for Spain to allow Catalonia to hold a binding vote on secession.
â€œWe have immense strength to have a referendum,â€ ERCâ€™s candidate, Pere AragonÃ¨s said, after the results were announced.
But this does not mean an imminent return to the drama of 2017, when Catalonia made a failed bid for secession.
The subtle shift of power between nationalist forces is important, and ERC is in the best position to form a new administration. The party now takes a gradualist approach to the goal of independence, identifying Nicola Sturgeonâ€™s Scottish nationalists as an example to follow. Having narrowly overtaken the more unilateralist JxCat of Carles Puigdemont, with whom it has a poor relationship, ERC can pursue its strategy more freely.
That involves negotiations with Madrid, something to which SÃ¡nchezâ€™s Socialists have already agreed. Although it is unlikely to allow the longed-for referendum any time soon, the Spanish government is expected to make a concession on another crucial matter by speeding up the release of nine jailed independence leaders through pardons.
ERC has the option of repeating its uneasy coalition with JxCat, this time as the senior partner, or of forming a minority government with the help of Podemosâ€™ Catalan wing, En ComÃº Podem, which maintained its eight seats.
There will also be the question of whether ERC would be willing to break its campaign promise not to work with the PSC.
Spainâ€™s mainstream right suffered badly, especially Ciudadanos, which went from winning the 2017 election to sixth place in this weekendâ€™s ballot, losing 30 of its 36 seats in the process. Ciudadanos has been struggling ever since it lurched rightward and experienced a disastrous defeat in the November 2019 general election. In the wake of a number of defections to other parties and this latest electoral setback, national leader InÃ©s Arrimadas will face questions about Ciudadanosâ€™ future.
The leadership of the conservative Popular Party (PP) will be under marginally less strain having lost one seat, leaving it with three. But questions are being asked about the electoral strategies of its national leader Pablo Casado, who has registered a litany of defeats, both regional and national, since taking control of the PP in 2018.
The far-right Vox benefitted from the woes of both its rivals, making its dÃ©but in the Catalan parliament and becoming the regionâ€™s fourth party. Its aggressive stance against Catalan nationalism has been a driving force behind its success nationwide. Voxâ€™s 11 seats in the regional parliament mean its presence will be felt as it faces off against Cataloniaâ€™s strengthened nationalists and the relatively moderate unionism of Illaâ€™s Socialists.