Socialists win most votes in Catalonia, but separatists set to maintain power

MADRID — Socialists scored their first victory in a Catalan regional election Sunday, winning the most votes of any single party, but pro-independence parties increased their overall majority.

In an extremely 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, with 99.5 percent of votes counted.

The PSC winning the popular vote is a stunning result. The party’s candidate for Catalan president is Salvador Illa, who resigned as Spanish health minister recently in order to run in the election — a gamble that paid off as the party nearly doubled its seats.

It also represents a coup for Spain’s Socialist prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, with the regional branch of his center-left party recovering support in the northeastern region after suffering repeated losses over the past decade.

However, tensions over the persistent push for independence among some parties mean it is unlikely Illa will be able to form a government, as secessionist parties maintained control of the parliament. With the leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) securing nine seats, the pro-independence majority in the 135-seat chamber increased slightly.

During the campaign, pro-independence parties signed a manifesto ruling out the creation of a new administration with the PSC due to its stance on Catalan sovereignty, which includes the rejection of self-determination for the region.

The ERC’s lead over JxCat could play a major role in stabilizing relations with the central Madrid government, with the former favoring a more gradual approach toward the goal of independence. ERC is likely to be involved in the forming of a new government, either repeating its prior coalition with JxCat, or seeking support from the leftist Podemos’ Catalan wing, En Comú Podem, which maintained its eight seats.

The PSC’s gains were part of a major shift among pro-union parties.

The far-right Vox will make its debut in the Catalan parliament after winning 11 seats, making it the region’s fourth-largest party and now dominant force on the right.

Vox appeared to take many of its votes from the crisis-ridden Ciudadanos, which won the 2017 Catalan election, but suffered huge losses Sunday, dropping from 36 seats to just six. The conservative Popular Party (PP), meanwhile, continued a trend of poor electoral runs under national leader Pablo Casado since 2019 and will only just cling onto its representation in the regional parliament with three seats.

Concerns about the coronavirus caused this election to be postponed before a court ruled in late January, after the campaign had begun, that it should go ahead as planned. A series of safety measures were introduced for voting, and a one-hour time slot was reserved in the evening for those infected with coronavirus and others who were in quarantine to cast their votes.

Despite the measures, turnout was only 54 percent, which was attributed to concerns about COVID-19.

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