Sunday’s regional election results in Catalonia show that its citizens are pretty evenly divided between separation from and union with Spain — a plurinational state that must now rise to the challenge of how to accommodate ancient nations within it such as the Catalans and the Basques if it is not to break up. But first the electoral facts. Junts pel Sí, the main independence bloc made up of centre-right nationalists and centre-left republicans, came first with 62 out of 135 seats. With 10 more seats won by a separatist group of the radical left, there is a secessionist majority in the Catalan parliament. It is not a homogeneous majority: the leftist group wants to see the back of Artur Mas, president of the Generalitat, the Catalan autonomous government. Most important of all, the separatist camp presented these elections as a plebiscite for independence, but fell short of a majority of votes, with only 47.7 per cent — well below the crystal-clear majority it would need morally to justify a rupture with Spain.
Madrid in any case insists there is no provision for separation in Spain’s constitution — the democratic cornerstone of the transition from the Franco dictatorship after 1975 — and therefore the secessionists are outside the law. The status quo, equally, is no longer tenable. Spain faces a crisis that requires political solutions, including reform of the constitution along clearer federal lines.
Two other simple facts: the separatist vote was well short of a majority in urban Catalonia, where the vast majority of people live; and because of an electoral system that gives a premium to more rural areas it takes up to twice as many votes to elect an MP in Barcelona as it does in Catalonia’s nationalist heartland. It is hard to conceive of a Catalan state with a capital that has a majority against separatism.
Yet the more or less equal unionist bloc, too, is far from united. The left did not do well. The Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC), a bastion of Spanish socialism throughout the transition to democracy, was already riven by the independence debate. It held its (shrinking) ground, with a programme calling “for a better Catalonia in a different Spain”. Podemos, the anti-austerity insurgent party on the left, fared worse. A Podemos coalition only recently won control of Barcelona city hall, widening the debate away from separatism and unionism. As the PSC did before, Podemos argued in essence: “Yes we believe Catalans have the right to decide their future, but when it comes to it we will vote No to independence.”