The Catalan Challenge
Photo: Marc Pascual via Pixabay

Over 60,000 people in Spain have lost their lives due to the pandemic, unemployment has increased by 622,000 people in 2020 , while the vaccine rollout continues to be sluggish. Yet, one news story continues to dominate the Spanish press – the Catalan regional elections.

On Sunday 14th February, Catalans will return to cast their votes in one of Europe’s most politically turbulent regions. It is set to be a fiercely contested election with no political party polled to win an outright majority. The result of this election will not only impact Catalonia and the frail ties holding together Pedro Sanchez’s coalition government in Madrid, but also the stability of the Spanish nation itself. Yet, on the eve of potentially defining elections for the contemporary Catalan separatist movement, questions remain whether an election can take place amid the third wave of the pandemic.

Catalan Separatism

To fully understand the significance of these elections, it is vital to understand the Catalan separatist movement. According to journalist Carlos Francino, a Catalan separatist movement exists simply because ‘quite a lot of Catalans do not feel Spanish or only a little bit Spanish, or they prefer not to be reminded of it. That is neither good or bad, it is simply the way it is, and it needs a political solution’.

The current Catalan separatist movement transitioned from being a fringe movement to a mainstream force within regional politics following the Constitutional Court’s decision in 2010 to revoke the 2006 Statute of Autonomy act which treated Catalonia as a nation within a nation. This occurred despite the Statute being ratified by a referendum in Catalonia. Subsequently, this sparked huge demonstrations and support for independence soared.

In 2012, regional elections saw a coalition of pro-independence parties win a majority for the first time. From Republican Left of Catalonia(ERC) on the left, to Together for Catalonia on the right, parties branching the political spectrum put aside their political ideologies for the shared goal of an independent Republic of Catalonia.

This goal came closest to reality in 2017 when Catalan President, Carlos Puigdemont, declared that a referendum on Catalan independence would be held. This prompted a strong response from the Partido Popular, the party then governing Spain, who condemned the actions of Carlos Puigdemont and declared any referendum illegal. In the following months tensions flared between Barcelona and Madrid.

Tensions reached a zenith on the day of the referendum. The Spanish government sent 10,000 police officers to Catalonia to seize ballot boxes and to prevent people from voting. Footage broadcast around the world showed Spanish police officers attacking voters. According to Catalan authorities, 450 civilians were injured in the clashes.

Ballot boxes overwhelmingly supported the separatist movement with a 90 percent of votes in favour of independence and a turnout of 42 percent. The central government, however, did not recognise the result and Mariano Rajoy, the then Spanish Prime Minister, dissolved the Catalan government, returning power to central government, and called snap elections in the region. Various political leaders and activists were imprisoned or exiled, with Carlos Puigdemont fleeing to Belgium.

After nearly a decade in coalition and the goal of an independent Catalonia still having not being achieved, the relationship between the pro-independence parties has become fractious. This internal tension has been on display in this year’s election campaign. Together for Catalonia; have taken a hard-line stance on independence, announcing they will declare independence from Spain if victorious.  This prompted the ERC, who favour negotiation with the central government, to argue that Together for Catalonia’s approach is not ‘realistic’.

Salvador Illa’s Entrance

Salvador Illa has recently entered the race representing the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the party that leads the coalition in the central government. As the former health minister, he is a familiar figure to all Spaniards having conducted daily televised briefings throughout the March lockdown.

He is standing as an anti-independence candidate, arguing that Catalonia should move on from its ‘lost decade’ spent pursuing ‘fictional politics’ to deal with the very real problems facing the region. He criticises the pro-independence parties for austerity measures that have seen public services cut, an effective argument given the strain services have been under during the pandemic.

The gamble from central government is that this well-known Catalan political figure will resonate with the electorate and take Catalonia out of the hands of the separatists. Already the polls indicate that PSOE are gaining popularity, in a phenomenon coined the “Illa effect”, with the party set to win 34 seats, double the number won in the 2017 elections.

However, such is the nature of Catalan politics (the vote is generally split amongst nine parties), Illa is unlikely to command a majority. Thus, if successful, he will likely have to engage in talks with other parties to prop up a government. Illa’s favoured coalition partner is Podemos, a left-wing party, who are coalition partners of PSOE in central government.

According to the polls, both parties combined would win 43 seats, far short of the 68 required for a majority.  The other natural coalition partner for the PSOE would be the left-wing ERC, who are polled to win 30 seats. Although, the three largest left-wing parties would comfortably have enough seats to form a majority, the PSOE and ERC clash heavily on the independence issue and have refused to govern together. Unless these disputes can be resolved, the most likely outcome will be another coalition of pro-independence parties.

Question marks remain over Salvador Illa’s management of the pandemic as Health Minister. Spain has the 9th highest number of reported COVID-19 deaths in the world. Furthermore, Salvador Illa’s resignation from his position as health minister at the peak of the third wave is indicative of how the Catalan elections have served as a distraction for the central government from the pandemic. At best, his resignation represents a personal change of ambition with unfortunate timing. At worst it represents how, for Spain’s ruling class, the issue of Catalan independence is of greater importance than the pandemic.  

Administrative Task

Catalonia also faces a gargantuan administrative task for the elections to run smoothly amid the pandemic. In Spain, members of the public are chosen at random to work as poll clerks and presiding officers on election day and it is considered public duty to fulfil this obligation. Failure to do so can result in large fines and prison sentences.

One of the few means of exception is for health reasons. Some 20,000 Catalans (a quarter of the total) chosen to work in polling stations have requested to be exempt on health grounds due to the potential exposure to coronavirus. If there are large numbers of absentees, carrying out an election becomes increasingly difficult.

To add to the problem, normal procedure for absentees in poll staff dictates that those who arrive first are asked to work in the polling station that day. However, this is precisely the time the Catalan government has asked the most vulnerable to arrive at the polling station. Therefore, this could create a situation where those most vulnerable to the virus could end up working a job where the risk of exposure is high.  

In the current political climate, the result will have long-term implications for both Catalonia particularly, and Spain more generally. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that every Catalan gets a vote in this election. As of February 9th, Catalonia has 759 positive cases of coronavirus per 100,000 people.

Consequently, thousands of Catalans will likely contract the virus in the coming days. The Catalan government has foreseen this problem and has devised contingency plans. For example, if you are isolating, you may nominate someone to cast your vote on your behalf. However, to do so, they must go to the voter’s place of residence to collect a signature.

Clearly there are flaws in this plan. Not everyone will have someone who is willing to visit them to collect a signature when they are contagious. Many may break their period of self-isolation to carry out their democratic right to vote. The Spanish health service predicts that 14,000 Catalans who have tested positive for COVID-19 could travel to vote in the election, as well as up to 70,000 of their contacts.

This all occurs at a time where the more transmissible South African variant has been detected in Barcelona. It is feared that the Catalan elections could act as a catalyst for the spread of the new variant in the region. Clearly elections cannot be postponed forever, as it is unknown how long Spain will be fighting the pandemic. However, with the administrative challenge of staffing polling stations alongside the pandemic, legitimate questions are being asked as to whether holding an election is safe. The significance of these elections cannot be understated; a win for the separatists could prove one step closer to the formation of a new state, while a win for the socialists cements the PSOE as the most powerful party in Spain and will give them control in central government as well as Catalonia, one of Spain’s wealthiest regions.