Mixed election night for pro-independence Catalans

President of Catalonia Artur Mas casting his ballot. Picture: Getty Images
President of Catalonia Artur Mas casting his ballot. Picture: Getty Images
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SIGNIFICANT gains for both pro-and anti-independence, a bloody nose for Artur Mas’ ruling middle of the road party and a predictably poor result for the socialists – that’s the verdict voters delivered in yesterday’s Catalan elections.

Mas’ strategy of riding the wave of secessionist sentiment to gain an absolute majority has backfired spectacularly. His CiU party, which went into the elections with 62 seats and in pursuit of the 68 that would give them an absolute majority, has lost 12 seats, largely to the pro-independence Esquerra Repulicana (Republican Left), which doubled its vote. Esquerra took second place from the socialists, moving from 10 to 21 seats. The socialists slumped from 28 to 20 seats.

He campaigned on the slogan “the will of the people” and the people have spoken. It wasn’t what he wanted to hear and Mas will have to take the rap for what has been a serious miscalculation. Speaking to the party faithful last night he tried to put a good face on it. He said it would have been difficult to win, given the economic circumstances but added that, as the party with the most votes, it was up to the other parties to think about what role they wanted to play.

In a record turnout of over 70%, the other big winners were Ciutadans, a party that opposes independence, which went from 3 to 9 seats, and Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), a far left secessionist group, which went from zero to three seats. The Greens also gained three seats. The Partido Popular, the ruling party in Spain, declared itself satisfied with gaining a seat, moving from 18 to 19.

The question now is with whom Mas’ CiU will enter into a coalition, or whether he will be outflanked by a marriage of convenience between Esquerra and the non-secessionist left. In the first two years of their mandate he relied on the Partido Popular to push through his unpopular fiscal policy based on public spending cuts. However, before the election he said that, given PP’s antagonism to independence, under no circumstances would he enter into coalition with them. That leaves Esquerra Republicana, whose agenda has always been based on independence. However, its leader, Oriol Junqueras, has said that his party will not vote for the next round of spending cuts that Mas says are necessary to meet Catalonia’s deficit target.

While Junqueras may be tempted to waver, given this unexpected prospect of treading the corridors of power, he would be unwise to do so. It seems clear that the electorate decided to punish Mas for imposing public spending cuts even deeper than those demanded by the Madrid government while expressing their pro-independence sentiments by voting Esquerra.

On the other hand, the three leftist parties- Esquerra, the socialists and the Greens - could cobble together a working minority government, similar to the tripartite government that ran Catalonia from 2003 and 2006 and was put together precisely to exclude CiU from government.

Whatever happens, Mas is fatally weakened and can expect a knife in the back from supporters of Oriol Pujol, son of the Catalonia’s longest-serving president, Jordi Pujol, and for many, the heir apparent.

On the other hand, if these elections were supposed to be decisive on the issue of independence, the result is far from conclusive, and all sides can claim victory. Two months ago, when one and half million people marched for independence, it all looked so simple. But there are 7 million people here and they have spoken, and not with one voice.