Catalonia's separatist win plunges region into further political uncertainty

Results from Catalonia's regional vote have only confirmed a longstanding and deep political division over its relationship with the rest of Spain. CBC's Margaret Evans writes about what's next for a region trapped in a seemingly endless identity crisis.

Secessionist parties win slim majority in regional parliament after failed independence bid

Axed Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, flanked by former Catalan cabinet ministers Antoni Comin, left, and Meritxell Serret, right, celebrates in Brussels after hearing the results of the regional election in Catalonia. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

There's a joke going around in Catalonia that when they opened up Salvador Dali's tomb for DNA testing in a paternity suit earlier this year, a dose of the famed Catalan painter's surrealism was released into the atmosphere and so into the region's political system.

How else could one conceive of an election held with some of the main contenders in jail on charges of rebellion and a third avoiding arrest in Belgium (another hub of surrealist art!) beaming in and out of campaign events via Skype.

Yet so it was in a vote that became a de facto referendum on Catalan independence, even though the regional election was called in the wake of Madrid's rage at Catalonia for holding an illegal independence referendum in the first place.

Rather than resolving the issue, of course, Thursday's results giving the secessionist parties a slim majority have simply confirmed the deep division that runs through Catalonia over its relationship with the rest of Spain, highlighting a region trapped in a seemingly endless identity crisis.

"The Catalan Republic has beaten the monarchy," the recently deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont crowed from his exiled position in Brussels as the results awarded his Together for Catalonia party 34 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament, the largest tally of the pro-independence parties.

"[The Spanish Prime Minister Mariano] Rajoy and his allies have lost and received a slap in the face from the Catalan people," he said.

Pro-union party biggest seat winner

The pro-Spain party Ciudadanos actually won the most seats of any single party and the popular vote also favoured unity by about 53 to 47 per cent. 

But the makeup of the regional parliament makes it extremely unlikely that Ciudadanos can build a coalition government. The separatist bloc, needless to say, has done it before and will have an easier time forming a coalition.

The result is a major blow to Rajoy who had clearly been hoping for a decisive nod in favour of union. Now the chances of dialogue between the Catalan separatist leaders and Madrid seem even more mired in uncertainty.

Puigdemont willing to meet Rajoy

Speaking from Brussels on Friday, Puigdemont adopted a slightly less gloating tone and said he was willing to meet with Rajoy anywhere outside of Spain to start a dialogue.

At his own news conference in Madrid though, Rajoy continued to emphasize the importance of the rule of law, saying the separatist leaders had acted outside it.

Independence supporters have taken to wearing yellow ribbons and displaying them in Barcelona. Madrid ordered the ribbons removed in the leadup to Thursday's vote and so rows of yellow ribbon can appear and disappear again within hours. (Lily Martin/CBC)

To their supporters, who wear yellow ribbons in their honour and drape them off balconies and wrap them around trees and fence posts, they are political prisoners. 

Madrid ordered the ribbons removed in the leadup to the vote and so rows of yellow ribbon can appear and disappear again within hours. 

Political debate 'not rational'

It all contributes to that surreal atmosphere.

"Political debate now is not rational," says Xavier Arbos Marin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Barcelona, who predicted the current stalemate in an interview just before the vote.

Dr. Xavier Arbos Marin, a constitutional law professor at the University of Barcelona, says the opposing sides in the crisis over Catalonia remain mired in legal arguments. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"Independence leaders have acted as if the law didn't exist and the Spanish government has acted like the only thing that existed is the law. And that's part of the crisis." 

Arbos Marin believes that to resolve the problem, both sides will have to find empathy in their hearts for the other's position. But that is a deep ask given that the core constituencies they each must answer to are even more polarized by recent events.

Increase in Spanish nationalism

He points to the rise in Spanish nationalism in response to the calls for independence by Catalonia's parliamentary majority in the wake of the referendum.

"I'm not talking about fascism," says Arbos Marin in a reference to the military dictatorship of General Francisco Franco between 1939 and 1975 in Spain, "but just Spanish nationalism." 

"The sense that showing the Spanish flag and showing pride of Spain, looking at Spanish unity as something to be preserved, it has appeared not only in Catalonia where it was more or less absent, but in Spain."

"This is something new. So [for Rajoy] anything that will be perceived as a concession to Catalan separatists will be difficult to be accepted."

By the same token many Catalan separatists say their determination to free themselves from Madrid's rule has hardened in the wake of Rajoy's heavy-handed handling of the Oct. 1 referendum.

Independence leaders have acted as if the law didn't exist and the Spanish government has acted like the only thing that existed is the law.- Xavier Arbos Marin, a constitutional law professor

Video captured disturbing images of the Spanish civil guard kicking people and dragging them out of polling stations by their hair.

Combined with the arrests of political leaders it has made it easy for Madrid's opponents to call up ghosts from the past, with references to the Franco years when Catalan – and other languages in the regions – were suppressed.

"I think Spain has to come to terms with its own diversity," says Arbos Marin. "Because it is one of the sources of unrest in Catalonia."

It is about recognizing Spain as it is, he says. 


Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.