A Hollow Election Victory for Catalonia’s Separatists

A Hollow Election Victory for Catalonia’s Separatists
Posters show candidates for Catalonia’s regional election, in Barcelona, Spain, Feb. 9, 2021 (AP photo by Emilio Morenatti).

MADRID—Last month’s election in Catalonia underlined the deep and longstanding divisions in the region over whether to seek independence from the rest of Spain. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist Party may have won the most votes, but separatist parties together won the most seats in the regional Parliament and are poised to form a government. However, the record-low voter turnout of just over 53 percent raises questions about how much of a mandate the new Catalan government will have.

The rift between separatists and unionists has dominated both Catalan and Spanish politics for a decade, and the regional polls on Feb. 14 kept the issue on the front burner despite a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, a sluggish vaccination effort and a crippled economy. The two top-performing parties—the Socialists and the pro-separatist Republican Left of Catalonia, or ERC—are now calling for dialogue on the question of Catalonia’s status, but the reality is that the election has changed little. If anything, it has brought even more uncertainty to the dispute over the future of this economically vibrant region in northeastern Spain.

Tensions over the issue have remained high since 2017, when the regional government held an independence referendum that was deemed illegal by Spain’s Supreme Court. When the Catalan Parliament then formally declared independence, Spain’s central government imposed direct rule from Madrid and the region’s president at the time, Carles Puigedemont, fled to Belgium. Nine separatist leaders were eventually tried and sent to prison for sedition and misuse of public funds.

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