19 October 2015

Catalan President Artur Más has claimed a mandate for independence after pro-independence parties won an outright majority of seats in the regional Parliament. But, as Ashley Hibben explains, Catalonia’s right to decide on independence is fiercely contested, leaving the road ahead unclear.

Late on ‘El 27-S’, a reference to the date of the vote (27 September), Artur Más addressed supporters of the Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”) electoral alliance and claimed “a clear plebiscite... Today was a double victory – the ‘yes’ side won, as did democracy.” However, the result is more ambiguous than Más and other nationalists have made out.

Although pro-independence parties won a majority of seats (72 of 135) in the regional Parliament, Junts pel Sí and the hard-left CUP only won 47.7% of the vote. This is an impressive figure, particularly given the historically high turnout of 77%. However, it casts doubt on the claim of Junts pel Sí to have won a clear popular mandate. Junts pel Sí only has a majority of seats with the support of CUP, who favour immediate secession from Spain rather than the negotiated path advocated by Más. The CUP also opposes the centre-right stance of the Más government. The CUP have since declared that “the plebiscite was not won” and that they will vote against Más’ reinstatement as Catalan premier.

Even if an alliance is brokered in Barcelona, Junts pel Sí will face stiff resistance from Madrid. The Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy has declared any referendum in Catalonia “anti-democratic”. Prior to November 2014’s non-binding referendum in Catalonia (won by the pro-independence parties) Rajoy said “It’s false that the right to vote can be assigned unilaterally to one region about a matter that affects all Spaniards… There is nothing and no-one, no power nor institution, that can break this principle of sole sovereignty [of the Spanish state]”. The Constitutional Court has repeatedly struck down Catalan attempts to declare sovereignty and hold referenda. An informal vote held by the Catalan government in November 2014 (won by the ‘Yes’ campaign) was declared illegal in May 2015.

Does Catalonia have the right to decide on its path towards independence?

Lacking the right of unilateral secession has not deterred other nationalist movements from holding independence referenda in recent years. The debate surrounding Catalonia’s future is drawing inevitable comparisons with that of Scotland since 2007. In 2011 the SNP won an outright majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. They had campaigned on the platform of holding a referendum on Scottish independence, despite “the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England” remaining a reserved competence for the British Government. But in contrast to the Spanish Government’s current position with regard to Catalonia, the UK Government decided to negotiate an exceptional agreement to hold a referendum before the end of 2014. On this occasion Westminster accepted the principle of popular sovereignty (as expressed through the Scottish Parliament) for deciding Scotland’s future in the UK. The law was consequently amended to ensure that the 2014 vote would have a sound legal basis, with the result recognised by both sides.

The Madrid government is showing no sign of making a similar concession. Does Catalonia’s government have a case to press ahead with a referendum or unilateral declaration of independence? The 1978 constitution, which created a division of powers between the national government and seventeen autonomous communities, says that Spain’s wealthiest region does not hold any clear right to secede. Section 2 declares:

“The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognises and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.”

Article 149, Paragraph 32 also makes clear that “authorisation of popular consultations through the holding of referendums” is an exclusive competence for the Spanish state – one rigorously enforced by Madrid in recent years.

Could national elections revive the independence question in Madrid?

We know that last year’s ‘No’ vote in Scotland did little to settle the independence question “for a generation”, as declared by all sides in 2012. The SNP appears to be going from strength to strength after winning all but three Scottish seats in the UK’s 2015 General Election, where they also won 50% of the popular vote. A number of opinion polls suggest that the SNP could win another majority at the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, although nationalist leader Nicola Sturgeon has sought to dampen speculation that this would trigger a second referendum.

The road ahead for Catalonia’s independence movement may become clearer after the Spanish general elections, which will be held on 20 December. Neither of the traditional main parties, Rajoy’s ruling People’s Party (PP) and the opposition Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), is likely to win a majority in the Cortes (Spanish Congress). The rise of new parties on the left (Podemos) and the right (Cuidadanos) has complicated the political landscape at both national and regional levels. Depending on the election outcome, Artur Más’ Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) party could be left holding the balance of power in the Cortes. Although major political and legal obstacles to Catalan independence would remain, a ‘kingmaker’ role for CDC in Madrid could provoke further debate about Catalonia’s powers and status in the Spanish state.