Catalonia elections: what's at stake?
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On 21 December Catalans go to the polls. The snap election may decide the future of a region where many citizens want independence. But that wish is opposed by vocal-pro Spanish groups, the government in Madrid and the European Union. What is the background of this historic regional election?
- Why are there elections in Catalonia now?
On 1 October a referendum organised by a pro-independence platform showed 92.01 percent support for full independence from Spain. The estimated turnout was between 38 and 44 percent.
On 27 October the 135-member Catalan parliament voted 70-10 in favour of independence, with 55 abstentions. Hours later, for the first time ever, the government in Madrid invoked the Spanish constitution’s Article 155, which allows direct rule if “a self-governing community [ … ] acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain”.
Madrid then dissolved the Catalan parliament, fired regional president Carles Puigdemont and removed the head of the regional police force.
Earlier on Spanish police had detained several high-ranking government officials, including regional vice-president Oriol Junqueras, raided several of the Catalan government’s departments and issued an arrest warrant for Puigdemont for “rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds”, charges that carry jail terms of up to 30 years.
Puigdemont fled to Brussels.
Madrid then called early regional elections on 21 December. Under normal circumstances they would have been in September 2019. A judge dropped the arrest warrant and Puigdemont is likely to go back to Spain to take part in the elections. Junqueras may have to campaign from jail.
- What is Catalonia's current status within Spain?
The current status of Catalonia is defined in the 2006 Statute of Autonomy that was approved by referendum, replacing Statute of Sau, introduced after the fall of dictator Francisco Franco. Catalonia is an “autonomous community” that is self-governed by the Generalitat de Catalunya, consisting of a parliament and led by a president and his government.
The Generalitat handles culture, education, health, justice, environment, communications, transport, commerce, public safety and local government and has its own police force. The Spanish government deals with defence, border control, terrorism and immigration.
- Why do many people in Catalonia want an independent state?
For centuries Catalonia was an independent region with its own laws, culture and language. It was incorporated in the Spanish kingdom in 1715 after its defeat by King Philip V in the Spanish Succession War.
Since then Spanish rulers have tried to impose Spanish laws and the Spanish language on Catalonia but they have always met fierce resistance. The Generalitat was not restored until 1931 under the republican goverment that was toppled by General Francisco Franco in the country's civil war.
Franco took full control of the region in 1938 when he defeated republican forces at the battle of the Ebro, killing 3,500 and sending many more into exile.
Autonomy was restored in 1977 but calls for full independence started again in 2010, when nationalist feeling was fuelled by the economic crisis.
Many realised that Catalonia, the industrial heartland of Spain which accounts for 19 percent of its GDP, paid more in taxes to the central government than it got back. According to Spanish treasury data, Catalonia pays about 10 billion euros more in taxes to Madrid than it receives from central government.
- Who are the candidates and what do they stand for?
Candidates had until 17 November to submit their papers to participate in the elections. In total seven candidates are standing:
- Carles Puigdemont, Together for Catalonia. Slogan: “Puigdemont, Our president!". One of the main forces behind the independence movement. Born in 1962 in Girona, he initially worked in the press, starting as a reporter for El Punt newspaper and ending up as the director of the Catalan News Agency, ACN. He has devoted his life fully to politics since 2006, becoming mayor of Girona and later president of the Catalan Generalitat. He became the first Catalan president to refuse to take the oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the monarch, Felipe VI. Puigdemont is married and has two children.
- Inès Arrimadas, Citizens. Slogan “Now We Will Vote!" . The leader of the opposition, pro-Spain. Born in 1981 in Jerez de la Frontera, she became a spokesperson for the youth section of Citizens in 2011, moved on to become an MP and then leader of the combined opposition at the age of 34.
- Oriol Junqueras, Republican Left of Catalonia/Catalonia Yes. Slogan “Democracy Always Wins!" Born in 1969 in Barcelona, friend and rival of Puigdemont. President of the Republican Left and former MEP. After the unilateral declaration of Catalan independence on 27 October, a judge ordered that Junqueras be remanded in custody without bail together with other members of the deposed Catalan government while under investigation for charges of rebellion and sedition. He may campaign from behind bars.
The other candidates are Miquel Iceta of the anti-independence Socialist Party of Catalonia (“Solutions. Now. Iceta!”); Xavier Domènech of the pro-Spanish Catalonia in Common/We Can (“We Have a Lot in Common”); Garcia Albiol of the pro-Spain People’s Party of Catalonia (“Spain is the Solution”) and Carles Riera of the pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (“On Our Feet”)
- What does the rest of Europe think of Catalan independence?
Brussels has never been very keen on Catalan independence, stating that “Under the Spanish constitution, [the] vote in Catalonia was not legal” after the referendum. EU politicians have also warned that if Catalonia becomes independent it will “find itself outside the EU”. The only positive noises came from Slovenia, where the speaker of parliament said that “Catalonia has the right to self-determination.”
- What will happen if pro-independence parties again win a majority?
This is likely to happen. But it remains to be seen if both sides want to return to their tough stances. Madrid withdrew the arrest warrant against Puigdemont, who himself indicated that he would be open to negotiation. Critics of the referendum, such as the People’s Party and Citizens also point at the relatively low 43 percent turnout in the referendum, which technically means that a minority of those eligible to vote cast their ballots for independence. According to the Catalan government, out of 2,286,217 people who cast a vote, 2,044,038 backed independence, which is only 27 percent of the total population.
- How were the parties represented before parliament was dissolved?
- Junts per Catalonya (Puigdemont) contested the elections in an alliance with Junts pel Sí as Together for Catalonia: 39 seats (29 +10)
- Republican Left/Catalunya Yes (Junqueras): 22 seats
- Popular Unity Candidacy (Carles Riera): 10 seats
Want to stay in Spain and/or do not want independence now:
- Citizens (Inès Arrimadas): 25 seats
- Socialist Party (Miquel Iceta): 16 seats
- People’s Party of Catalonia (Xavier Garcia Albiol): 11 seats
- Catalonia in Common – We Can (Xavier Domènech): 11 seats