Spanish elections: The right defeated and Catalonia’s right to decide re-asserted
By Dick Nichols
May 12, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — How strongly would the filthy brown tide of reaction—the vote for the racist, xenophobic, islamophobic, anti-feminist, homophobic, pro-gun and above all anti-Catalan outfit Vox—run at the Spanish April 28 general election? That question was on everyone’s lips in the last week of the campaign.
The average of legal polling, allowed by the Central Electoral Board until one week before the vote, had Vox at 11.2%, yielding around 30-35 seats in the 350-seat Congress of Deputies. However, illegal and internal party polls in the last week of the campaign—or deliberately scary leaks about them—were giving the ultra-rightists up to 17%. With that level of support, they would climb past the progressive Unidas Podemos and the forces allied to it, overtake the new right Citizens and come in third behind the governing Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the main opposition, the formerly governing but now much shrunken People’s Party (PP). There was even an outside chance the ultras would come in second.
The possible late surge to Vox didn’t just show in polling. In an atmosphere of helpful media coverage and with a profile boosted by its role as popular prosecution in the present trial of the 12 Catalan leaders, Vox drew thousands to its rallies. The crowds roared euphoric support for leader Santiago Abascal’s abuse of the "politically correct" and "feminazism", chanted "Puigdemont to jail" and furiously shook Spanish flags when the leader called for "defence of the Spanish nation no matter what the cost". Vox’s final rally in Madrid, held under the biggest Spanish flag ever seen, drew between 10,000 and 20,000 to hear the message that "Spain is in danger" and cheer the call for the indefinite suspension of Catalan self-rule.
Arguably the best measure of the Vox surge were the reactions of PP and PSOE leaders Pablo Casado and Pedro Sánchez. Casado promised if elected to suspend Catalan self-government at his very first cabinet meeting, while Sánchez brandished the Vox bogey to urge potential left voters not to stay home but to back the PSOE as the most reliable counter to a fascist revival.
They did not pass
Yet the spectre of a Vox surge never materialised: the ultra-right received 10.26% (24 seats), one per cent less than its average in final legal polling, leaving it in fifth position behind Unidas Podemos. Spain has now joined most European states—with the exception of Ireland, Malta, Luxemburg and Portugal—with an extreme right party of hate in its parliament. But, revolting as this is, a majority for the three parties of the right (the “triple-headed monster”) would have been a lot worse (see the full election results here).
The reason the result wasn’t as appalling as feared was that the rise of Vox rang alarm bells within the mass of the population, driving the participation rate on April 28 up to 75,75%, a full six percentage points more than in the last general election in June 2016. 26.36 million people in the Spanish state cast a ballot on election day, 2.2 million more than in 2016. This was the highest participation since the 2004 election coinciding with the Iraq War and the Madrid terrorist bombing, which resulted in the PSOE’s José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero ousting PP incumbent José María Aznar. The mood, too, was similar: for millions once again, it was a matter of No pasaran—"they shall not pass"—a determination to avoid a repeat of the result of December Andalusian regional in which the right had won a majority on the back of mass abstention (only 56.85% had voted).
The biggest leap in participation took place in Catalonia (from 65.61% to 77.58%, the highest since 1980), reflecting popular determination to both defeat the right and assert Catalonia’s right to self-determination, especially as the right’s campaign has been a three-way dogfight over who could be most vicious against the "Catalan secessionist threat" and most ruthless with the "coup-mongers" (the jailed and charged Catalan leaders).
As a result of this surge the right as a bloc took a pasting. At the level of the Spanish state, its overall vote fell from 46.49% (169 seats) to 43.23% (149 seats), while the vote of the all-Spanish left (PSOE plus Unidas Podemos) fell just marginally, from 43.76% to 42.99%. Because of the rigged Spanish electoral system, which awards disproportionately more seats to parties as their vote moves beyond 15%, the combined PSOE and Unidas Podemos seat total nonetheless increased (from 156 to 165), with the PSOE’s 28.7% of the vote scoring it 35.14% of the seats.
Critical to right’s defeat was the vote in the Spanish Basque Country (Euskadi) and Catalonia. Without this contribution the right would have won one million votes more than the PSOE. In Catalonia, it went from holding 11 of Catalonia’s 48 Congress seats to holding only seven. In Euskadi its rout was complete: not one of the region’s 18 seats will be held by a party of the right, with the PP losing its last two seats and Citizens and Vox gaining none.
At the same time as the overall balance swung leftward on an all-Spanish level, this space itself shrank as the "third pole" of nationalist and regionalist forces expanded—from 9.75% (25 seats) to 13.78% (36 seats). The number of self-proclaimed pro-independence Basque and Catalan MPs in the Congress passed from 26 to 32.
The raw voting figures reveal the basic tendencies of April 28: 200,000 more voted for the right than in 2016, 780,000 more for the left, but 1.056 million more voted for regionally based parties of all stripes, with over 700,000 extra votes going to the Basque and Catalan forces.
The welcome overall result of these shifts is that it is now impossible for the right to repeat its governing alliance in Andalusia at the level of the Spanish state—a gain for progressive politics in the whole of Europe. However, the PSOE will need the support of Unidas Podemos and at least one other party to be able to return to government, either in minority or in coalition. Equally importantly, the bloc of pro-independence Catalan parties has grown (from 17 to 22 seats), sign of the failure of the PSOE’s campaign to paint “the right and the secessionists” as equal and opposite enemies of reason and moderation: the Catalan rebellion and the 80% of Catalans who support their nation’s right to self-determination will remain the incoming Sánchez administration’s biggest headache.
PP, the biggest loser
Which were the biggest losers within these three basic voting blocs—the so-called “three Spains”—and why?
The biggest disaster was the PP’s: its vote and representation halved to 16.7% and 66 seats as 3.5 million voters abandoned ship, its worst ever result. None of its traditional feuds—from the posher suburbs of Spain’s 50 provincial capitals to the towns and villages in its Castilian heartlands—escaped the wrath of the voters, as the PP retreated from being lead party in 5390 to only 2444 of the country’s 8131 municipalities. Spain’s once hegemonic conservative force now has Citizens (15.8%, 57 seats) treading on its heels in the competition for leadership of the right.
The PP’s most deserved meltdown took place in Catalonia. There the histrionic aristocrat Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo—protegée of former prime minister Aznar and parachuted in by Casado as lead candidate over the head of the local organisation—managed to persuade 262,000 voters to abandon her party and reduce its Catalan representation from six seats (13.42%) to one (herself, with 4.8%). Similar PP débâcles took place in the other regions where national and/or regional identity is strong: Euskadi (from 2 seats to zero), the Valencian Country (13 seats to 7) and the Canary Islands (6 seats to 3).
Other major disaster zones were Andalusia (23 seats to 11), Madrid (15 seats to 7) and Castilla La Mancha (12 seats to 6). In the smaller constituencies with between three and six MPs, the former PP pie typically got divided in three, with one slice each for the PP, Citizens and Vox. In Murcia and Extremadura, the PP went from five seats to two, handing one seat apiece to the PSOE, Citizens and Vox. In some former PP strongholds, like Torre-Pacheco in Murcia, its vote plunged from over 50% to under 25%, with Vox replacing it as lead party.
The only (very partial) exception to this rout came in Galicia, where the local premier Alfredo Nuñez Feijóo continues to follow the "moderate" line of former Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, and the vote and seat losses were confined to one third of their 2016 total. Nonetheless, the PP also surrendered its leading position in Galicia, with the result that Spain’s social democracy is now the leading party in 15 of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities (states in Australian terms, provinces in Canadian terms), including former PP strongholds Castilla y León and Castilla-La Mancha. The centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) is the leading force in Catalonia and the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in Euskadi. In 2016, the PSOE led in none of these regions.
The PP’s downfall had two basic causes: it tried to match Vox in bashing the Catalan sovereignty movement but came across as a pale imitation of these ardent Spanish patriots with their vision of "reconquest" of the rebellious Catalans, and it never lost its stench of corruption, an incitement for former voters to desert to the apparently clean Citizens.
Unidas Podemos, biggest loser on the left
A partial mirror of the PP’s fiasco was the setback suffered on the left by Unidas Podemos and Together We Can (ECP), the coalition in which it took part in Catalonia. With 3.733 million votes these forces shed 1.3 million of the five million votes they won in June 2016 and scored 2.4 million votes less than the 6.1 million won by Podemos and the United Left when they ran separately in December 2015.
The radical force lost most where it had gained most in 2015 and 2016—in the "historical nationalities" of Catalonia, Galicia and Euskadi. Then the leading force in both Euskadi and Catalonia, at this poll the radical force came in third in both constituencies. In Catalonia, ECP slumped from twelve seats to seven: in Euskadi, Unidas Podemos went from six seats to four.
In Castilla-La Mancha, where Unidas Podemos participates as junior partner to the PSOE in the regional government, it lost both of the seats won in 2016. In Castilla y León it lost all three of its seats. Two seats became one in Aragon, Asturias and Navarra while one seat became none in Cantabria, Extremadura and La Rioja. The least painful losses were in Andalusia (eleven seats to nine) and Madrid (eight seats to six).
Unidas Podemos didn’t lose seats in the Balearic and Canary Islands, where it maintained the two it held in each archipelago, and Murcia, where it held onto its only seat. It also succeeded in retaining the share of the seats it had won in 2016 within broader coalitions with left-nationalist forces in the Valencian Country (five out of nine) and Galicia (two out of five).
These losses were partly due to the disillusionment of many Podemos activists and members with the behaviour of their leaders, most painfully Pablo Iglesias and his partner Irene Montero’s purchase of a €600,000 villa in an exclusive Madrid suburb, and the desertion of number two leader Iñigo Errejón to an alliance with Madrid mayoress Manuela Carmena.
However, two more deeper-going political factors are also needed to explain the retreat. The first is Unidas Podemos’s confused and at times tepid orientation to the right of self-determination of the Spanish state’s component nations, most importantly the ongoing Catalan struggle. When asked, Podemos candidates will always say that they stand for this right and recognise the plurinationality of Spain. However, it is not an issue on which they feel keen to go into battle—against the Spanish establishment, the monarchy and still pervasive Spanish-chauvinist sentiment.
The upshot was clearest in Euskadi and Catalonia, where many progressive supporters of their country’s right to self-determination, who had swung to Unidas Podemos and ECP in 2015 and 2016, decided to again vote for left-independentist forces. In Catalonia, this shift was responsible for at least four of the ERC’s six-seat gain: in Euskadi, it accounted for the left independentist EH Bildu doubling its presence in the Congress from two to four.
Equally damaging has been the Iglesias leadership’s orientation to the Spanish social democracy, which after the Unidas Podemos failure to overtake Sánchez’s party in 2015-16, became at this election an all-of-Spain application of its approach in Castilla-La Mancha—that of seeking to be a junior partner in a PSOE administration.
Iglesias and ECP lead candidate Jaume Asens argued—forcefully and correctly—that the stronger the vote for their forces, the less likely would the PSOE be to risk a post-electoral pact for government with Citizens. There is evidence that this argument boosted the Unidas Podemos vote in the last fortnight of the campaign from around 12-13% to its final 14.31%.
However, these were very thin pickings compared to the loss of support since 2015, due to what has long been missing from the Unidas Podemos message and which most accounts for it falling further and further behind the PSOE—any clear sense that it has a qualitatively different project and not just a grab-bag of better policies. One particularly gaping hole was the failure to present Unidas Podemos as a thoroughgoing republican alternative to the Spanish monarchist establishment, one supportive of a popular constituent process that would reconstitute the Spanish state on democratic foundations. Such an overall project is also the indispensable foundation for a consistent tactical orientation towards the social democracy.
A reflection of the differences in orientation within the coalitions created around Unidas Podemos (itself a coalition of Podemos, the United Left and the all-Spanish green party Equo) came in the February 14 Congress vote on the 2019 Spanish government budget, the loss of which provided Pedro Sánchez with the pretext to call the April 28 election. In this vote, four out of the five MPs in En Marea (the alliance between Unidas Podemos and various Galician left-independentist forces) disobeyed a directive of the En Marea leadership to vote down the budget as not providing enough resources for Galicia. With this stance they sided with the Unidas Podemos leadership which was boosting the budget as “the most social in history”.
Given such contradictions—and the pro-PSOE media pressure for a socialist vote as the best way to defeat Vox and the rest of the right—it is no surprise that Unidas Podemos also lost the votes of many former PSOE supporters who had come across to it in 2015-2016. Probably the most telling indication is that Unidas Podemos and the ECP ceased at this poll to be the lead party in any of the working-class and popular suburbs of Madrid, Barcelona and Zaragoza that they headed in 2016.
Detailed analysis remains to be done, but a provisional rough estimate would be that, of the radical force’s lost 1.3 million votes, half a million went to left independentist forces (ERC and EH Bildu), while 800,000 returned to the PSOE and its Catalan affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).
Losers in the ‘periphery’: Compromís (Valencian Country) and En Marea (Galicia)
The biggest losses in the camp of parties supporting the sovereignty rights of the nations and regions constituting the Spanish state came in Galicia and the Valencian Country, in which partners of Unidas Podemos in 2015-16 decided to stand their own candidates on April 28. In both cases, Unidas Podemos managed to hold on to its share of seats while the pro-sovereignty forces suffered severe losses.
In the Valencian Country, the left-regionalist Compromís, former coalition partner with Unidas Podemos in the alliance A La Valenciana, lost three of the four seats it had won as part of that formation in 2016. The division between Unidas Podemos and Compromís favoured the PSOE, whose vote climbed from 20.81% (six seats) to 27.78% (ten seats).
The story was similar in Galicia. En Marea, which had been the name of the coalition between Unidas Podemos and Galician left-nationalist forces in 2015 and 2016, lost all its seats as a left-nationalist coalition running against Unidas Podemos, being reduced to a sad 1.08% of the vote—behind Vox and the former lead force of Galician nationalism, the Galician Nationalist Bloc (BNG). In the December 2015 general election, the coalition of radical all-Spanish and local left-nationalist forces had surpassed the PSOE in votes and equalled it in seats (six each of Galicia’s 23 seats in the Congress). This time, the flight of votes from the divided former partners to the PSOE helped Sánchez’s party win 10 seats, with the former partners being reduced to two (both won by Unidas Podemos).
The biggest winner: Vox
The PP’s lost 3.5 million votes deserted to Vox and the "clean" right but intensely Catalanophobic Citizens in the proportion of 2.5 million to one million. Vox was also the party that gained the biggest increase in support, scoring 2.63 million more votes than the 40,000 won in 2016: its 10.26% score was the direct reflection in electoral politics of Spanish-nationalist fury at the successful holding of the October 2017 Catalan referendum on self-determination in the face of police violence.
Basing itself on the desire for revenge ("reconquest") for this humiliation, Vox became the pole for attracting around its platform all the usual hatreds of the far right. Spain’s numerous fractious far-right grupuscules, which hadn’t managed parliamentary representation since 1980 and had spent years arguing over the Borbon monarchy, national Catholicism and the Franco dictatorship, came around Vox on the point all could agree on—the sacred and imperishable unity of the Spanish nation in the face of the Catalan “coupmongers”.
The first point of Vox’s 10-point program for April 28 called for the “defence of the Spanish Nation no matter what the cost”, followed by the construction of an "impenetrable" wall against immigration through Ceuta and Melilla, forced repatriation of "illegals", recentralisation of the Spanish state into a single administrative unit, "defence of the Spanish language", and the repeal of all laws embodying "political correctness".
Vox gained most from the PP’s débâcle in Andalusia (six seats), Madrid (five), the Valencian Country (three), Castilla-La Mancha (two) and Murcia (two). By contrast, it picked up no seats in the "periphery" of the Spanish state, where conservative voters have a regionalist alternative or the PP itself embodies regional conservatism: the Canary Islands, Galicia, La Rioja, Navarra, Euskadi, and Cantabria all failed to return a representative for the ultra-rightists.
In all these regions with the exception of Catambria Vox failed to score over 10%, with its lowest votes in Euskadi (2.21%), Catalonia (3.6%) and Navarra (4.83%). Vox scored its highest result in the Moroccan enclave of Ceuta (23.96%). Its next best results were in Spain’s central and southern autonomous regions, Madrid (13.64%), Castilla-La Mancha (15.29%), Murcia (18.64%) and Andalusia (13.38%).
The Vox vote represents support won in highly contrasting constituencies. At one extreme of the 72 municipalities in which Vox headed the poll was El Ejido, in Almería (Andalusia), with its 23% population of migrant workers labouring in the region’s greenhouses (“sea of plastic”): there Vox led the ballot with 30% support. Other towns in Almería, like Nijar and Balanegra, registered similar levels. By contrast, Vox’s next biggest belt of support was in Spain’s richest suburbs, most of them in Madrid. In the top ten of these (nine in Madrid and one in Valencia) Vox scored an average of 18.94%.
In the country’s fifteen poorest municipalities—shared between Extremadura, Galicia and Andalusia—Vox’s highest score was 14% but in four it could not manage even 5%. This result shows that in popular and impoverished regions there is no simple correspondence between social condition and the Vox vote, while at the other end of the social scale its score rises directly with income. That is hardly surprising, given the ultra-rightists’ support for a “massive cut in taxes”.
The other unsurprising feature of the Vox vote was that it peaked in neighbourhoods with a military, Civil Guard and Spanish National Police presence, which would also have been attracted to Vox by its policy of running retired ultra-patriotic army officers as candidates. In an analysis of the Vox vote in Catalonia, Crític writer Sergi Picazo has shown that it reached up to 15% around the Civil Guard headquarters in the Barcelona suburb of Sant Andreu de la Barca (average in Barcelona 6%), and 14.6% around the main Spanish military base in the pre-Pyrenean town of Sant Climent Sescebes. The pattern was similar across the Spanish state as a whole, reaching 41% in the El Goloso Military Base, 37% around the Civil Guard headquarters and 30% around the Land Army’s Sporting and Socialcultural centre (all in Madrid).
Clearly, these results don’t only confirm the sympathy for Spanish ultra-nationalism within the country’s 270,000 military, Civil Guard and police: they also raise the question of whether, as analysts of the ultra-right maintain, Vox and the rest of the extreme right are conducting a policy of deliberate infiltration of the country’s security forces.
The easiest winner: Citizens
Citizens picked up its 25 extra seats mainly because its vote climbed above the 15% threshold (from 13.05% to 15.86%), a clear example of how the rigged Spanish electoral system favours all-Spanish parties once they cross this mark.
In Andalusia, for example, its four new seats won from the PP (rising from seven to 11) required 58,200 votes per seat, while Vox’s six extra seats required 101,870 votes a seat. In Castilla-La Mancha Citizens’ vote rose from 13% to 17.5%, but its haul of seats went from zero to four. In Castilla y León its vote rose from 14.2% to 18.9%, but its seat score rocketed from one to eight, as it picked up the last seat in seven of the region’s nine provinces. Citizens’ next richest pickings were in Madrid, where it overtook the PP, and Galicia, where its two seats came at the expense of En Marea. Like Vox, the neo-liberal Citizens also picked up a higher vote in the wealthier constituencies.
Citizens’ decision to focus a lot of its campaign in “empty Spain” —the depopulating hinterland of deserted and dying rural villages where it was usually in combat with the PP for the last seat—paid off handsomely: 13 of its 25-seat gain came in these regions.
The new-right road show’s biggest failure was in Catalonia, its “homeland” where it is the official opposition and biggest party in the Catalan parliament. Despite the social and political turmoil around the October 1, 2017 independence referendum that put it in this position, Citizens made no gains on the five seats it won in 2016, with its vote increasing from only 10.93% to 11.55% (it won 25.4% in the December 21, 2017 Catalan regional poll). Of the five seats lost by the PP, one went to Vox and four to the PSC-PSOE but none to Citizens.
The overall winner: PSOE
The overall winner of the election was obviously the PSOE, with its 7.48 million-vote haul. While its vote increased less than Vox’s, this two-million strong increase in support since 2016 translated into a 38-seat increase (to 123), making the continuation of the minority Sánchez government a real option. Its vote rose everywhere, increasing between 1.64% (Cantabria) and 9.88% (Galicia) and without distinction between the central and peripheral regions of the Spanish state.
The PSOE was a major beneficiary of the lift in the participation rate. If around 800,000 of its extra votes came for Unidas Podemos and its allies, these were not nearly enough alone to account for the Spanish social democracy’s final gains–these were consistently greater than Unidas Podemos losses. In Andalusia, for example, Unidas Podemos lost 136,000 votes while the PSOE gained 239,000. in Aragon, the PSOE vote increased by 65,000 while the Unidas Podemos vote fell by 36,000. In Madrid, the 350,000 increase in the PSOE vote nearly tripled the Unidas Podemos loss of 120,000, a pattern that was repeated in Galicia (180,000-vote PSOE gain as against a combined Unidas Podemos-En Marea loss of 82,000).
There was evidence of disillusioned PP voters repelled by Casado’s parroting of Vox shifting to the PSOE in Catalonia, the Canary Islands, Andalusia, Madrid, Murcia and Galicia, but this trend would have accounted at the very most for eight of the PSOE’s 38-seat gain—a marginal shift on an all-Spanish scale where votes rarely cross over the left-right divide.
Detailed investigation remains to be done, but Unidas Podemos losses look to have accounted for up to half (19) of the PSOE’s 38 extra seats, while the increase in the participation rate looks to have won it at least 11. When combined with the split within the parties of the right, this lift gave the PSOE some unexpected prizes, the rarest of which was probably its win in the Moroccan enclave of Ceuta, where its 36.33% was enough to hand it the seat over Vox (23.96%).
If the April 28 participation rate in Andalusia (73.31%) had applied in the December regional election won by the right, the PSOE would have won half a million extra votes and the “triple-headed monster” would have been easily prevented from taking the regional government. This election thus confirmed a long-standing lesson of Spanish state politics—the chance of any sort of left victory has always depended on mobilising its often reluctant and disappointed social base.
Sánchez’s win has put an end to right-wing attacks on him as a “usurper” for the successful no-confidence motion that installed him as prime minister in June last year, removes right-wing control of the Senate, the Congress speakership panel and various parliamentary commissions, and increases his ability to run a minority administration that builds its majorities issue by issue with different allies (applying “variable geometry”).
Catalonia: ERC heads off the PSC/PSOE revival
The PSOE victory, however, was not as complete as Sánchez would have wanted. This was because his routing of the PP was not accompanied by a parallel defeat of the forces supporting Catalan independence and, more broadly, a Catalan right to self-determination.
The voting flows in Catalonia on April 28 were, as usual, more complicated than in the rest of the Spanish state, especially as they were this time driven by the 12% (700,000 voter) increase in the participation rate. These were voters motivated both by fear of the right and Vox, but also by the need to assert the legitimacy of a Catalan right to decide against Spanish unionism. The result was that the traditional “dual vote” phenomenon of Catalan elections—where voters support different parties in Spanish Congress and Catalan parliament contests—practically disappeared. This outcome is further confirmation that the October 1, 2017 referendum and the subsequent repression and suspension of Catalan self-rule marked a turning point in Catalan and Spanish state politics.
In Catalonia, the biggest gainer in votes on April 28 was the PSC/PSOE (400,000), corresponding to an increase in seats from 7 to 12. The biggest gainer in seats was the ERC (from 9 to 15), corresponding to 386,000 extra votes. With over one million votes, the ERC won its first Catalan election since 1936 and made a big step to establishing itself as the hegemonic force in the independence camp, eclipsing Together for Catalonia (JxCat), party of exiled president Carles Puigdemont and the ERC’s senior partner in the Catalan government.
The increase in the participation also meant that Citizens would increase its vote by 100,000 (from 10.93% to 11.55%) but still only maintain its five seats, while JxCat would increase its absolute vote by 16,000 but decline from 13.92% to 12.05% while losing a seat.
Both the PSC/PSOE and the ERC drew their gains from the surge in the participation rate and the 234,000-vote fall in support for the ECP. This was reflected in the complete transformation of the vote in Barcelona city’s ten electoral districts. In 2016, the ECP was the lead party in eight of these, including the most working-class and popular areas, while the two remaining wealthy districts were shared between the PP and the now defunct Democratic Convergence of Catalonia CDC). Three years and one “illegal” independence referendum later, the ECP, PP and CDC have disappeared as lead parties in Barcelona city, to be replaced by the ERC and the PSC/PSOE (in five districts each).
In the ERC’s case, this advance was helped by the alliance it established with Sovereigntists, a pre-election split from the ECP of those supporters of a Catalan right to decide who had come to feel that the ECP had downgraded that struggle in an effort to win or keep the support of unionist voters. At this poll the ERC thus took a further step in establishing itself as the natural political home for Catalanist orphans from other parties, first from the PSC (which supported a Catalan right to decide up until 2013) and now from the ECP.
The most important feature of the election in Catalonia is the leap in the pro-independence vote, traditionally less in Spanish congress elections than in Catalan polls because of the “dual vote” phenomenon. In 2016, the pro-independence vote still amounted to only 32.1% of the total, with unionist parties scoring a total of 40.4%. On April 28, the unionist vote rose to 43.2%, chiefly due to the increase in the PSC vote, while the pro-independence vote (ERC, JxCat and the left pro-independence Republican Front, which just missed out on a seat) rose by twice as much, to 39.3%–its highest level ever in a Spanish state election. As a result, if the pro-sovereignty ECP vote is added to the independence vote, the support for a Catalan right to decide (at 54.27%) maintains a 29-19 seat majority in the Catalan caucus in the Spanish congress.
Most of the gain in the independence vote was concentrated in the increased support for the ERC, whose support increased in all regions of Catalonia, overtaking JxCat in many rural constituencies but in particular boosting its support in the “industrial belts” around Barcelona and in industrial Tarragona. In many towns in these largely Castilian-speaking districts, the ERC vote as much as doubled. A positive spin-off of the result is that the ERC’s victory in Tarragona province exposes the unionist fiction of a Catalonia divided between rural independentism in Girona and Lleida provinces as against working-class unionism in Barcelona and Tarragona as even more of the fairy tale that it is.
With detailed study still needed, the basic pattern of April 28 in Catalonia looks to have been that of a shift to the left and towards support for the right to self-determination, with the exception of that portion of the PP vote that went rightwards to allow Vox to gain one seat. Nearly all the rest of the PP vote shifted to Citizens, but at the same time as a swathe of Citizen votes passed to the PSC/PSOE. As a result, working-class constituencies that turned orange (Citizens’ colour) at the December 21, 2017 Catalan poll returned to their traditional PSC/PSOE red, after having been coloured ECP purple at the 2015-16 Spanish congress polls. On both sides of the independence-unionist divide, voters therefore favoured those forces with a rhetoric of favouring dialogue—the PSC/PSOE and the ERC—over Citizens and the more confrontational JxCat.
However, given the volatility of the political context, marked most of all by the shameful Supreme Court trial of the 12 Catalan leaders, this result is conjunctural and liable to being changed by the blows of events. A small but telling indicator of people’s preparedness to modify their support came in the Senate vote for Barcelona province.
The lead party in that vote was the PSC/PSOE, with 24.67%, followed by the ERC, with 22.95%. However, because the Senate voting system allows voting for individuals and not just tickets, the candidate with the highest vote was former Catalan foreign affairs minister and ERC lead candidate Raül Romeva, in preventative detention and facing trial in the Supreme Court. Romeva won 30.71% of the vote, clearly because many PSC/PSOE and ECP voters chose this way to express their solidarity and indignation at the Spanish establishment’s show trial and imprisonment of Catalonia’s leaders.
The defeat of the right on April 28 is a cause for celebration for all progressive people and was certainly experienced as such here in Spain. At the same time, the PSOE’s brand of "soft cop" unionism, equally opposed to any Catalan right to decide and backed to the hilt by the powers-that-be in Europe, failed to make any dint on the pro-independence and pro-sovereignty camp in Catalonia and Euskadi, which strengthened their position.
The manner of the PSOE’s win has also made it politically impossible for it to govern in alliance with Citizens, the wet dream of Spain’s economic powers and the European Commission. This was dramatised on the very night of its win, when PSOE activists interrupted Sánchez’s victory speech with chants of "Not With [Citizens leader Albert] Rivera!".
The issue of a Catalan independence referendum remains as burning as ever, and the PSOE’s main reason for sabotaging negotiations over it in February—the electoral opportunity presented by the spectre of a right and far right victory at the polls—has been removed by its own victory.
Of course, the rabidly unionist right has not been defeated, but it has been weakened, and the spearhead of its operations in the institutions—the Supreme Court trial of the 12 Catalan leaders—now stands out even more starkly as the unjust farce that it is.
The Catalan movement, and democrats everywhere, must now redouble their calls for the Spanish government to withdraw its prosecution of the case, release the political prisoners—four of whom have been elected to parliament—and finally begin negotiations over how Catalonia is to have the Scottish-style referendum that 80% of its people want.
Written with the welcome help of Julian Coppens. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.