Socialists Win Catalan Ballot But Region Heads for Stalemate

(Bloomberg) -- Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s Socialist party won a local election in Catalonia for the first time in an apparent vindication of his strategy to grant separatists amnesty over an illegal independence referendum.

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But that victory complicates the balance of power not only in Catalonia but also Madrid, where Sanchez relies on both major pro-independence parties to push through national legislation.

The regional Socialist candidate Salvador Illa won about 28% of the vote on Sunday, or 42 seats — shy of the 68 needed for an absolute majority.

“It’s the first time the Socialist party has won the election both in votes and in seats,” Illa told reporters Sunday night. “This new phase that Catalonia opens today is a phase for all Catalans.”

The result will likely lead to weeks of wrangling between the parties before an investiture vote, probably next month, gauging support for a new regional government.

If Illa is able to cobble together a coalition — a difficult prospect — it would be the first time Catalonia has been ruled by a non-separatist party in more than 10 years. But if the Socialists are unable to form a ruling alliance, then it could mean a new election.

Fugitive pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont’s Junts got around 22%, or 35 seats, becoming the largest separatist party in the region. Its rival independence party ERC, which currently leads a minority government in Catalonia and is led by Pere Aragones, got 14%, falling to 20 seats.

Still, for the first time in four decades, the nationalist parties that morphed into the pro-independence bloc didn’t reach a majority of seats in the regional parliament.

Illa’s victory represents an endorsement for Sanchez’s strategy in Catalonia of trying to tamp down the pro-separatist push by offering concessions, including amnesty, for those involved in an illegal independence referendum in 2017. Puigdemont – who has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium since then – would be the most high-profile beneficiary of the amnesty.

If the region goes to another election, it could benefit Puigdemont, who would be able to campaign in Catalonia once the amnesty law goes into effect in the coming weeks. Puigdemont held his campaign event on Sunday in Argeles-sur-Mer in France.

“If the other pro-independence party, ERC, is willing to think about the effects of the lack of unity and a single strategy, so are we,” Puigdemont said.

The uncertainty surrounding Catalonia’s parliament could spell trouble for Sanchez’s government, which relies on both the main separatist groups to pass legislation. If either Puigdemont or Aragones pull support for the Socialists in Madrid, it could cause legislative deadlock and potentially a new national election.

Illa has a very slim chance of forming a majority government, given that the pro-independence parties have both made a fresh referendum on Catalan independence a condition of their collaboration. That’s a “red line” for the Socialists, he said previously.

The relationship between Junts and ERC has also hit a new low. After the two major separatist parties formed a coalition in 2021, Junts stepped away from it, sending the region on a path to Sunday’s snap election.

The challenge is made harder for all by the unusually stark personal animosities between Puigdemont and the ERC’s leadership.

“We have had a bad result — in fact a very bad result,” Aragones told reporters Sunday night. “It will be up to the Socialists and Junts to run the government. Voters have decided that we have to be in the opposition.”

Low Turnout

A repeat vote is a likely scenario, according to experts and party insiders. That won’t be good for Catalonia, it won’t solve any of the fundamental problems facing Spain or its prime minister, but it might keep him on the high wire for another few months at least.

Turnout was 58%, compared with 51.3% in the previous regional election in 2021, when restrictions were in place to address the effects of the Covid pandemic.

Even though Sanchez’s strategy appears to have defused the independence push, there was an increase in support for the right. The conservative People’s Party — Spain’s largest political group — surged to 15 seats from three, while the far-right Vox retained its 11 seats. Both were strong critics of the amnesty law.

(Updates with historical context in the eighth paragraph.)

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