Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia's regional elections: scenarios for independence

Should the pro-independence parties win a majority in the regional elections on 27 September, what would happen next? Here are a few scenarios on how the independists may use their popular mandate to secede from Spain.

Fernando Betancor
31 August 2015

In less than a month, Spain – and perhaps Europe – will face a decisive moment. I’m referring of course to September 28: the day after the regional elections in Catalonia are held. That is the earliest date a new regional government could be formed, if one of the parties were to win an absolute majority. That is also the earliest that Catalonia could declare independence from Spain. And that is when the talking stops and every politician and citizen will have to begin making the hard choices with real life consequences.

There are seven parties forming lists for the election on 27S. Three of them are pro-independence while the rest are pro-union. The pro-independence parties are:

  • Junts pel Sí (JPS). “Hardline” pro-independence list formed by CDC and ERC, as well as various other pro-indie civil organizations and leaders. This list is ideologically diverse – CDC is centre right while ERC is leftist – their only common plank is Catalan independence. Neither the leader of CDC or ERC - Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras - are leading this list, rather it is Raul Romeva of ICV.
  • Catalunya Sí que es Pot (SqeP). “Soft” pro-independence list consisting of the Catalan branch of Podemos and Esquerra Unida. The list is headed by Esquerra candidate LLuís Rabell. It has not openly declared support for independence, but their manifesto clearly states support for a “sovereign Catalan people free to decide their own future”.
  • Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP). “Hardline” pro-independence list consisting of far left groups and communists as well as Crida Constituent, headed by Antonio Baños. Desires an independent Catalan republic.

The pro-union parties are:

  • Partit Popular Catalá (PPC). The Catalan formation of Spain’s governing party, the PPC is very much against independence or any suggestion of it. Centre right to far right. There has recently been a leadership change, with Xavier García Albiol taking over from Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, in whom Mr. Rajoy had lost confidence.
  • Ciutadans (C’s). A relatively new party formed by a native son of Catalonia, Albert Rivera. Ciutadens is strongly pro-union and espouses moderate reforms to the relationship between Spain and Catalonia. Ideologically part of the centre right and headed by Inés Arrimada.
  • Unió Democrática de Catalunya (Unió). The other half of what used to be Convergència i Unió, the dominant party in Catalan politics until the independence question fractured it. Unió supports the definition of Catalonia as a nation, supports a federalist reform to the Spanish Constitution, but opposes independence. Headed by Ramón Espadaler.
  • Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC). The Catalan formation of Spain’s main opposition party, the PSOE. The national socialist position opposes Catalan independence, though it is open to reform of the Spanish Constitution and more devolution. The PSC roughly adheres to the national party line, but there have been defections before, such as during the vote on the Catalan Referendum Law last year. Though the PSC has already been whittled down by the political scythe of independence, it is not inconceivable to have some socialist politicians break ranks and vote in favor of independence (should such a vote be held). This list is headed by Miquel Iceta.

It is highly unlikely that Catalan voters will grant anyone an absolute majority. The list most likely to achieve it is Junts pel Sí, but they are polling at approximately 36%. Together with CUP’s 4%, they would still fall well short of a majority. That makes Sí que es Pots the kingmaker; with a voter intention of 13%, they could form a majority coalition in favor of independence. They have hinted that they would do so, stating that they would support whichever party won the most votes.


Res, non verba

Nothing that has come before has mattered; it has been all talk. Up until and including the September 27, every action of every politician and of the Catalan government will be legal; no one is going to go off-script and give Madrid an excuse to intervene. But as the Romans used to say: “res, non verba” or “act, don’t talk”. Now everyone will have to declare themselves in positive action. As soon as the government is formed, it will execute what it perceives to be its electoral mandate: attain independence for Catalonia. It is likely to proceed in the following manner:

1. The Catalan government will formally request secession negotiations with the Spanish government and the Catalan representatives of this list in the national legislature will attempt to submit a bill to that affect;

2. Both efforts will be immediately and conclusively rebuffed;

3. The Catalan government will then draft (or has already drafted) a unilateral declaration of independence and will submit it to the regional legislature for a vote. If the Catalan Parlament can muster a quorum, they will undoubtedly hold an immediate vote on the measure, which will probably be passed by the same majority, or slightly greater, that the pro-independence parties enjoy in the chamber.

At this point, Mariano Rajoy will have the legal justification to intervene. The intervention include many actions, but at a minimum he will use his constitutional authority from Article 154 to declare a state of exception in Catalonia, suspend the civil institutions and attempt to reassert the national authority. And this is when the feces begin to strike the ventilation unit.

The Catalan government, having declared independence, will obviously ignore Madrid’s suspension order. They will go about the daily business of running the government and assuming any powers within the territory of Catalonia that were formerly those of the national government. They will at all costs seek to avoid provoking a confrontation; don’t expect them to seize Spanish military property or occupy National Police and Civil Guard barracks. Mr. Rajoy will face the same choice as Mr. Lincoln did; faced with a fait accompli he must either act to revert the situation, or else accept it. The longer he delays, the more difficult it will be to move decisively: in fact, if he vacillates, his government might very well fall or he might be replaced.

Time for uncomfortable truths

Last year I introduced the Catalonia-Spain Endgame Scenarios, a step-wise progression of actions and counteractions revolving around the “process” towards Catalan independence. I have updated it twice as major developments came to light: Release 3 reflects indications of a much greater development of a parallel state by the Generalitat and the probable loyalty of the regional police forces, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to the Catalan government rather than to the Spanish central government. This greatly reduces the probability of the Catalans backing down, while greatly increasing the likelihood of violent confrontation.

I’m going to discuss things in this section that no one wants to talk about, on either side. Rarely in history has the birth of a new state been accomplished through peaceful negotiation. The breakup of the USSR and the Velvet Divorce are a couple of arguable exceptions, but generally speaking, there are very few scenarios that end well for anyone.


Low probability scenarios

- Junts pel Sí backs down from a unilateral declaration of independence after receiving the central government’s refusal to negotiate. This would quickly lead to the collapse of the Raul Romeva government as the disparate elements of JPS broke apart. ERC would certainly leave a coalition they have never cordially liked and the government would lose an immediate no confidence vote.

  • - Mariano Rajoy accepts the Catalan request to negotiate separation, accepts the unilateral declaration of independence, or fails to act decisively after a UDI:

o Rajoy would face a major internal revolt of his party at a minimum and he would probably be forced to resign to prevent the government from falling. He might be threatened with criminal charges for dereliction of duty as a threat to convince him to step down;

o If Mr. Rajoy proved obstinate, there is a very small possibility of a “palace coup” by PP insiders to force him out, with or without military backing. Every officer in the Spanish military and national law enforcement forces is sworn to defend the territorial integrity of the country; if they believed that Mr. Rajoy was acquiescing to the division of the country and failing his oath of office, it is not inconceivable that they may take matters into their own hands. I’m not suggesting a return to a Francoist fascist regime – Europe would never tolerate that – but the backing of the Army to replace a weak Rajoy with a Partido Popular hardliner who would authorize the use of force to restore the national authority is not inconceivable.

Medium probability scenarios

- In the wake of a UDI, Mariano Rajoy orders the suspension of the Catalan Charter of Autonomy, the arrest of the pro-independence members of the regional government and the Mossos d’Esquadra comply with the order.

o In this case, there is a very low probability of bloodshed. Catalans will be arresting Catalans and the Generalitat has no other armed organization to call upon to defend it. The leaders of JPS will undoubtedly go to jail for some short or long period of time; public administration in Catalonia will undoubtedly be taken over by Catalans from PPC and perhaps a few from alternative pro-union parties in a “Better Together” coalition. This will make administration much easier than if Madrid sends administrators from other Spanish regions;

o There is a high probability of some degree of civil unrest. If the Mossos have proven obedient to Madrid in the first instance, they will do so now again. Thanks to the new Citizen Security Law, the Spanish government has the authority to fine and arrest pretty much anyone it wants to; we can expect that authority to be used liberally. Without leadership, civil unrest is likely to be brief and the Catalans are not going to turn to insurgency or terrorism like the Basques did under very different circumstances.

High probability scenarios

- In the wake of a UDI, Mariano Rajoy orders the suspension of the Catalan Charter of Autonomy, the arrest of the pro-independence members of the regional government BUT the Mossos d’Esquadra refuse the order.

o The Spanish government would have to resort to the National Police and Guardia Civil to enforce its orders and restore its authority. We now have a situation where large bodies of well-armed people confront each other with opposite and conflicting orders. That has – historically – led to shooting.

o Since the National Police and Civil Guards are outnumbered locally in Catalonia by the Mossos, if an initial attempt at carrying out their orders were to be rebuffed – with or without violence – Madrid would likely declare a state of insurrection and call in the military.


One important consideration: at each stage of the escalation, backing down from confrontation will become harder. At some point, it will be harder to back away from the cliff than to continue speeding towards it. This is a well-understood mechanism in game theory were both sides pursue a course that attempts to maximize their individual benefit, but nevertheless leads to a suboptimal outcome for everyone. This perverse dynamic is very visible in the relationship between the Spanish and Catalans.

  • It appears that Mr. Mas is pursuing a much deeper and more pragmatic game, though one entailing a very high risk. He is continuing to pursue the democratic course of winning a mandate; and I make no doubt that he would happily negotiate an “amicable divorce” with the Spanish government or receive the good offices of European intermediation; but it appears he is not relying on them. He is building up the bases of traditional state power and he has, I think, declared his timetable: the really critical institutions will be functioning no later than early September this year, possibly sooner.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rajoy will request and receive carte blanche from Berlin to deal with Catalonia as a purely internal matter. He has been assiduously cultivating the German relationship since he entered office and the bill for his unwavering support of the ruinous austerity policies will now come due. He will be allowed to use any and all means necessary to restore order and compel obedience to the national authority. I don’t believe that Mr. Rajoy will, in the end, cringe from doing so. Thanks to the odious reform to the Citizen Security Law, passed late last year with only the votes of the Partido Popular delegates, the government now has the legal tools to fine, prosecute and imprison pretty much anyone it finds offensive.

  • The criminalization of peaceful protests and of undefinable acts as vague as “insulting the honour of Spain”- which frankly hearken back to the days of the dictatorship - guarantees that a substantial proportion of the Catalan population could be persecuted should the government choose to do so.

The time for talk is done. People will now face real and serious consequences for their actions and their beliefs. Ultimately, the decision will rest with the Catalans, as it rightly should. Their choice will dictate the future: and it will have repercussions far beyond their own territory. No one will speak for Catalonia; she will find no friends in any capital of Europe. Some sympathy perhaps; the Baltic States and the former Czechoslovakians might remember their own struggles for independence, whether or not the cases are comparable. But no one will contradict the “Institutions” that run the European Union, with whom Madrid has assiduously cultivated a deep and interested friendship. Catalonia is too far west to play the Russia card; and there will be no deus ex machina coming out of the United States, whose principle emotion will be one of annoyance at yet another distraction from the serious matters of combating the Islamic State and preventing the disintegration of Ukraine.

Does this mean that Catalans who wish for independence are doomed? Not necessarily.

What is doomed is the notion that Catalonia can get its independence simply by voting for it, along with the Euro, the EU, NATO and a pat on the back. Assuming that narrative was ever believable, I don’t believe it is any longer. Catalan independence “on the cheap” is not going to happen, and believing it can only lead to grievous errors in judgment and policy. Thomas Paine wrote in 1776:

“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should be highly rated.”

The vote on the September 27 may still be a necessary precursor to independence for internal reasons; but no one should cling to the illusions that it will hold any weight with Spain or Europe. If a sufficient number of Catalans are determined to continue down the path towards independence, it should be with eyes wide open and the expectations of a hard road.

Correction: This article originally stated that Barcelona en Comú and Ada Colau formed part of the Catalunya Sí Que Es Pot coalition. This has been corrected to make clear that Barcelona en Comú are a municipal movement and do not form part of any electoral candidature for the 27S elections.

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