Mark Nayler

The stage is set for the Spanish government’s worst nightmare

The stage is set for the Spanish government’s worst nightmare
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It’ll be a tense Christmas in the Spanish’s PM’s household this year. Yesterday, in an election called by Mariano Rajoy last month, Catalan pro-independence parties gained a slim majority in the region’s parliament: Together for Catalonia, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Popular Unity Party (CUP) look set to have jointly won 70 seats in the 135-seat congress. Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party, meanwhile, posted its worst result ever, losing eight of its previously-held eleven seats. The stage is set for the Spanish government’s worst nightmare: another attempt by Catalan secessionists to divorce Spain.

Rajoy had been hoping for a return to normality in Catalonia after a tumultuous few months. On October 1st, the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont held an independence referendum that the Spanish state declared illegal. The vote nevertheless went ahead – despite the baton-wielding efforts of national police – and 90pc of its participants voted for independence from Spain.

Puigdemont’s ensuing declaration of independence caused Rajoy to sack the Catalan government and seize control of the region himself – a drastic option allowed for by clause 155 of the Spanish constitution. Convinced that the secessionists had disgraced themselves with their unlawful behaviour, Rajoy called a regional election for December 21st. His hope was that Catalans would turn out in large numbers and put anti-independence parties in charge of Catalonia, thereby quashing the secessionists.

One of Rajoy’s Christmas wishes, at least, has come true. In yesterday’s election, a record 80pc of Catalans voted. By contrast, less than half the region’s population cast ballots in the independence referendum of October 1st. The latter result, therefore, was easily dismissible as expressing only the desires of a diehard minority. That cannot be done with yesterday’s election. According to Puigdemont, who remains in self-imposed exile in Belgium, the result proves that 'the Republic of Catalonia has won [and] the Spanish state was defeated. Rajoy and his allies lost'.

As with anything in modern Spanish politics, though, things aren’t quite that simple. The election result is certainly a crushing blow for Rajoy’s government, which is being punished by Catalans for its pointlessly violent tactics on October 1st (it now holds just three seats in the regional parliament). But there is still a long way to go before Catalonia’s pro-independence parties are able to make another attempt at splitting from Spain.

At this stage, it is far from clear which party or parties will be tasked with forming the next Catalan administration. Although pro-independence groups have secured a slim majority between them, the biggest party in Catalonia is now the centrist, anti-independence newcomer Ciudadanos (“Citizens”), which gained 25pc of yesterday’s vote and 37 seats in congress. Inés Arrimadas, the fresh-faced leader of Ciudadanos in the north-easterly region, declared her party the real victors yesterday and pledged to form a pro-unity coalition to rule Catalonia.

Although now a strong force in the Catalan parliament, Ciudadanos isn’t the only obstacle to independence: the secessionist camp has its own internal difficulties to deal with. Hardline anarchist party CUP favour an immediate separation from Spain, regardless of the economic consequences. Centre-right Together for Catalonia, the party that was led by Puigdemont before he fled for Brussels, also wants to build a Republic - but CUP’s radical-policies will make the two uneasy coalition partners. To further complicate matters, the leadership of the Catalan independence movement was effectively dismantled by the imposition of Article 155. Oriol Junqueras, former ERC leader and one of the most powerful secessionists, is in prison on charges of sedition; Puigdemont, meanwhile, remains in voluntary exile in Brussels and would be immediately arrested on the same counts were he to return to Spain.

As its pro and anti-independence politicians try to form alliances following yesterday’s election, Catalonia faces a new period of uncertainty and confusion. Rajoy’s election gamble has backfired, leaving the Spanish PM to lick his wounds over Christmas. Right now, it’s anyone’s guess what the New Year will bring.