Last year, I offered a bet that if an election were held this year in Catalonia, Catalan independentist parties would win a majority of valid, nonblank votes. One was, and they didn’t. The only person to take me up on the bet was Bernat Gispert, who bet me dinner next time I’m in Barcelona, hoping that he would lose. Alas, I owe him dinner now!
Why didn’t independentists win? Shortly after I offered that bet, in November 2014, support for independence declined precipitously, with a June 2015 survey from respected outfit CEO putting opposition to independence at 50-43%. I explored some reasons for that decline in another post, even as I predicted a rise in support before the September 27 election (I was right about that!).
In the rest of this post, I will explore the results from Sunday’s election in greater depth and what they imply about the views of the median voter in Catalonia. Here are the party results in votes and seats.
The two independentist lists, JxS and CUP, between them won a majority of seats but only 48.0% of the valid, nonblank votes. The UDC is a Catalanist party that used to be in a longterm alliance with one of the constituent elements of the JxS list, leaving this year over the issue of independence. Their leaders have favored confederacy or freely associated state status for Catalonia, which international lawyers generally consider a form of independence. However, they opposed JxS’s roadmap to independence because it involved an illegal declaration of independence. Their campaign focused on “the power of good judgment (seny)” and was aimed at voters who might be pro-independence but are above all pro-stability and pro-business. The leader of the list has said that the UDC’s votes cannot be considered votes either for “yes” or for “no” to independence.
Catalonia Yes We Can, a radical-left list, supports a referendum on independence but is internally divided on whether Catalonia should actually become independent. The leader of their list has likewise said that their votes cannot be considered either “yes” or “no” on the issue.
Therefore, independentists are claiming that when one adds together the votes for the two independentist lists (JxS+CUP), they exceed the votes for the anti-independence lists (PSC+PPC+C’s), 48.0%-39.4%. JxS supporters, in particular, are claiming a mandate for the roadmap to independence. To their credit, the radical-left party CUP says that this is not enough for a unilateral declaration of independence. Because their seats are essential to an independentist coalition, CUP will likely be able to negotiate with JxS some amendments to the roadmap. One of those amendments is likely to be a definitive referendum, in which the Catalonian government agrees to respect whatever outcome the majority decides, declaring independence if a majority votes “yes” and shutting down the secessionist process for a generation if the majority votes “no.” Of course, Spain says such a referendum is illegal and will try to stop it by imprisoning officials, etc. It’s not clear that they’ll be able to prevent it from happening, however. Nor is it clear that the hardline unionists will boycott this vote as they did the 9-N consultation, if they know a declaration of independence will immediately follow a “yes” victory.
Do the majority of Catalans support independence? It’s impossible to be certain. Suppose half of the minor parties’ (PACMA, RC-EV, Ganemos, Pirata) electorates support independence. That adds 0.6% to the independentist total. Then add a mere 20% of the votes won by the anti-roadmap but pro-right-to-decide UDC and CSQEP. That adds another 2.3%. That extra 2.9% would give independence an extremely slender 50.9-49.1% majority. I don’t think it is plausible to think that fully half of CSQEP and UDC voters support independence.
A final issue is that of votes from Catalans abroad. The Spanish government was responsible for sending them ballots, but apparently the vast majority did not receive them. Catalans abroad are overwhelmingly pro-independence. The returns from international ballots for the Barcelona province allegedly show more than 65% voting for the independentist lists. Turnout from Catalans abroad was a mere 7%, so clearly there was some kind of snafu. The voting period for Catalans abroad has been extended to Friday, but it’s not clear this will resolve the problem for most.
How would 70% participation among the 200,000 Catalans living abroad affect the result of the election? (This is just below the 77% turnout overall for this election.) If we add 0.7*200000*0.65=91,000 votes to the independentist lists and 0.7*200000*.35=49,000 votes to the other lists, the independentists still end up with just 48.56% of valid, nonblank votes.
As a political scientist, I don’t believe in “mandates.” Electoral choices revolve around many different issues, differential turnout can affect results, voters are often ignorant of party platforms and how policies affect outcomes, and cyclical majorities and different preference intensities complicate any attempt to come up with a “will of the people” under the best of circumstances. Yet if Catalonia’s election tells us anything about the position of the median voter on independence, it is probably this: the median voter may well support independence, but not a roadmap that includes a unilateral declaration of independence (at least not yet). The new government of Catalonia, whenever it forms, would do well to proceed with caution.