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'A new era' - Is the dream of Catalan independence over?

Ken Browne in Madrid


A dramatic fall in support for Catalan separatist parties is the big headline emerging from Sunday's regional elections, with the major winners being the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), its leader Salvador Illa and Spain Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

The PSC took 45 seats of the 135-seat chamber ahead of the JUNTS hardline separatist party on 35 and the more moderate secessionists Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) on 20.

It's the first time in over a decade that an independence party is unlikely to lead the Catalan parliament. 

The PSC, however, did not win enough seats to govern alone, with 68 seats the magic number for a majority, but the party is likely to lead a coalition.

Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) candidate Salvador Illa applauds supporters in Barcelona. /Nacho Doce/Reuters
Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) candidate Salvador Illa applauds supporters in Barcelona. /Nacho Doce/Reuters

Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) candidate Salvador Illa applauds supporters in Barcelona. /Nacho Doce/Reuters

The result is a major blow to the separatist movement which saw its share of the vote fall from 54 percent in 2021 to 45 percent on Sunday. 

It appears that many people are giving up on the dream of independence. The reasons for that are complex.

Some experts point to the pandemic and the cost of living crisis since the start of the Ukraine conflict, meaning that voters were more focused on the practical rather than the ideological. 

There are also deep divisions within the movement. For example, JUNTS is a right-wing party, while the ERC is very much on the left - its name literally translating as the 'The Republican Left of Catalonia.' 


Flight of Capital

Catalans have also seen how things have been far from plain sailing for the UK after Brexit, while the 2017 attempt to declare independence from Spain in an illegal referendum saw a flight of capital and business headquartered in Catalonia. 

This combination gave the impression to some that independence could be economic suicide - certainly in the short run at least.

So the socialist party, a center-left party currently in government nationally in Spain, is calling this "a victory for moderation."

PSC leader Salvador Illa had this to say. "This new era that Catalonia is starting will be a new era for all Catalans, whatever they think, wherever they come from, wherever they live and whatever language they speak. No one, no Catalan, will be excluded from this new era that we are starting today. "


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Validation for Sanchez

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is basking in a huge victory for him and his socialist party. Sanchez campaigned with Illa over the past week, and the result appears to be a vindication of his policies of reconciliation.

In 2017 Catalonia saw a violent crackdown on the attempts to separate from Spain when the center-right People's Party was in power under Mariano Rajoy. During Rajoy's rule, some Catalans saw echoes of General Franco's repressive regime, a time when the Catalan language and cultures were suppressed.

Many Catalan separatist leaders were jailed or fled into exile, but since Sanchez came into power in 2018 he's spoken of healing and reuniting the nation. He's granted amnesty to many separatist leaders, including the controversial move to extend that amnesty to Carles Puigdemont - one of the architects of the 2017 illegal referendum and declaration of Independence.

So Sunday's elections are a vindication of Sanchez's strategy to convince Catalans that their futures are safer within Spain, rather than using threats and military force to make them stay.

Don't forget that Sanchez also took five days off a couple of weeks ago to decide whether or not to stay on as Prime Minister, a move that rallied the socialist base and now looks like a masterstroke from a politician with sharp survival instincts. 

Yet while the PSC won the most seats in this regional election there's still much negotiation left, with no clear path to forming a Catalan regional government. However, it's Pedro Sanchez and Salvador Illa who are very much in the driving seat. By contrast, the dream of Catalan Independence no longer seems shared by the majority in the region.

'A new era' - Is the dream of Catalan independence over?

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