Politics 14/02/2021

Catalonia chooses its course in the midst of the pandemic

The presidency, dependent on the duel between Aragonès and Borràs and the strength of the Illa Effect

4 min
Pavilion of Corneja de Llobregat prepared for the elections to the parliament of Catalonia on 14F 2021

BarcelonaThe strangest elections in democracy, marked by the pandemic and the spectre of high abstention rates, will be decided today by a handful of votes, according to all forecasts. A few votes may decide who comes out in first place, to which three candidates aspire, Laura Borràs (Junts), Pere Aragonès (ERC) and Salvador Illa (PSC), despite the fact that the variable that will a priori be most decisive in terms of the formation of the government will be which of the two major pro-independence parties comes out ahead of the other. This is so because almost all the polls consider a pro-independence majority to be certain, which could be of three parties, Junts, ERC and the CUP, or even four, if the PDECat finally joins.

In this case, the duel between Pere Aragonès and Laura Borràs will decide whether the current correlation of forces is maintained, with Puigdemont's party occupying the presidency of the Generalitat and, therefore, leading the Catalan independence bid, or whether there is a change and the leadership of the Palace falls to a member of the ERC for the first time since the Republic. But it is not just a question of deciding between two people and two organisations, but between two different strategies: that of Junts, embodied in the figure of Carles Puigdemont, in favour of maintaining tension with the State by adopting a position of non-collaboration with the PSOE and UP administration; or that of ERC, personified in Oriol Junqueras, which is committed to détente and exploring negotiations with the PSOE as a way to strengthen itself internally and externally. In this dichotomy, opting for ERC also means prioritising in some way the management of the interim in the figure of the current economic vice-president.

That this is the main battle is demonstrated by the fact that in the last days of the campaign Junts has increased its attacks on ERC, insisting that the Republicans, if they can, will opt for a left-wing tripartite with the PSC rather than repeat the current pact. This fact has forced ERC to strengthen its commitment not to enter into a pact with the Socialists, to the point of putting it in writing in the Catalans per la Independència manifesto, also signed by the rest of the pro-independence forces. Whoever wins will not have an easy task either, as they will have to take the initiative to win 68 seats by negotiating with partners who are not particularly docile, such as the CUP.

This manifesto is what has allowed Salvador Illa to get through the end of a campaign that had been complicated by the incident of not wanting to take an antigen test before the Tv3 television debate, and which served his opponents to spread doubts about his reasons for not wanting to do so. It remains to be seen which of the two campaign "accidents" will end up weighing more heavily. In any case, the PSC aspires to victory for the first time since Maragall and, ultimately, to break the pro-independence majority. In this case, an uncertain scenario would open up in which the votes of Vox would come into play, which candidate Illa says he would not accept "either actively, passively or periphrastically". The spectre of deadlock and a repeat election would then be more than a certainty, despite the fact that Catalan politics has shown signs in recent years of being capable of finding creative ways out of dead ends.

In any case, if the PSC is the leading force, Pedro Sánchez will have obtained a very valuable triumph, both in terms of negotiating with the future government and in the eyes of the international community. Sánchez will be able to say that the socialists are the leading force in Catalonia, and will have a much more effective party than Inés Arrimadas, who hardly anyone remembers that she came out on top on the 21-D elections.

Salvador Illa and Pedro Sánchez yesterday afternoon

One of the keys that will help to resolve all these questions is abstention. Polls predict a turnout of between 55% and 60%, which were the usual figures in pre-independence bid Catalonia. This low turnout may have apparently contradictory effects. For example, it may favour independence for the first time overcoming the barrier of 50% of the vote, which is one of the conditions that the most inflamed sectors, such as the ANC, have set for a new unilateral declaration of independence. On the contrary, this low turnout may favour a certain over-representation of the extreme right of Vox, since it lowers the price of seats. And by the same token, the lower the turnout, the more feasible it will be for PDECat to enter Parliament, a condition that seems necessary for the survival of its political project. It never is, but in this case abstention is far from innocuous.

And this brings us to another of the big battles of the night, which will be the one between the triple right. Despite being the winner of the TV3 debate, the PP candidate, Alejandro Fernández, has seen his good electoral prospects volatilised by the emergence of the Bárcenas confession in the middle of the campaign. This has given Ciudadanos a boost, but above all it has boosted Vox, which has run a textbook campaign, whipping up fear of immigration and seeking to provoke disturbances with events in places that are particularly emblematic for pro-independence supporters (a strategy that had already worked for Cs). Thus, Vox could emerge stronger from 14-F, but not so much because of the number of votes (which will always be much lower than in other parts of Spain) but because of the fact that it will be ahead of PP and Cs.

And finally, we have the most left-wing battle between the CUP and the Comuns. The former come with good electoral prospects, as they have become the refuge vote for pro-independence supporters fed up with the fights between Junts and ERC, but it is not clear what role they will want to play the day after the elections because, as it already happened in 2015, it will depend on which of their two souls prevails, the more pragmatic one or the more anti-establishment one. If it depends on them, the most likely outcome is an agonising investiture.

The Comuns have campaigned well and are the only ones openly defending a left-wing tripartite, but they may suffer a drain of votes from their more Spanishist sector towards the PSC. In any case, they are the only ones who are committed to breaking with bloc politics.

Tonight we will have the answers to the main questions raised here, but it is not clear that we will have the final outcome, i.e. who will govern and with what pacts. That will be another story.