Catalonia’s Winding Road to Secession

After pro-separatist parties prevailed in regional elections on Sunday, Spain’s prime minister held firm.

Sergio Perez / Reuters

One day after parties that want Catalonia to secede from Spain won an absolute majority in the region’s elections, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy issued a politely phrased rejection of their ambitions.

“I am ready to listen and to talk, but not in any way to liquidate the law,” he said on Monday. “I am not going to talk about either the unity of Spain, or sovereignty.”

In Sunday’s vote, the Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”) party scored 62 of the 135 parliament seats. Coupled with the pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party, which netted 10 seats, groups that support Catalan independence from Spain won the majority of seats in an election billed as a referendum on whether to pursue secession. Junts pel Sí, which is led by Catalan President Artur Mas, wants Catalonia to be an independent state by 2017.

Catalonia represents at least one-fifth of Spain's GDP and many of its residents feel as if they are disproportionately taxed by the government in Madrid. Catalan leaders have also called for more recognition of the region’s distinct culture and language. (For more on that, read Irene Boada’s piece about how efforts to ban the Catalan language under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco may have ensured its survival.)

In the past, Rajoy has said that he will use the power of the courts to block any statehood initiative. Rajoy is aided by the fact that, despite the strong numbers in the pro-separatists bloc, the groups failed to win a majority of the vote—finishing with just 48 percent.

Also, while Sunday’s outcome may have delivered control of the regional parliament to pro-independence parties, the visions of the two groups don’t entirely align. Junts pel Sí, which is founded on the desire to cede from Spain, draws from the right and left of the electorate and supports austerity while CUP is a far-left party that wants Catalonia to leave the EU, the Euro zone, and NATO. They also don’t want Junts pel Sí head Artur Mas to remain Catalonia’s president.

According to recent polls, Catalan residents remain evenly split about whether to become independent, but a majority of residents support holding a referendum on whether to leave Spain. Meanwhile, Rajoy faces re-election in December, after which everything could change.