The Catalan question: attempts at forming a new government in Spain

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Following elections in July, the leading political parties of Spain have struggled to broker a coalition government. Neither of the traditional parties – the left-wing Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) or the conservative People’s Party (PP) – won a sufficient number of seats to make an outright majority or even a minority government plausible. Consequently, both are vying to form a government with the help of smaller parties. This comes with its own difficulties. In particular, the decisive role of Catalan separatists in forming a new government is likely to redefine the legal status of Catalonia in Spain.

Despite leading the PP to winning a plurality of seats, the party leader Alberto Feijóo has struggled to form a coalition. Winning approximately 39% of seats, it might have been assumed that Mr. Feijóo would become the new Prime Minister. However, the complicated relationship between the PP and parties on the right have marred his opportunities of doing so.

With the PP lurching further right in the past decades, in the hopes of stymying the prospects of far-right groups, Mr. Feijóo now sits on the most moderate flank of his party. The PP’s ideological gamble to monopolise the Spanish right has not worked out electorally, with the ultra-right Vox party winning 33 seats (a little under 10%) in the 2023 election. In order to become Prime Minister, Mr. Feijóo would have had to make significant compromises to the Spanish far-right.

Following two unsuccessful attempts to form a government alongside the Vox party, in addition to two single-seat representatives from the Canary Islands and Navarre, Mr. Feijóo’s prospects to become Prime Minister have largely diminished in this electoral cycle. Amongst other reasons, the ultra-nationalism that the Vox party embodies has proved too alienating for potential centrist coalition partners. This has led to the King of Spain rescinding his invitation for Mr. Feijóo to form a government, with the responsibilities now turning to Pedro Sánchez, leader of the PSOE.

The ultra-nationalism that the Vox party embodies has proved too alienating for potential centrist coalition partners

Mr. Sánchez, the acting Prime Minister who served in the role from 2018-2023 until the election, faces a far more difficult roadmap to re-assuming the role of Prime Minister than his previous attempts. The coalition he successfully formed in 2020 is now not enough for him to achieve a majority, with the only route to achieving a parliamentary majority found in making a pact with regional separatists from Catalonia and the Basque region.

The most radical of these regional separatists, the Junts – a group of Catalan nationalists – might prove particularly consequential for Spain. Its founder and de facto leader, Carles Puigdemont, had to flee from the country in 2017, having served as President of Catalonia during the independence crisis of 2017. If the Junts agree to serve in a government spearheaded by Mr. Sánchez, they too are likely to have many demands on Catalonian independence. These demands are perceived to include blanket amnesty for all those involved in the 2017 constitutional crisis in Catalonia, including Mr. Puigdemont himself, as well as potentially even a referendum on Catalonian independence.

It is the latter demand that might become the biggest obstacle for Mr. Sánchez. Given the 2017 constitutional crisis centred around the revocation of a Catalan independence referendum, as well as an unofficial referendum that was struck as illegal by the national parliament, agreeing to a referendum might spark a paradigm shift in the status of Catalonia within Spain.

The position of Catalonia within Spain has long been contested. Historically the wealthiest area, centred around its largest city, Barcelona, there has been a strong tradition of autonomy within the region. This was first suppressed under the rule of General Franco in the mid-20th century before autonomy re-emerged with the democratisation of Spain in 1976. The political tide had continued towards Catalan autonomy until 2010, when courts began to strip back some of Catalonia’s regional powers and centralised authority. This coupled with the ongoing Eurozone crisis, where the prosperous Catalonia stood in stark contrast to a financially struggling Spain. Separatist sentiments peaked in the 2017 constitutional crisis, yet polling suggests that desire for an independent Catalonia has fallen in the years since, from 49% to 43% of the electoral base.

Agreeing to a referendum might spark a paradigm shift in the status of Catalonia within Spain

In the case of the Junts, it is not guaranteed their demands will be met. With other more moderate Catalan independence parties, particularly the Catalan Republic Left, led by Oriol Junqueras, acquiescing into a coalition with the PSOE, the Junts may fall into line if it places them in government. A brash approach by the Junts might prevent an electoral coalition from forming. As a result, Mr. Puigdemont could forsake some of his demands in the hope of changing policy from within a government. Sánchez, meanwhile, has shown a great deal of pragmatism in his attempts to make a government, sending his deputy to Brussels to personally discuss issues with Mr. Puigdemont, yet pressure from both the Catalans and calls of corruption from the Spanish right might jeopardise any potential deal.         

For Mr. Sánchez and the Catalan nationalists, they have just two months to form a majority coalition, as set out by the King of Spain. If they fail to do so, the people of Spain will return to the polls in January 2024 for another election, which would be its sixth election in nine years. 

Image: Catalonian Protests via Flickr

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