When the polls closed and the votes were counted in Catalonia Thursday, a coalition of three pro-independence parties had captured a narrow majority in the Spanish region’s parliament.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called for these elections after invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to dissolve the secessionist Catalan government in late October.
Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, whose declaration of independence prompted Rajoy’s unprecedented action, is currently hiding out in Belgium and could still be tried for sedition if he returns to Spain. Nevertheless, Puigdemont hailed these new elections as a victory for Catalan independence: “Rajoy and his allies have been defeated,” Puigdemont said. “They received a big slap-down.”
With 70 of the 135 seats split between three secessionist parties, the pro-independence bloc will presumably form a coalition that will refuse to repudiate Puigdemont’s declaration.
At this point, Rajoy would have the constitutional power to invoke Article 155 again. The article, once ratified by a majority of the Spanish Senate, grants Rajoy the power to “take all measures necessary to compel the Community” to “fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution,” including the obligation to respect the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.”
After Catalonia declared independence almost three months ago, Rajoy initially kicked out the entire regional government and imposed direct rule from Madrid, but assured Catalans that it would be a temporary measure, promising new elections within six months. He kept his promise, but things didn’t go as planned. Rajoy had presumably hoped that Catalan voters would solve his problem for him by rejecting the secessionists at the ballot box. Now, he faces a difficult choice.
It’s easy to imagine an absurd cycle in which, every few months, Catalonia demands independence, Rajoy dissolves the government and calls for new elections, Catalan voters reelect the secessionists, and Rajoy dissolves the government again.
I wouldn’t be surprised if support for independence grew with each repetition as confidence in Rajoy’s ability to handle the crisis waned.
When he first invoked Article 155, Rajoy had a leg to stand on. Although 90 percent of ballots cast in the October 1 referendum were for independence, most anti-independence voters agreed with Spain’s Constitutional Court that the vote was illegal and boycotted the referendum. Opinion polls leading up to the vote even suggested that a slight majority of Catalans opposed independence.
Based on this information, Rajoy was able to make a strong case that by intervening, he was actually protecting a majority of Catalans from having their region hijacked by a vocal separatist minority.
Even after Thursday’s elections, that argument still holds water. Although the three separatist parties won a majority of seats, they only received 48 percent of the total vote thanks to what the Washington Post describes as an “electoral-college-style system that gives added weight to votes cast in less populated areas.” As a general rule, the densely populated city of Barcelona is pro-unity, while the surrounding countryside favors independence.
Rajoy could still insist that he’s defending the majority against a minority, but to do so following a legal election would be to delegitimize Catalonia’s entire electoral system.
His only other option would be to impose direct rule indefinitely, removing any veneer of democracy and openly embracing tyrannical military occupation. When Rajoy dissolved their government in October, the Catalans didn’t take up arms as some feared they would. But if they find themselves without recourse to the ballot box, they just might.