Fresh turmoil looms as Catalan separatists win regional vote, delivering ‘slap’ to Spanish PM Rajoy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 7:56am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 December, 2017, 8:03am

Catalan separatist parties have retained their majority in the regional parliament, dealing a blow to the Spanish government’s effort to contain the push for independence.

The separatist group had 70 seats in the 135-strong assembly with 99 per cent of the votes counted late on Thursday, the Catalan regional government said on its website. The pro-unity opposition party Ciudadanos claimed the most votes of any single group to take 37 seats while Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party was decimated, losing eight of its 11 lawmakers.

Rajoy called the snap election in October after weeks of turmoil, ousting the rebel administration in Barcelona to stop it from putting a declaration of independence into effect. Now the separatists have a mandate to reclaim control over the region and Ciudadanos is challenging the PP’s claim to be the party that can hold the nation together.

“This is really bad for Rajoy,” Veronica Fumanal, a political marketing expert, who has advised both Ciudadanos and the Socialists, said in an interview. “He’s been completely rejected.”

Rajoy and his allies have been defeated, they’ve taken a beating from the Catalans
Ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont

The party of ousted Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who is currently in self-imposed exile in Belgium, defied projections to win 34 seats, while his separatist allies Esquerra claimed 32 seats. The left-wing radicals of the CUP completed the pro-independence majority with 4 seats. Turnout was a record 82 per cent.

“The Catalan Republic has beaten the Spanish monarchy,” Puigdemont told supporters in Brussels at midnight on Thursday.

“Rajoy and his allies have been defeated, they’ve taken a beating from the Catalans.”

As loyalists shouted “president, president”, Puigdemont also lashed out at Rajoy.

Puigdemont said it was “a slap” for the Spanish premier, adding: “Rajoy has lost the mandate he sought.”

The result opens a new and unpredictable chapter in the conflict between leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement and Rajoy who invoked emergency constitutional powers in October to disband the previous government and call new elections. While the secessionist parties are themselves divided over how to pursue their goal of independence, the result provides them with a platform to again challenge Rajoy’s authority and seek international support for their cause.

To be sure, Rajoy has made clear he won’t give the secessionists free rein to pursue their goal of an independent Catalonia.

He invoked article 155 of Spain’s 1978 Constitution for the first time ever in October to fire Puigdemont and former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras remains in jail in Madrid as the Supreme Court investigates him for possible charges of rebellion. Puigdemont faces arrest if he returns to Spain.

The secessionists are also split on how to proceed with Esquerra now saying that the time for unilateral declarations of independence has passed and CUP pressing for an immediate split with Spain.

The dispute over Catalan independence attracted global attention on October 1 when Rajoy deployed riot police who used some violence to disrupt an attempt to hold an independence referendum that had been rule illegal by the Constitutional Court. With a population of about 7.5 million, Catalonia contributes about one-fifth of Spain’s economic output.

Puigdemont was axed as president of Catalonia after holding an independence referendum that Madrid deemed illegal.

He and four former ministers then fled to Belgium to avoid charges of rebellion and sedition. Spain dropped a European arrest warrant for them earlier this month but they still face arrest if they return to their homeland.

Additional reporting by Associated Press