Catalan separatists cheer election as Rajoy handed drubbing
Pro-independence parties won back control of Catalonia in Thursday’s regional election as Spanish efforts to contain the separatist movement earned Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy a historic defeat.
The three separatist groups claimed 70 seats in the 135-strong assembly to restore a majority they lost in October when Rajoy used Article 155 of the constitution to oust the rebel administration before it could put a declaration of independence into effect.
Rajoy’s People’s Party took a hammering, losing eight of its 11 lawmakers as voters opposed to secessionists shifted to the Ciudadanos party, who’ve been demanding harsher measures against the secessionist push.
"Rajoy and his allies have been defeated, they’ve taken a beating from the Catalans," Carles Puigdemont, the regional president ousted by Rajoy, told supporters from his self-imposed exile in Brussels.
The result doesn’t suggest Catalan independence is any closer than it was at the end of October, when Puigdemont fled for Belgium to escape a Spanish court probe of the separatist push that saw a clutch of his allies jailed. But it exposes the flaws in the prime minister’s strategy and the divisions in Catalan society.
Ciudadanos claimed victory after securing 37 seats and 25% of the vote, the most of any single group, after 99.9% of votes were counted. The separatists won 47.5% between them, enough to control the regional legislature, though short of the majority that would boost their claims to a democratic mandate to break away from Spain.
At the election night headquarters of the ANC, the main separatist campaign group, supporters began with optimism and their cheers of "freedom" and "independence" grew louder over the course of the evening. By the time ANC leader Augusti Alcoberro declared victory, with 70% of the vote counted, the party was in full swing.
Some 400 revelers cleared a table of champagne flutes, although they were drinking Cava, the local sparkling wine that is synonymous with Catalonia, rather than its more famous French competitor.
"The people have rejected Article 155," Alcoberro told the crowd. "We demand the immediate restitution of the legitimate government and the release of the political prisoners."
Puigdemont’s party defied projections to win 34 seats -- the polling firm GAD3 had forecast no more than 29 at the start of the count -- while his separatist allies Esquerra claimed 32 seats. The left-wing radicals of the CUP completed the pro-independence majority with four seats.
Turnout was a record 82%.
"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."
The yield spread of Spanish 10-year bonds over comparable German securities, a measure of the risk of investing in Spain, rose four basis points to 1.09% as of 7.20 am in London.
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.
The prime minister has made it clear he won’t give the secessionists free rein to pursue their goal of an independent Catalonia.
"The hardest challenge remains: finding a common way to heal the Catalan society. Generosity from everyone has to prevail now," European parliamentarian Guy Verhofstadt said on Twitter.
Rajoy invoked Article 155 of Spain’s 1978 Constitution for the first time ever in October to fire Puigdemont. 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 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 ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court.
With a population of about 7.5 million, Catalonia contributes about one-fifth of Spain’s economic output.