When Artur Mas, president of Catalonia, called a snap regional election last September, he hoped voters would give him “an indestructible majority” to give legitimacy to a referendum on independence. But his gamble has not paid off. At this weekend’s election, his party, Convergència i Unió, lost a fifth of its seats. Despite being the single largest party, CiU will have to negotiate with other forces to form a majority to govern the region.

Unionists, however, should not gloat over this result. Most of the seats lost by CiU were picked by Esquerra Republicana, a leftwing separatist force. Pro-referendum parties will hold roughly two-thirds of the seats in the Catalan Assembly. Such a strong majority, coupled with the highest turnout for a Catalan regional election in nearly 30 years, will strengthen the view that a plebiscite on independence is the demand of the many rather than the dream of the few.

Yet the road to a referendum is harder now than before the vote. True, CiU and ERC have enough seats to form a governing coalition that would put the question of sovereignty at the heart of its programme. But the parties hold opposite views on the economy, with ERC strongly opposed to the programme of fiscal consolidation championed by Mr Mas. Separatists suggest 2014 as a possible date for a plebiscite. The glue holding CiU and ERC together could come unstuck sooner than that.

The inconclusive nature of this result offers Spain an opportunity. Behind Catalonia’s calls for independence lie deep-rooted economic grievances. As a powerhouse contributing a fifth of Spain’s national product, Catalonia would like to retain more of its tax revenues. These concerns could be addressed without having to resort to a divisive referendum.

Last September, Mr Mas offered Madrid a settlement, exchanging greater fiscal autonomy for a high level of budgetary transfers. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, refused even to discuss it. Mr Rajoy can take comfort in Mr Mas’s weak showing in the polls, but he should keep open the notion that more autonomy for Catalonia could be a price worth paying to avert a constitutional crisis at a time of economic emergency. Mr Mas should accept that any new fiscal settlement will have to wait until the current crisis is resolved.

Neither unionists nor separatists should rejoice in the result. But if they take advantage of the opportunity presented, the vote could be a blessing in disguise.

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