A man holds up a banner in support of imprisoned Catalan politicians at a gathering of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) to follow results in Catalonia's regional elections in Barcelona, Spain December 21, 2017. REUTERS/Albert Gea
A man holds a banner in support of imprisoned Catalan politicians as votes in the regional election were being counted © Reuters

Catalonia elected a new parliament on Thursday, in the latest test of strength between the region’s powerful independence movement and political parties that support the union with Spain. Turnout reached a historic high, at more than 82 per cent, with the pro-independence parties securing another absolute majority in parliament. The other winner of the night was the anti-independence Ciudadanos party, which emerged as the biggest party in parliament.

Here are five takeaways from the Catalan election night.

The independence movement won. Now for the hard part

In parliamentary terms, the three parties that support an independent Catalan state emerged victorious once again. In political terms, however, they now face a monumental challenge.

Esquerra Republicana (ERC), Junts per Catalunya and the CUP together control 70 seats in the regional parliament. On paper, that is two more than they need to form a pro-independence government in Barcelona. In practice, that goal could prove hard to achieve. Recent weeks have show more clearly than ever the depth of divisions inside the separatist camp.

ERC, which performed worse than expected, has signalled repeatedly that it is ready to rethink its approach towards independence and adopt a more cautious, gradualist tactic. For other independence leaders, most notably the radical CUP, such a shift is unthinkable. Tensions may also emerge over who should lead the separatist bloc.

'Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya' - ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) candidate Marta Rovira gives a press conference following the Catalan regional election in Barcelona on December 21, 2017. Catalans flooded the polls today in a crucial election that could mark a turning point for their region, just two months after a failed secession bid triggered Spain's worst political crisis in decades. / AFP PHOTO / LLUIS GENELLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images
Esquerra Republicana candidate Marta Rovira gives a press conference following the election © AFP

Carles Puigdemont, the deposed head of the former government who is currently in Brussels, will probably have a strong claim.

Bridging the internal division will be difficult and the task is made more complicated still by simple arithmetic. Several of the deputies elected on the ERC and Junts per Catalunya lists, including the two leaders, are in jail or outside the country. Without them, the separatist majority evaporates. The parties could always replace them with candidates further down the list but that would mean sacrificing the movement’s most experienced and popular figureheads — and losing a potent political symbol.

Even if that obstacle can be overcome, however, the pro-independence parties have some hard thinking to do. The past months have shown that their current strategy to win independence from Spain has little chance of success: Spain refuses to grant Catalonia a binding independence referendum and the world at large has shown full support for Madrid’s handling of the crisis. It seems unlikely that Thursday’s results will change that situation.

The much-vaunted Catalan road map to independence has guided the movement into a brick wall. And for the moment, there is no new map in sight.

The return of Puigdemont

Ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, right, and former Catalan Health Minister Antoni Comin, left, gesture during a press conference at the Square Meeting Center in Brussels on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. The pro-secession bloc won a majority in Catalan regional elections, but the anti-independence Ciutadans (Citizens), led by 36-year-old lawyer Ines Arrimadas, won the highest number of votes for a single party. Several members of the ousted Cabinet, including Puigdemont, have campaigned from Brussels, where they sought refuge from Spanish justice. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
Carles Puigdemont, right, and former Catalan health minister Antoni Comín talk to the press in Brussels on Thursday after the results were known © AP

The former Catalan leader and his Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) party did better than both polls and analysts had predicted. He campaigned on the promise to restore self-rule to Catalonia after the Spanish government’s decision to invoke article 155 of the constitution and suspend the region’s autonomy. In one of the many peculiarities of the campaign, he did so without once setting foot on Catalan soil.

Mr Puigdemont fled to Belgium in October to evade Spanish justice. Several of his ministers stayed behind and are in jail awaiting trial. Though Mr Puigdemont was widely mocked in Spain for his decision to remain abroad, Catalans evidently saw things differently: for many of them, a vote for the exiled leader was a vote for their legitimate government — and against the heavy-handed crackdown by Madrid.

The question is what Mr Puigdemont does next. Despite the overall victory for the independence bloc, forming a new Catalan government will not be easy. His legal travails, too, are set to continue. Though Spain has withdrawn its international arrest warrant for the Catalan politician, any return to Spain would result in his detention.

In the meantime, however, he can take heart from the fact that his electoral list, written off as an also-ran only a few weeks ago, has emerged as the largest force inside the independence movement once again.

The ‘silent majority’ finds its voice

The independence movement lived through an anxious few hours late on Thursday. The unwelcome news arrived in the form of turnout figures showing a surge in voting in the so-called Red Belt around Barcelona.

The term describes the densely populated cities and suburbs that ring the Catalan capital and that are home to a large bloc of voters who arrived from other parts of Spain, as well as their descendants. Most speak Spanish not Catalan and identify with Spain rather than Catalonia.

Historically, Red Belt cities such as Hospitalet and Badalona have shown high abstention rates in Catalan regional polls, reflecting the lack of engagement with regional politics. Now, however, indifference seems to have given way to indignation. Often described as the “silent majority”, these voters came out in force on Thursday to try to prevent a historic break between Spain and Catalonia, and to preserve a connection that they themselves embody.

In political terms, and despite the Red Belt moniker, the surge in voting in these communities appears to have benefited the Socialist party only slightly. Instead, much of the new vote went to Inés Arrimadas and the Ciudadanos party, which saw its share of the vote soar from 18 per cent to 25 per cent.

In the end, the shift was not large enough to secure a majority for the anti-independence bloc. For the separatist leadership, however, the fact that the silent majority is finding its voice is an ominous sign. Should this large but hitherto detached slice of the electorate remain engaged in regional politics, securing a majority for independence will become that much harder.

Arrimadas comes far but not far enough

epa06402252 Candidate of Ciudadanos party to the Catalan regional elections, Ines Arrimadas (R), next to the party leader, Albert Rivera (L), delivers her speech as she celebrates the results of the Catalan regional elections at a hotel in Barcelona, Spain, 21 December 2017. Regional elections in Catalonia are held to elect all 135 seats in the Catalan regional parliament, as the Spanish central government applied article 155 of the Constitution following the regional parliament's unilateral declaration of independence. EPA/JAVIER ETXEZARRETA
Inés Arrimadas celebrates her party's results in Barcelona © EPA

The leader of the anti-independence Ciudadanos party has been one of the stars of the 2017 election. After an energetic campaign that drew heavily on her image and personality, Ms Arrimadas has led the anti-independence party to a historic result.

On Thursday, Ciudadanos became the first non-nationalist party to top the polls in a Catalan regional election, taking 37 seats in the parliament. After years of separatist hegemony, she will preside over the biggest bloc in the legislature.

That achievement is all the more remarkable given her biography, which offers a stark contrast with the typical trajectory of Catalan politics. Ms Arrimadas was born in the Andalusian city of Jerez de la Frontera, about as far from Catalonia geographically and culturally as is possible inside Spain. She moved to Barcelona in her 20s and entered frontline politics only five years ago. She is a close ally of Albert Rivera, national leader of Ciudadanos, and Thursday’s result is certain to further enhance her national profile.

Ms Arrimadas’s triumph is, however, laced with bitterness. Despite her party’s strong showing, she has virtually no chance of becoming Catalonia’s next president. Even with the support of the conservative Popular party and the Socialists (which would not be easy to gain) she is still 10 seats short of a majority in parliament. Such is the political reality in Catalonia these days: leading the biggest party does not mean leading the biggest bloc.

A PP wipeout

Ciutadans (Citizens) party supporters celebrate their party's results in the Catalan regional elections at the party headquarters in Barcelona, Spain, on Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017. Catalan authorities say that pro- and anti-independence parties are in a tight race with most of the vote counted in the regional election, but that the pro-secession bloc is heading toward regaining a majority. The anti-independence Ciutadans (Citizens), led by 36-year-old lawyer Ines Arrimadas, is likely to win the highest number of votes for a single party. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Ciudadanos supporters celebrate at their party's headquarters in Barcelona on Thursday © AP

The result was not just a blow for the anti-independence forces in Spain but also terrible for the conservative Popular party of Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister. The party came a dismal seventh place, taking just three seats in the 135-seat parliament.

For years Spain’s ruling party has been steadily losing votes in the region to the liberal yet equally anti-independence Ciudadanos party. Founded just 11 years ago in Catalonia, Ciudadanos was set up in large part to combat the rise of separatism in the region. But it has grown rapidly in other parts of Spain, posing a real challenge to the PP and its once rock-solid conservative base.

Mr Rajoy himself is likely to see some silver linings to Thursday’s result. The separatists may keep their grip on the Catalan parliament and government but Spain’s prime minister can console himself with the thought that they failed once again to reach a majority of votes — the threshold the independence movement has so far always failed to cross in an election. Taken together, the share of the vote won by the three pro-independence parties in fact dropped slightly compared with 2015: expect to hear plenty about that from Mr Rajoy and the PP.

The problem, at least in Catalonia, is that anti-independence voters seem to view Ciudadanos as their new political home, not the PP. The conservative’s poor showing on Thursday night will further undermine Mr Rajoy’s legitimacy in the eyes of many Catalans. That does not bode well for any future negotiation aimed at resolving the bitter political conflict.

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