Spanish elections and the Catalan crisis explained

Spanish citizens will head to the polls today in one of Spain’s most consequential national elections since its 1978 democratic transition. Spain transitioned to a constitutional monarchy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.  Last March, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez from Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the center-left socialist party, called for snap general elections after the Parliament rejected his 2019 budget plans. His minority government needed the support of pro-Catalan independence groups to pass his budget, but it lacked their support since the negotiations between them had broken down. The upcoming elections are especially important because of the increasing political fragmentation due partly to the Catalan political crisis and the rise of the far-right Vox party.

The Catalan crisis

These elections come in a period of increased uncertainty in Spain and during a territorial crisis. The central government’s tension with the Catalan regional government started increasing exponentially by 2010 and reached one of its most tense moments in the October 1, 2017 referendum. According to the Catalan government figures, more than 2.25 million people voted on the October 2017 referendum on whether to remain or leave Spain and 90 percent said they were in favor of independence. However, some reports speculated that some people voted twice because of insufficient enforcement of election laws. Unlike in Scotland, the referendum had been deemed illegal by Spain’s highest court, and the Spanish government sent in the National Police to impede people’s vote. The turnout was only around 42 percent, and Catalan authorities blamed it on the police crackdown, which included sealing schools used as polling stations and firing rubber bullets at voters and protesters. The confrontations resulted in around 900 people injured and one dead. Other factors that contributed to this low turnout is that those Catalans that agreed with the Spanish government believed this vote was illegal and therefore illegitimate and those who thought that voting would be useless since it was deemed illegal.

Even though the referendum vote occurred more than two years ago, the tensions keep mounting with the persecution, arrest, and trial of Catalan pro-independence/separatist leaders. The Supreme Court trial against twelve of the leaders began on February 12, after they were transported to a prison in Madrid awaiting trial. Three of the most notorious leaders on trial include Carme Forcadell, former speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Jordi Sànchez, former president of the civic association Catalan National Assembly, and Oriol Junqueras, the former deputy premier of Catalonia.

The politicians are accused of rebellion, sedition, misuse of public funds, criminal association, and disobedience for their role in facilitating the illegal independence referendum and the unilateral independence declaration subsequently passed by separatist parties in the Catalan Parliament. Nine of the defendants have been imprisoned without bail since late 2017 because they are considered a flight risk. Nevertheless, the person who led the independence bid, former Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, fled the country to avoid arrest. Even though he was finally arrested in Germany in 2018, the German authorities refused to extradite him.

Whether or not violence was employed or encouraged by independence leaders is a crucial factor in determining whether the nine facing rebellion charges can be found guilty, which is the most severe charge they face. Multiple leaders during the trial have cast doubts over the impartiality of the Supreme Court and the whole Spanish Justice System and have accused the judges of persecuting their political beliefs. Junqueras famously called himself “a political prisoner,” which is the term used by the leaders and their supporters to denounce the supposed political motivations of their arrests and trial.  

The rise of the Far-right…again?

The far-right Vox party is set to make a breakthrough in the upcoming elections. The polls indicate that Vox will take around 11 percent of the vote, making it the first far-right group to win multiple seats in the national parliament since Spain’s transition to democracy. Vox was founded in 2013 by dissatisfied members of the conservative People’s Party (PP). It was previously perceived as a small group until it took 12 seats in the Andalusian elections last December. The surprise of these elections was not only Vox’s popularity but also the influence it had on other right-wing parties. Vox backed a coalition government of the PP and the center-right Citizens party in Andalusia. The Catalan crisis, society’s resentment against the economic and political system after the financial crisis, increasing inequality, migration, Islamophobia, and a backlash against political correctness and modern feminism have incited the rise of Vox. The rise of Vox has also moved PP and Citizens farther to the right to stop their escape of votes. Vox’s electoral program includes the deportation of undocumented immigrants, the closing of fundamentalist mosques, a wall in Ceuta and Melilla (Spanish territories in northern Africa), the elimination of all gendered laws, and the preference for bilateralism.

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Author: Judith Indalecio Gonzalez