Seven years since the failed bid for Catalan independence, the national question still haunts Spanish politics. But Sunday’s snap elections in Catalonia are also about its economic model — and its increasing dependence on a low-wage tourist sector.

Partido Socialista leader Salvador Illa speaks at a rally on May 4, 2024, in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. (Lorena Sopena / Europa Press via Getty Images)

This Sunday, Catalonia votes in a snap election to elect a new parliament. This autonomous community in northeastern Spain is today unlikely to garner the global attention that it did in 2017, when its government made a push for independence. Yet these elections surely will shed light on two key issues, both for Catalonia and for Spain.

This election firstly matters for the balance of power between the two main forces contending to dominate Catalonia’s pro-independence camp, divided between center left and center right. But it will also be key for the strength of Spain’s Socialist-led government, just days after prime minister Pedro Sánchez announced that he had decided not to resign.

Resignation Threat

In late April, Sánchez shared a letter explaining that he was considering resigning over a judicial and media smear campaign against his wife, Begoña Gómez. The trigger was a judge’s decision to open corruption proceedings against Gómez. The lawsuit was presented by a far-right pseudo-union and was based on defamatory articles by online right-wing newspapers.

The Spanish premier’s decision to take five days to consider his resignation — before ultimately staying in his post — has loomed over the Catalan electoral campaign. The pro-independence parties denounced Sánchez for holding double standards — and looking away when they were themselves targeted by harsher smear campaigns.

What remained unsaid was that the fall of Sánchez’s government might have opened the way to new Spanish elections — and that a new, right-wing government in Madrid, with a more bellicose line on Catalonia, could easily have come to power.

Indeed, hostilities in this Catalan election campaign, and in Spanish politics more broadly, are still structured by an event further back in time — the pro-independence parties’ disputed bid for a split back in 2017.

Unilateral Move

October 1, 2017, remains known as the date when the Catalan parliament staged an unofficial independence referendum. The vote — which had a meager 43 percent turnout, as opponents of independence mostly stayed away from the polls — met with violent police repression. Three weeks after the referendum, the Catalan parliament declared Catalonia’s independence.

Following this unilateral declaration, the Catalan government took no specific measures to break away from Spain. The Spanish government reacted by taking direct control of Catalonia’s governmental autonomy and organizing new elections, which followed in December 2017. The members of the pro-independence cabinet who had not left Spain were arrested.

While the Catalan government has in recent years been run by pro-independence forces, this Sunday’s election winner is unlikely to come from their ranks.

Today’s context is rather different, and the pro-independence parties no longer call for unilateral independence. Yet sometimes, that eventful month can feel like yesterday. Take the fate of Carles Puigdemont, who was president of Catalonia when the regional parliament declared independence, but has spent the last six years in Belgium.

In this weekend’s elections, Puigdemont is running again for president as the candidate of Junts (Together), a center-right, pro-independence party. This political space has taken many different names and incorporated many new members over the last decade. Its roots, though, lie in the conservative legacy of Jordi Pujol, who dominated Catalan politics as president from 1980 to 2003 and recently supported Puigdemont’s campaign.

Puigdemont currently represents Junts’s best hope to reverse the results of the 2021 election. Back then, the center-left wing of the pro-independence camp, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), gained more votes and seats than Junts. After the 2021 vote, ERC regained the presidency of Catalonia for the first time since the Spanish Civil War, under Pere Aragonès. The last Catalan president from this party was Lluís Companys, who was executed by the Francoists in 1940 after being apprehended by the Nazis during his French exile.

Aragonès initially headed a coalition government with Junts that was only three seats short of a majority. After Junts quit in October 2022 — arguing that ERC was not committed enough to their joint pro-independence agenda — Aragonès had a very weak government, counting on the support of just thirty-three MPs — under a quarter of the total.

Junts has been running a very personalized campaign around Puigdemont. As the former president and organizer of the unofficial referendum, he has a pending detention order against him in Spain and has not yet returned to the country. Junts’s main campaign events have taken place in southern France, where Puigdemont currently resides.

Puigdemont has promised to return to Catalonia after the elections. That is not a new promise, but one he also made before both the 2017 Catalan elections and 2019 European elections. The former president, however, retains a loyal support base, especially in the interior of Catalonia, away from the capital, Barcelona. Junts has continued rising in the polls since it became known that Puigdemont would be its candidate, and it may now expect to be the second-most voted party.

Madrid and Barcelona

While Catalonia’s government has in recent years been run by pro-independence forces, this Sunday’s winner is unlikely to come from their ranks. Rather, the front-runner is the Catalan wing of the Partido Socialista, led by Salvador Illa, Spain’s former health minister. Illa has been running a centrist campaign. He has sought the support of the main unions but also been attentive to the demands of the employers’ associations, who have been courting him for years. In the negotiations for the ERC-led government’s 2023 budget, which the Partido Socialista ultimately supported, Illa obtained several concessions long demanded by employer groups — among them a commitment to “modernize” Barcelona’s airport.

Catalonia was already key to Spanish premier Sánchez’s success in rebuilding his center-left coalition after last July’s Spanish general election. Back then, the right-wing Partido Popular and the far-right Vox won only eight seats in Catalonia, while the two forces in Spain’s current ruling coalition (i.e., Sánchez’s Partido Socialista and the left-wing Sumar) won twenty-six seats. The remaining fourteen seats went to the pro-independence Catalan parties. After long negotiations, these latter also voted in Spain’s congress for Sánchez to return as premier.

In exchange, they obtained an amnesty law that should see criminal charges against pro-independence politicians and activists dropped. That would apply to politicians who headed abroad, such as Puigdemont. The members of the Catalan cabinet who stayed in Catalonia were already pardoned in June 2021 by Sánchez’s government, albeit after they had spent nearly four years in jail.

It seems possible that a far-right party that supports Catalan independence, Aliança Catalana, could enter parliament for the first time.

For Sánchez’s and Illa’s Partido Socialista, finishing first is a must if they want to have one of their own as president of Catalonia, as they did between 2003 and 2010. They are likely to win the largest number of seats, but forming a government will be very complicated. Even in their best-case scenario, the Partido Socialista would need an agreement with Puigdemont’s Junts, which has rejected the idea, or else the center-left, pro-independence ERC, who may face difficulty accepting a secondary role after having led Catalonia these past three years.

Fragmented Parliament

Coalition politics promise to be difficult in the next Catalan parliament, which will continue to be fragmented along two different lines. The traditional left-right axis coexists with a second division that differentiates pro-independence parties from anti-independence ones.

I spoke to Aliou Diallo, a political scientist at the University of Girona, who explains that the national line of differentiation has lost some of its impact in these elections. When the independence issue has been discussed, he adds, it has often been within the Spanish framework of the amnesty law and the pro-independence parties’ support for the Sánchez government in Madrid.

The Catalan parliament is surely diverse. On the Left, the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) has the independence of Catalonia as one of its main goals. Meanwhile, Catalunya en Comú (Comuns) espouses similar socioeconomic positions but would prefer for Catalonia to remain part of Spain. Its members would not oppose a negotiated referendum, however.

On the Right, both the Partido Popular and Vox are strongly anti-independence. The latter, however, has even fewer compunctions about making openly xenophobic statements. It would also like Catalonia to have more limited political autonomy. And although the polls are not all in agreement, it seems possible that a far-right party that does support Catalan independence, Aliança Catalana, could enter the Catalan parliament for the first time. Political scientist Diallo notes that during this campaign, some of the most specific policy proposals made by any party have been ones demagogically conflating insecurity, crime, and migration.

Tourist Economy

This Sunday’s snap election was in fact prompted by economic issues, and the failure to pass a budget for 2024. The budget had the support of Catalonia’s ruling ERC and the opposition, Partido Socialista. It included an increase in public spending — but no meaningful implementation of a more social government program.

Junts demanded that the Catalan government lower income and inheritance taxes before it would back the budget. Meanwhile, left-wing Comuns, the political group closest to supporting the budget, requested a promise from the government that big-tourism projects like the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, to be built close to Tarragona, would never be approved. The Partido Socialista was unwilling to compromise on this.

It later became known that the Catalan government, without publicly announcing it, had renewed the legal framework allowing the development of the big-tourism project the same day it reached a bilateral budget agreement with the Partido Socialista.

When the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino project was announced in 2017, the company said it would have 6,000 square meters of swimming pools and 1,200 slot machines. The business venture has been marketed as a great generator of employment in the area around Tarragona. Still, locals have organized numerous demonstrations against a big-tourism project that would be Europe’s largest casino.

The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino project may never be built — but it has been so strongly contested because it is emblematic of a much broader issue. Catalonia is now suffering the worst drought in its modern history, and the agricultural and industrial sectors have suffered major water restrictions. Yet the government has been far more lax when dealing with the tourism industry. After a short period of rain, the government decided to lift some water restrictions, in what many see as a concession to the tourism sector ahead of the summer holiday season.

The tourism sector generates job opportunities, but they are often seasonal and low-paid.

This is part of a broader debate about what kind of jobs Catalans can want or expect. The unemployment rate among Catalans is 9.5 percent, almost three points lower than the Spanish average. Catalonia leads Spain in both industrial production and exports. However, the weight of the industrial sector has been decreasing over the last decades. It has often been replaced by tourism, which accounts for 15 percent of the Catalan GDP, much higher than in similarly industrialized European countries. Barcelona also has the dubious honor of being the most polluting harbor in Europe due to the constant traffic of cruise ships.

The tourism sector generates job opportunities, but they are often seasonal and low-paid. Reliance upon it also creates major vulnerabilities that became more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tourism hotspots such as Lloret de Mar, Blanes, or Calafell are each among the poorest thirty municipalities in Catalonia. In Barcelona, but increasingly also in other cities such as Girona, tourists and expats have contributed to exorbitant rent prices that have pushed low-paid workers out of the cities, to which they need to commute.

Coalition Arithmetic

In the May 2 electoral debate for the Catalan elections, the left-wing candidates emphasized the importance of improving the commuter train system, which is chronically underfunded and experiences frequent delays. Meanwhile, the Partido Socialista, together with the center-right to far-right forces, demands the expansion of Barcelona’s airport. Most plans to do this would negatively affect marshlands near the landing strips that represent one of the few green areas close to Barcelona. The ruling ERC has sat in an uncomfortable no man’s land in this debate.

May 12 will determine the different parties’ parliamentary strength, before they head to the negotiation table. Every poll indicates that Illa’s Partido Socialista will be the single most voted party. And yet, as Diallo notes, Illa has “few chances” of becoming president of Catalonia in a fragmented parliament.

He would need a significant advantage over the second-ranked party. Yet the most positive result for Illa’s Socialists would probably come at the expense of Comuns or the ERC, i.e., the same forces most likely to be willing to reach an agreement with the Partido Socialista. The negotiations could prove unable to produce a government — and lead to repeat elections soon. What is clear is that a significant change in Catalonia that favors public transportation, affordable housing, and less dependency on tourism remains as elusive as ever.

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