It didn't work. That's the simple and clear verdict of yesterday's elections for Artur Mas and Convergència i Unió (CiU). The gamble that they could capture absolute power in the Catalan parliament has backfired in a spectacular way that few expected. Whilst the last opinion polls suggested Mas might not reach the objective of an overall majority, I don't think any polls predicted that CiU would lose ground in the way that they have. It seems evident that there has been a significant shift of votes from CiU to Esquerra Republican (ERC). So one of the main consequences of this gamble by Mas has been to restore the fortunes of his main rival for the nationalist vote. That should have a few people inside his own party sharpening their knives.
Despite the setback, CiU are still very much the dominant force in Catalan politics. If anyone believes that the shift in support from CiU to Esquerra represents some sort of major turning point in nationalist voting patterns then I suggest they click on the results for 2006 in the results widget in my previous post. Esquerra have been here before, they've even done better than this before. The general assumption this morning seems to be that CiU and ERC will unite in a grand coalition, as between them they command a majority in parliament. This is not, it needs to be pointed out, the same as a majority of the votes cast. Between them the two parties can claim just over 44% support. Ironically, the alliance last time around between CiU and their good friends from the Partido Popular could claim greater electoral legitimacy, at least they made it to 50%.
The solution of a nationalist coalition might appear to be obvious but it's not so simple. Esquerra have never wanted to be a junior coalition partner to CiU, and that option is full of danger for them. There is, of course, the compensation that they get back their offices and official cars and all the trappings of power which they showed such a liking for with the 'tripartit' government a few years back. Unfortunately for them it didn't go down so well with their voters. Also, an agreement with Mas means they have to publicly line up behind setting the Mossos d'Esquadra and their rubber bullets onto anyone who doesn't like their health service being dismantled. There isn't that much remaining of the 'Esquerra' part in ERC but they also have to keep an eye out for emerging rivals, look at the rise of the CUP in yesterday's election.
In return for keeping Mas in power, ERC will need something to show for it and the obvious trophy is paving the way for an independence vote. The problem is, following yesterday's results, that the popular enthusiasm for such a move seems to have been wildly exaggerated. Nor is it really valid to spin the result by confusing an apparently pro-referendum majority with a pro-independence one. Despite what some appear to think, being in favour of the 'right to decide' yet against independence is both a coherent and an impeccably democratic viewpoint. It's the position I hold, for example, concerning Scottish independence. Even though I'm entitled to the passport if Salmond gets his way.
It's also important to remember, when considering the balance of forces, that regional elections tend to overstate the nationalist vote in Cataluña, with a reverse effect being seen in national Spanish elections. Nationalists are more motivated by the issues of Catalan government than Spanish. That seems to have changed a bit this time, there has been a greater mobilisation of anti-independence voters. The unionist party Ciutadans have been regarded as something of a joke, but they have tripled their representation in the new parliament. The PP also did well, by their own standards, although they are still a minor party in Catalan politics. After a build up that had almost everyone expecting a major shift towards pro-independence sentiment, a closer examination of the results reveals a small reverse in nationalist support.
The Catalan socialists of the PSC must be relieved, not because they did well but because it could have been worse and because of all the attention focused on Mas. The PSC should be the big hitter of the national Spanish parties in Catalan elections, and in the end they've finished in third place just ahead of the PP. That's an awful result, but I still believe it has as much to do with national issues as with local ones. It fits the pattern of dismal results in other regions for the PSOE. It's hard to say whether they have lost votes to Ciutadans and the harder line anti-separatist positions. Iniciativa per Catalunya, which would expect to pick up votes on the left from disillusionment with the PSC, have gained three seats which isn't bad but it doesn't suggest great things to come either.
There are all sorts of lessons to be drawn from these elections, but perhaps its the Catalan left that really needs to be thinking hard about where it is going. Seeing every issue through the prism of the national question isn't offering any solutions to those who need them as the crisis continues to bite hard. The idea that the unemployed of Badalona have more in common with Artur Mas and company than they do with the unemployed of Alcobendas looks patently absurd. As does pretending that the rest of Spain lives a leisurely life of ease and comfort at Catalan expense. Hard times are still ahead, and holding hands with Artur won't do anything to help those who are bearing the brunt of the crisis.