The Spanish socialists win the Catalan vote dominated by the amnesty for the separatists

Spain's ruling Socialist Party emerged Sunday as the winner of regional elections in Catalonia, which had been widely seen as a litmus test for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez's polarizing amnesty measure for separatists.

The socialists are celebrating what they see as a landmark victory, even though they have not won enough seats to govern on their own. They will most likely face weeks of haggling and perhaps a repeat election if no deal is reached. But for the first time in more than a decade, they may be able to form a regional government led by an anti-independence party.

Addressing supporters on Sunday evening at the Socialist headquarters in Barcelona, ​​the party's leader, Salvador Illa, said: “For the first time in 45 years, we have won the elections in Catalonia, both in terms of seats and votes. The Catalans have decided to open a new era.”

However, Illa, who has promised improvements in social services, education and drought management, will need 68 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament to form a government. Her party got just 42 on Sunday, meaning she will have to seek support from the pro-independence party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan Republican Left) and the left-wing Comuns.

“Winning does not mean governing,” Toni Rodon, professor of political science at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, ​​said before the results were published. Although Esquerra supported Sánchez in the Spanish parliament, he said, negotiations in Catalonia were not expected to be easy.

The Socialists' main rival was the pro-independence party Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), led by Carles Puigdemont, who campaigned from exile in France. Junts came in second by a hair, but with 35 seats he was unable to form a government with other pro-independence parties, which achieved negative results.

Esquerra leader Pere Aragonès, who is also the outgoing president of the Catalan government, called early elections after failing to muster enough support to pass a regional budget. After winning just 20 seats on Sunday, his party now faces a reckoning.

On Sunday evening, Aragonés attributed Esquerra's poor results to the party's policy of making deals with the Socialists, which he said “were not appreciated by the citizens.” From now on, he said, “Esquerra will be in opposition.”

It was a clear indication that he is not willing to negotiate with Illa, and without Esquerra's support, Catalonia could “be looking at new elections in October”, Professor Rodon said.

According to Ignacio Lago, professor of political science at Pompeu Fabra University, even if an agreement is not reached and the elections have to be repeated, “for the first time in years, the pro-independence parties do not hold a majority”.

The issue of amnesty for separatists has been divisive for years.

When Sánchez first came to power in 2019, he declared that he would not give up pending legal action against Puigdemont or others accused of separatist activity.

But Sánchez backtracked after last July's Spanish general election, when his only chance for a second term required acceding to the demands of Puigdemont's party, which had become kingmaker overnight by winning seven parliamentary seats . Mr. Sánchez, known as a political survivor, brokered an amnesty deal with Junts, calling it the best way forward for peaceful coexistence in Catalonia.

The amnesty proposal was extremely unpopular in Spain. Two rival parties staged a huge demonstration against the deal last November in cities across the country, and other unofficially party-backed protests raged through nights outside the Socialist headquarters in Madrid.

At one point, a huge effigy of Mr. Sánchez with a long Pinocchio-style nose was smashed to smithereens by a mob.

The amnesty bill has stalled in the lower house of Spain's parliament after being approved by the Senate in March. Legal challenges could also delay the measure.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, head of Madrid's regional government and member of the center-right Popular Party, called the amnesty “the most corrupt law of our democracy.”

Historically, support for Catalan independence has been no higher than 20%, according to a report published by the Elcano Royal Institute, a Madrid-based international affairs research group. This changed in 2010, after the financial crisis in the eurozone and austerity policies imposed on Spain by the European Union encouraged “populist messages of fiscal rebellion” in Catalonia, the report said. The British government's decision in 2012 to allow a referendum on independence in Scotland strengthened separatists in Spain.

Tensions in Catalonia came to a head in 2017, when the separatist government led by Puigdemont ignored the Spanish courts and pushed ahead with an illegal referendum on independence. A declaration of independence followed, as well as repression of the separatists by the Spanish government, which dismissed the Catalan government and imposed direct control. Nine political leaders were jailed for crimes including sedition, while Puigdemont fled to France, narrowly avoiding arrest.

Successive Spanish leaders, including Sánchez in his first term, have attempted and failed to obtain Puigdemont's extradition.

In 2021, the Sánchez administration took a more conciliatory approach towards Puigdemont's allies still in Spain, pardoning the nine detainees.

The key question today, according to Cristina Monge, professor of political science and sociology at the University of Zaragoza, is whether “the spirit” of the Catalan independence movement is still alive.

Positive election results on Sunday for socialists in Catalonia suggest the prime minister's high-stakes gamble to grant amnesty has paid off, reducing separatist tensions in the region and helping to normalize Spanish-Catalan relations.

“We have turned the page on the independence movement of 2017,” said Professor Lago.

A study conducted by the regional government's Opinion Studies Center shows that a growing share of Catalans – 51.1% in February, compared to 44.1% in March 2019 – supports staying in Spain.

Independence is no longer “a top priority for many voters”, Professor Rodon said, adding that the change may reflect a general disenchantment with pro-independence parties rather than a decline in interest in separatism.

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