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ELECTIONS IN CATALONIA

Catalans punish CiU’s plan at the polls

Ruling nationalist bloc loses 12 seats in regional elections

Artur Mas’ route map to a referendum on independence before 2016 left in tatters

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Time for reflection? CiU grouping leader Artur Mas at a news conference in Barcelona on Sunday. REUTERS

The separatist designs of Artur Mas on Sunday received a severe setback from voters, who opted to keep the center-right nationalist CiU grouping in power but fell well short of handing it the “exceptional majority” it had sought to push through plans to hold a referendum on independence.

CiU not only failed to achieve an absolute majority, but also lost 12 seats in respect to 2010 — not the result Mas had banked on when he brought the regional elections forward by two years. Now, the CiU leader will have to seek support from outside his party to guarantee his investiture.

The Catalan assembly, though, retains a clear pro-sovereignty bent. CiU claimed 50 seats, while for the first time the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) become Catalonia’s second party with 21 seats. The Socialists won 20 seats to the Popular Party’s 19, with the leftist Iniciativa-Esquerra Unida (ICV-EUiA) on 13. Ciutadans gained six seats to give it nine deputies and the pro-independence, anti-capitalism leftists of CUP entered the Catalan parliament for the first time with three seats.

The Catalan assembly retains a clear pro-sovereignty bent after the ballot

Mas, therefore, will have to seek the support of ERC to move ahead with his referendum plans. In his first appearance after the results rolled in, he called on fellow republicans to back the path toward “the right to decide.”

“One thing is the right to decide, a sovereign state is a different matter,” he said. “To have one, with these results, we will have to keep working.”

The loss of 12 deputies raised doubts within the CiU over Mas’ ability to continue at the head of the regional government. When the premier finally faced the cameras, he made it plain that he would, but admitted he had been left “far” from his objective, something he attributed to the global economic situation.

One thing is the right to decide; a sovereign state is a different matter”

If CiU had hoped to benefit from the clamor for independence displayed on September 11, Catalonia’s national day, when some 600,000 marched in favor, it is ERC that has actually done so. Likewise CUP, which had previously only held positions at town hall level.

Mas’ defeat was compounded by the failure of the nationalist parties to achieve a two-thirds majority in the assembly. In the previous elections combined they won 86 seats out of 135. After Sunday’s ballot, that number increased by just one. Within CiU, which had firmly believed it would gain ground, there is resignation that Mas will carry out a “profound reflection” after its failure. The long faces among CiU members at its electoral headquarters at Barcelona’s Majestic hotel showed that something more than Mas’ independence project had come crashing down.

The ballot also compounded the woes of the Socialists, which has also suffered reverses in recent elections in Galicia and the Basque Country. The leading party of the Catalan left over the past three decades, it has lost its position as the region’s second political force to ERC, largely due to the failure of Pere Navarro to define an alternative to the sovereignism of Mas and the recentralization of the Popular Party (PP). The PSC lost six of the seats it won in 2010, which was its worst result on record until that point. The depth of the PSC’s problems was highlighted in Barcelona, which it had governed for 30 years; it finished fourth in the vote. Now, the only balm to the PSC’s wounds is the possible crisis that the election could provoke within CiU.

The big winner was Junqueras of ERC, who could hold the key to power

The PP, meanwhile, gained one seat, a result that fell short of its own aspirations: its regional leader Alicia Sánchez-Camacho had hoped to head up the opposition in Catalonia. Neither did the PP capitalize on the wave of anti-independence votes, which fell instead to Ciutadans, led by Albert Rivera, which presented itself as “the option against any type of independentism.” Rivera wasted little time in calling for Mas to step down and warned Ciutadans would seek support for a motion of censure from other parties if he did not.

The big winner of the night was Oriol Junqueras, ERC leader, now leader of the opposition and, possibly in the near future, Mas’s colleague in government. Junqueras benefited from the votes of republicans who do not trust Mas and view him as a social climber. ERC has drawn a line under its participation in the PSC-led tripartite government in the past decade, has changed its leadership and tailored its discourse to independentism, while modifying its leftist rhetoric. Its reward was a doubling of votes compared with 2010 and 21 seats, just two shy of its record of 23 under Josep Lluís Carod-Rovira in 2003.

ICV-EUiA was unable to fully exploit voter dissatisfaction with the cutbacks made by Mas’ government, despite being the most visible party during social and education protests in the region. The leftist-greens gained three seats on its 2010 haul, because it was able to back Mas’ referendum drive while opposing his social and economic policy with little risk of internal divisions or inviting a voter backlash. With the results gained by CiU, Mas will find few allies in the ecosocialist ranks, who view the premier as a spent force.

Ciutadans’ Rivera wasted little time in calling for Mas to step down

The main gains in the leftist sphere were achieved by CUP and Ciutadans. The former, extreme leftists with communist and anti-capitalist leanings, gathered the vote of the discontented on the margins of society. It was the first time CUP had attempted to field candidates at a regional election despite considerable support at municipal level, especially in Girona. The grouping also benefited from the votes of people connected to the 15-M social movement.

Ciutadans has amplified its discourse from one of mere attacks against positive discrimination in the Catalan language and the government. Rivera campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and launched blistering broadsides against the banking system, gaining the confidence of larger swaths of metropolitan Barcelona previously dominated by the PSC.

While CUP is independentist, it will not make life at all easy for Mas, who faces a complicated legislature after Sunday’s disappointing returns.