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Catalan election

Embattled Spanish PM defends decision to call snap Catalan election

Mariano Rajoy offers dialogue with new regional government “within law” and rules out early general elections

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. REUTERS

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on Friday defended his decision to use emergency constitutional powers to call a snap poll in Catalonia despite the failure of so-called constitutionalist, or anti-independence, parties to win a majority of seats in Thursday’s regional election.

He also said he was willing to sit down for “constructive, open and realistic” talks with any new regional government in Catalonia that emerges.

But the leader of Spain’s Popular Party – which was punished with its worst ever result in Catalonia on Thursday – did not veer from his anti-independence discourse, stipulating talks with what is predicted to be a pro-secession government in the region would have to take place within the framework of the law.

Early general election ruled out

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Friday he had no plans to bring forward Spanish general elections, despite the poor performance of his Popular Party (PP) in the Catalan election.

“The government is going forward. Legislatures are for four years because we can’t oblige people to keep returning to the ballot boxes,” he said. “After everything that is happening in Spain, the last thing we need is to call new general elections,” Rajoy said.

Now the main concern for the ruling Popular Party is ensuring that Ciudadanos, which picked up the most seats and votes in the Catalan election on Thursday, does not carry over that success into the rest of Spain, splitting the center-right vote.

The Popular Party is now analyzing why it did so poorly in Catalonia.

But Rajoy played down the significance of the result: “Regional elections in Catalonia are one thing and regional and provincial elections in the rest of Spain are another, as are general elections,” he said.

“I don’t think they have punished us for applying article 155 because those who won the elections [Ciudadanos] supported this,” Rajoy added.

For the government, there are other concerns. Two months after the dismissal of the government of Carles Puigdemont, everything has changed but remains the same with the constitutionalist parties unable to win a majority in Catalonia.

Rajoy also rejected an offer of talks in a location outside of Spain from ousted former premier Carles Puigdemont, whose Junts per Catalunya party surprised many to become the most-voted pro-independence party on Thursday.

Puigdemont fled to Belgium after the Catalan regional parliament voted through a unilateral declaration of independence on October 27. He is facing charges including rebellion and sedition over the recent independence push in Catalonia and would be arrested if he returned to Spain.

However, despite shunning the offer on the table from the former premier in newly bullish spirits after Thursday’s result, Rajoy did state he would speak with whoever became premier of the new Catalan government. “I will make an effort to maintain a dialogue with whatever government emerges from these elections, but I will also make an effort to ensure the law is obeyed,” he said.

“I hope the new government abandons the unilateral [independence] route and does not place itself outside the law. I will not accept anyone disregarding the [Spanish] Constitution or the [Catalan] statue,” he said.

The embattled Spanish prime minister, who has been widely criticized for a perceived lack of action in the face of the secessionist threat in Catalonia, noted the fact that the pro-independence bloc had picked up fewer seats on Thursday than in 2015 – 70 against the previous 72 – while its vote count was also down.

“There is a great deal of social division in Catalonia. It will take a while to repair this and this should be the first priority of all political parties,” Rajoy said.

Rajoy was also keen to note the electoral victory of the strongly anti-independence Ciudadanos party which emerged with the greatest number of seats and votes on Thursday – a historic first for a party not backing independence for the region.

The party performed even better than expected winning 37 seats in the 135-seat regional chamber, or three more than Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya which took second place, but now finds itself having to play a game of wait-and-see as pro-independence forces attempt to form a government.

Thursday’ election is a triple blow for Rajoy. His Popular Party now has just three seats in the Catalan parliament, which is an all-time low. It also means a constitutionalist coalition in the regional parliament made up of the PP, the Catalan Socialists (PSC) and Ciudadanos – which picked up a combined 43.49% of the votes – would only hold 57 seats, well short of the 68 needed for a majority. These results call into question Rajoy’s decision to immediately call elections after the application of emergency powers in Catalonia.

“Calling elections was a message to everybody. The situation was exceptional and obliged us to dismiss the government and we felt we should tell people that we didn’t have the intention to be there indefinitely,” said the Spanish leader in reference to the application of article 155 of the Spanish constitution.

“Exceptional circumstances must be short-term: it is a question of democratic values,” said Rajoy referring to requests from leading PP figures such as the party’s candidate for Catalonia, Xavier García Albiol, that the decision to call elections be delayed.

Rajoy is now waiting on future developments. If the new Catalan government acts legally, he will be able to argue his actions helped restored institutional normality in the region. But if that new government pushes for independence again, article 155 will be reapplied. In any case, emergency powers will be in place until a new Catalan premier is sworn in.

English version by George Mills.