BARCELONA – The pro-union Socialist Party claimed a narrow win in regional elections in Catalonia late Sunday, but the bloc of parties supporting secession by Spain’s northeastern corner widened their control of the regional parliament.
With 99% of the votes counted, the three main parties pledging to carve out an independent Catalan state increased their number of seats in the regional parliament to 74. In 2017, those same parties won 70 seats of the 135-seat chamber, just two above the majority.
The Socialist party led by former health minister Salvador Illa was poised to take 33 seats with over 625,000 votes. The pro-secession Republican Left of Catalonia was also set to claim 33 seats, but with 580,000 votes.
Despite the huge boost in support for the Socialist Party of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who has held talks with the separatists in an attempt to ease tensions with the region, Illa will have a difficult time trying to cobbling together support for a government. He would need the support of several parties, including some separatists.
“This is a clear victory that has one reading: It is time to turn the page, to write a new chapter, to reach out to one another and advance together,” Illa said after his victory.
The outcome confirms that pro-separatist sentiment has not waned despite the collective suffering of the COVID-19 pandemic and a frustrated secession bid in October 2017 that left several of its members in prison. Four years on, the wealthy region that has its own language spoken alongside Spanish remains divided down the middle by the secession question.
However, it was not clear if the separatist parties would be able to overcome the in-fighting that has plagued their bloc since the dream of an easy breakaway from Spain proved elusive.
The results shifted the power within the pro-secession camp to the leftist Republican Left of Catalonia party, whose 33 seats edged out the center-right Together for Catalonia, set to win 32 seats.
The Republican Left of Catalonia of jailed leader Oriol Junqueras can now dispute the leadership of the bloc with Together for Catalonia, the party of former Catalan chief Carles Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium following the ineffective 2017 breakaway bid.
Together for Catalonia maintains a more radical stance on severing ties from Spain in the short term, while the Republican Left of Catalonia lowered its tone over the past year and set winning an amnesty from central authorities for Junqueras and other jailed leaders as its top priority — for now.
“We are ready to build a broad consensus based on the right for national self-determination, amnesty, and the foundation of a Republic,” Junqueras said at his party’s headquarters after he and other of the imprisoned leaders were let out of prison to join their parties for election night.
Adrià Hoguet, a 29-year-old who works in banking, switched his vote from Together for Catalonia to the Republican Left of Catalonia.
“Even though it wants an independent Catalonia, the party knows that it won’t be easy and cannot be achieved by just plowing ahead, because we have seen that won’t work,” Hoguet said after casting his ballot in Barcelona.
The region's parliament also was poised to become more fragmented, and more radical.
The far-right Vox party entered the Catalan legislature for the first time with 11 seats, confirming its surge across Spain in recent years. Its success came at the expense of the conservative Popular Party, which was left with three seats after a campaign in which it softened its formerly hard-line stance against Catalan secessionists.
On the other side of the spectrum, the far-left, pro-secession CUP party improved to nine seats from the four it won in 2017. So once again, the pro-secession forces will need the unpredictable CUP to form a majority.
A potential regional government will likely hinge on deal-making between parties that could take days or longer to conclude.
The use of face masks and hand disinfectant was mandatory at polling stations as Spain battles another spike in infections for a country that has lost over 64,000 lives to COVID-19.
For 29-year-old social worker Andrea Marín, the pandemic increased her desire for a continued union.
“I voted for the Socialists because I don’t want my vote to go the separatists,” she said. “They are already spending a lot of money on promoting the separatist cause when what matters today is the economy and ending the pandemic.”
Virus fears, poor weather and the absence of a concrete proposal by separatists to again provoke a rupture in the near future appeared to dampen voter participation, which fell to 55%, compared to a record 79% turnout in December 2017. That seemed to favor pro-secession parties, which fare better in rural areas that are overrepresented in election law.
So while the Socialists rose at the expense of the liberal Citizens, which plummeted to six seats after winning the December 2017 elections with 36, the Catalan political panorama remained unchanged in the essential question: The Mediterranean region bordering with France is still roughly split between those who support the creation of a Catalan state, and those who are fervently for remaining a part of Spain.
Associated Press journalists Aritz Parra and Renata Brito contributed to this report.