As expected, Catalonia’s unofficial referendum – or “participation process” – last Sunday recorded a large majority in favor of independence. Of those who voted, 80.8%, or a little over 1.86 million people, supported independence. Another 4.6% voted informally, while 14.6% voted “no” either to independence or to the whole idea of Catalan statehood.

But as is usually the case with such lopsided results, the key thing is the turnout. Just over 2.3 million voted, out of an estimated 6.3 million who were eligible: between 36% and 37%. Part of its “unofficial” nature was that there was no electoral roll, so there is no exact figure (the BBC gets a higher turnout by not counting resident foreigners eligible to vote).

My preview in last Friday’s Crikey suggested that the strategy of Catalan premier Artur Mas was “to get a vote of some sort held first and then argue about what it means.” Sure enough, the argument is in full swing, with the Catalans and the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy seemingly as far apart as ever.

For an unofficial vote, 36% is pretty good. But that compares with the 69.8% who turned out at the last Catalan election (in 2012), and it’s reasonable to assume that most of the missing two million or so were at least sceptical about independence, if not downright hostile.

One way to find out would be an early election for the Catalan parliament. Last time, Mas’s moderate nationalists – not yet committed to independence (indeed some of them are still not) – won 31.2% of the vote. The pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) had 13.9%, and three other nationalist and left-wing parties had 14.9% between them.

If they were to run on a joint pro-independence ticket, as Mas would like, and win a substantial majority, that would be hard to ignore. Such a government would have a mandate for more confrontational measures, perhaps even a unilateral declaration of independence. Reports indicate, however, that ERC is hopeful of winning a majority in its own right.

Rajoy is due to hold a press conference tonight (Australian time), but Sunday’s vote doesn’t seem to have softened his attitude at all. His justice minister suggested that charges might be brought against Catalan officials who had promoted the referendum. But the opposition Socialists sounded more conciliatory, with leader Pedro Sánchez calling for constitutional reform to address Catalan grievances.

The essential background to Madrid’s attitude is the fact that support for both major parties is in freefall. A week before the Catalan referendum, one opinion poll showed Rajoy’s Popular Party in third place with only 20.7%, and the Socialists not much better on 26.2%. Ahead of both was the left populist movement Podemos (“we can”), which won 8% of the vote in the EU election in May when it was only four months old and has now shot to 27.7%.

Neither centre-right nor centre-left wants to be remembered as the party that presided over the disintegration of Spain. But with the Catalan independence movement only part of a much wider public discontent, their priority at the moment is to save their own skins.

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