Of course we like to think of politics as a pure contest of ideas or policies, where the side with the most support wins. But it’s not like that; institutions matter, structures matter. In particular, electoral systems matter, as Sunday’s regional election in Catalonia has just demonstrated.
The election was presented by outgoing premier Artur Mas, leader of Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, as a referendum on independence. And the headline result is that he won: the joint pro-independence list Together for Yes has 62 seats, plus another ten for the Popular Unity Candidates, a radical left group also supporting independence. That’s a majority of nine seats over the combined opposition total of 63.
But if you look at the votes cast (official results here), you’ll find that the two pro-independence lists actually had only 47.8% of the vote between them (or 48.0% if you factor out blank ballots). The combined total of the four anti-independence tickets (centre-right, centrist, centre-left and radical left) was almost 14,000 votes ahead of them, on 48.1% (48.3% without the blanks).
So why the difference? Voting in Catalonia is proportional, but only within each of its four provinces, not across the region as a whole. The effect is to exaggerate the support of larger parties, and since Together for Yes was by far the largest single list, with 39.5%, it was the major beneficiary. In Tarragona, for example, the smallest province, the joint list had 41.6% of the vote but won nine of the 18 seats.
If seats had been allocated proportionally across the whole region, Together for Yes would have come down to 55 seats, plus 11 for Popular Unity Candidates. The four anti-independence parties would have won 65 between them, and the balance of power would have been held by Democratic Union of Catalonia (who are pro-independence, but split with Mas over their opposition to unilateral measures) with three seats and an animal rights party with one.
(Applying across the board a 3% threshold, which currently applies to each province, would have excluded the last two parties and given the pro-independence forces the barest of majorities, 68 to 67. It’s so close that allocating them by Sainte-Laguë rather than D’Hondt would reverse those numbers.)
Parties are entitled to take the electoral system as they find it, so Mas has won fair and square. But the fragile pro-independence majority makes his position precarious at best. I mentioned last week that the very diverse nature of the anti-independence forces made it hard to imagine them forming a coalition government if they won, but the pro-independence side has similar problems: already the Popular Unity Candidates have made it clear that Mas is “not indispensable”.
And although Mas or whoever takes his place will continue to press the Spanish government to agree to an official referendum on independence, they cannot realistically claim a mandate for anything beyond that. Catalonia is not going to become an independent nation any time soon.
Turnout was a record 77.4% – not as big as Scotland’s 84.6%, but up almost 10% on 2012 and about double last year’s unofficial referendum. If the Catalans were solidly behind independence, there was nothing stopping them from showing that by giving Mas’s ticket a big majority. They chose not to. When Liz Castro, a pro-independence leader quoted by the BBC, says that it’s “not about whether or not there is independence, but about when,” she’s expressing a hope that the numbers simply don’t justify.
Commentators say that the Catalans will be hoping that Spanish elections in December bring a more tractable central government to power, but there may be an element of the opposite as well: Mas and the other pro-independence leaders clearly benefit from resentment against the arrogance of the Madrid government. If that is replaced by conciliation, it may become much harder to maintain the momentum for independence.
Moreover, in an atmosphere of mature and civilised consultation, a referendum might well see Catalonia reach the same conclusion that Scotland did. Once people have the assurance that they can leave if they want to, it often makes them more comfortable about staying put.