San Francisco Chronicle
Catalan separatists poised to win regional elections
BARCELONA, Spain — Catalonia’s separatist parties were poised to hold on to a narrow majority in regional elections on Thursday, according to nearly complete official results, a seeming vindication of their independence drive, which has divided the region and threatened to fracture Spain.
If confirmed, the outcome would be a significant setback for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who invoked emergency powers, ousted the Catalan government and took direct administrative control of the formerly autonomous region after its separatist lawmakers declared independence in October.
Rajoy called the elections hoping to reshuffle the political deck, calculating that Catalan voters would punish the secessionist leaders who had provoked the country’s worst constitutional crisis in decades.
That gamble appeared not to have paid off. The three main separatist parties won 70 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament, with 85 percent of the votes counted. After months of feuding, Rajoy, Catalonia and indeed all of Spain now end up close to where the crisis started.
Worse for Rajoy, he is now politically wounded, having lost his bet that a sufficiently large majority of Catalans would rally behind his call for Spanish unity to snuff out the secessionist challenge.
Instead, it was Rajoy’s Popular Party that was punished, with most unionist votes going to Ciudadanos, a rival party on which Rajoy already depends to keep his minority government alive in Madrid.
The region, which includes Barcelona, the hub of Spain’s thriving tourism sector, has harbored desires for independence based on its distinct language and culture for generations, even if they have ebbed and flowed.
The current standoff is a high-water mark. It has unsettled not only Spain but also its neighbors in the European Union, many of whom are fearful of separatist challenges of their own at a time of rising populism and nationalism. Almost no politician outside of Catalonia has supported the drive for independence.
Perhaps the election’s biggest surprise was the strong showing by the recently overhauled party of Carles Puigdemont, the ousted leader of Catalonia, which was on course to win 33 seats in the next regional parliament, one more seat than Esquerra Republicana, the other main separatist party.