On Elections

How people elect parliaments

Catalans vote to retain a pro-independence parliament

The world’s last legislative election for 2017 – an emergency election for the Parliament of the Spanish region of Catalonia – has affirmed the Catalan population’s support for political parties favouring independence from Spain.

The election was called two years early after dramatic political and constitutional events in the region.

Following a controversial independence referendum outcome in early October – which was declared invalid by the national government and courts, and physically disrupted by national authorities – the regional President, with the support of a majority of the Catalan parliament, declared the province independent of Spain on 27 October.

image - Plt of Catalonia - Carles_Puigdemont_el_10_d'octubre_de_2017

Former regional president Carles Puigdemont addresses the Catalan Parliament in October (image: Generalitat de Catalunya)

The declaration was rapidly declared unconstitutional by the nation’s judiciary, and the national government in Madrid (and the national Senate) invoked a constitutional procedure to sack the regional government.


The regional parliament was also  dissolved, and new elections called.

The national government hoped that that the region’s voters would have tired of the political crisis.

But Thursday’s election may have solved little, with voters returning an assembly very similar in political complexion to the one which the national government had dismissed.

At the preceding elections in 2015, around 36% of registered voters supported pro-independence parties, and 31% backed others opposed to independence, with a total elector turnout of around 74%.

Today a slightly stronger turnout of 78% (which may rise slightly as vote counting is finalised) has seen the pro-independence forces win about 37% of registered voters, and unionist parties about 34%.

In short, backing for parties of each category has eased up slightly.

The independence referendum in October was widely boycotted, with about 36% of the electorate voting for independence, 3% voting no, and around 60% not participating.

The conundrum for Catalonia is that while the motivated pro-independence vote amounts to around 35%-40% of the electorate, it exceeds that of the active opponents of independence, at around 30%-35%.

Around 20% of the electorate sitting on the political sidelines.

The issue of independence is also clouded by the question of whether the Spanish constitution allows for it. Catalonia (and its parliament) have a more independent history that other provinces, and many argue that it retains a constitutional right to separation.

image - Parlament_de_Catalunya

The Catalan Parliament in Barcelona (image: Wikipedia)

The modern Catalan parliament is elected by a closed party list system of party proportional representation, in four regional electoral divisions.


The division covering Barcelona dominates the assembly, with 85 of the 135 seats, and is closely balanced between pro- and anti-independence voters.

But the three less populous electoral divisions of Tarragona, Lleida and Girona are home to strong voter support for independence.

On the election night results it seems that 70 pro-independence members will win seats, giving them a majority in the 135-member assembly, down from 72 before the dissolution.

The independence support will be divided among three parties. The formerly strong Together for Catalonia alliance split for the new elections, with the Republican Left of Catalonia running independently.

The leader of the Together for Catalonia group, former regional President Carles Puigdemont, remains in exile in Brussels, with the Spanish authorities intent on arresting him should he return to Spain.

Non-independence parties have won 57 seats – up from 52.

The national government’s People’s Party has done particularly poorly, dropping from 11 to just 3 seats. Non-independence support has instead transferred to the Citizens party, which currently keeps the minority People’s Party national government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in office.

The new parliament will also have a small group of 8 members undeclared on the independence issue.

Whether the Rajoy government allows any new pro-independence government to take office remains to be seen.


More reports:

1. An excellent earlier article by David Lublin in the Washington Post from November 8 –

Will Catalonia’s separatists win in December?  The the voting system is stacked in their favour.

Lublin argued that detailed features of the current electoral system favour the pro-independence forces. In short, the electoral system:

(1) divides Catalonia into four electoral subdivisions, in a manner which mildly favours pro-independence voters who are stronger in the three outlying regions;

(2) has actual anti-urban malapportionment of seat allotments to the divisions, favouring the three non-Barcelona electoral divisions (with the Barcelona electoral division having an estimated 14 fewer seats than its voters deserve), once again mildly favouring pro-indepencence voters;

(3) has a 3% vote share threshold for party eligibility to win seats, adding (yet again) a mild benefit to the larger, pro-independence parties in the three smaller divisions; and

(4) the use of the D’Hondt formula (instead of perhaps the more proportional St Laguë formula) for allocating seats to parties mildly favours the larger party lists nominated at elections, which yet again happens to favour independence voters, especially in the smaller-magnitude non-Barcelona divisions.

Overall, Lublin estimates the size of the advantage to the pro-independence parties from these combined electoral system details at between 2 and 5 additional seats won. Had pro-independence parties held only 67 seats (not 72) from 2015 to 2017, the September 2017 referendum – and the resulting declaration of independence – might never have occurred.

Note, however, that the fact that 6 or more political parties are competitive in the recent Catalonian elections creates a good deal of diversity in party positions on independence, and that the 2015 elections were also concerned with ordinary economic and social policy choices, not with the issue of independence alone. The 2017 elections is much more dominated by the independence issue.


2. A review of the election result by Mathew Shugart at his Fruits and Votes blog – Catalonia 2017 result – also building on Lublin’s analysis and breaking down the election result absolute vote numbers. Their analysis concludes that the pro-independence parties would not have won a parliamentary majority at this week’s elections under almost any alternative electoral system model which used a single-Catalonia electoral division, or had avoided electoral division malapportionment, or had not used the D’Hondt formula.


3. What would an election result using the single-transferable vote (STV) system have yielded? A quick run-through using a single quota across Catalonia (around 31,600 votes her seat) yields a rough result of 64 seats for pro-independence parties, 60 for anti-independence, and 11 for the CatComú-Podem in-betweeners. This is very similar to the most proportional of the Shugart-Lublin party-list-system estimates (which was 65 pro-independence, 70 other).

The malapportionment of the current districts – especially the allotment of a high number of seats to the pro-independence Lleida province – is largely responsibly for artificially creating the parliamentary majority for pro-independence parties.

All this does not address the fundamental community division in Catalonia, in which the plurality of the active voting population wants independence, but that support falls short of 50% of the electorate, and is unable to overcome the determined position of the national government (and courts) working to prevent independence.


3 comments on “Catalans vote to retain a pro-independence parliament

  1. Oli
    December 22, 2017

    “Catalonia (and its parliament) have a more independent history that other provinces, and many argue that it retains a constitutional right to separation.”

    There are two things wrong with that sentence, but otherwise this is a decent take on events considering it was written as results were still filtering in.

    • Malcolm Baalman
      December 27, 2017

      Oli, sorry for the delay in responding to your comment (xmas, etc). It the sentence wrong? The specific form of Catalonia’s current (post-1978 constitutional settlement) ‘autonomous’ structure is shared with some of the other regions (Basque, Galicia, Andalusia), but certainly Catalonia is distinct in that it has its own parliament on and off during the first half of the 20th century, later suppressed under Franco.

      True, Basque separatism has been more prominent over recent decades, but is somewhat quieter now. The action is certainly in Catalonia at the moment.

      As to the ‘right’ to separation, the text of the 1978 constitution – during the drafting of which the degree of devolution was a contested issue – appears to allow regional self-government, but not the prospect of independence. Hence the recent court rulings, I assume (without having time to go deep into them). Arguing over the constitutional permissibility of the prospect of independence is exactly what the contending parties are doing. But even if the current constitution bars it, of course it’s still open to Catalonian separatists to disagree with the constitutional settlement itself if they wish.

      I guess the issue is how to solve such constitutional disputes with the minimum of violence. (I recall back in the early 1990s researching the texts of the constitutions of federal nations to see which ones openly allowed for secession by their component states. The only one I could find was that of Yugoslavia, which said regions could secede if they wished. But as soon as one or two regions attempt to do just that (I think Slovenia, then Croatia – I forget the exact chain of events) brutal warfare broke out.)

      • Oli
        December 28, 2017

        No problem. As your reply shows, it probably would’ve taken at least few paragraphs to explain properly the history of Spanish decentralisation, so kudos for trying to sum it up in a single sentence!

        The straightforward corrections would be Catalonia is made up of 4 provinces and you meant to write ‘than’ instead of ‘that’. The other two assertions are not outright wrong but, as you now acknowledge, highly contentious, potentially based on information from highly biased sources and possibly historically inaccurate.

        As far as I know the Basque Country also briefly had its own Parliament in the 1930s. Its form of autonomy is distinct because it collects its own taxes, whereas Catalonia (and all other Spanish regions bar Navarre) do not. Until recently most Catalans would’ve been content to settle for parity with the Basques rather than attempt to build their own sovereign state.

        The trouble with the 1978 constitution is that it’s been interpreted by the courts in Spain as not even contemplating the possibility of a referendum on separation.

        Of course, Basque separatism was more prominent for a while partly because of terrorism… but also because former leader Juan José Ibarretxe took independence seriously. I wouldn’t want to see Catalan secessionists go down that route and lead to the Balkanisation’ – since you mention Yugoslavia – of the Iberian peninsula.

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