Polls open in Catalonia's regional elections

Catalan separatists set to lose majority in Spain’s regional elections as pro-union party picks up seats

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Six years after plunging Spain into its worst political crisis in decades, Catalonia’s separatist parties are in danger of losing their hold on power in the northeastern region after the pro-union Socialist Party scored a historic result in Sunday’s election.

The four pro-independence parties, led by the Together party of former regional president Carles Puigdemont, were set to get a total of 61 seats, according to a near-complete count of the ballots. That is short of the key figure of 68 seats needed for a majority in the chamber.

READ MORE: Catalan separatists reject amnesty bill, highlighting the fragility of Spain’s government

The Socialists led by former health minister Salvador Illa savored their best result in a Catalan election, claiming 42 seats, up from 33 in 2021, when they also barely won the most votes but were unable to form a government. This was the first time the Socialists led a Catalan election in both votes and seats won.

“Catalonia has decided to open a new era,” Illa told his thrilled supporters at his party headquarters. “Catalan voters have decided that the Socialist Party will lead this new era, and it is my intention to become Catalonia’s next president.”

Illa led Spain’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic before Sánchez sent him back to Barcelona to lead his party. The 58-year-old Illa’s calm tone and focus on social issues convinced many voters that it was time to change after years of separatists pressing for severing century-old ties with the rest of Spain.

Sánchez congratulated Illa on the X platform for the “historic result.”

The Socialists will need to earn the backing of other parties to put Illa in charge. Dealmaking in the coming days, maybe weeks, will be key to forming a government. Neither a hung parliament nor a new election is out of the question.

But there is a path for Illa to reach the goal of 68 seats. The Socialists are already in a coalition government in Madrid with the Sumar party, which now has six seats in the Catalan parliament. But the hard part will be wooing over a leftist party from the separatist camp.

Regardless of those negotiations, Illa’s surge should bode well for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the Socialists before European Parliament elections next month.

Separatists have held the regional government in Barcelona since 2012 and had won majorities in four consecutive regional elections. But polling and a national election in July showed that support for secession has shrunk since Puigdemont led an illegal — and futile — breakaway bid in 2017 that led to hundreds of businesses and Catalonia’s major banks leaving the region.

“The candidacy that I led had a good result, we are the only pro-independence force to increase in votes and seats, and we assume the responsibility that entails,” Puigdemont said. “But that is not enough to compensate the losses of the other separatists parties.”

Sánchez’s Socialists have spent major political capital since then in reducing tensions in Catalonia, including pardoning jailed high-profile separatists and pushing through an amnesty for Puigdemont and hundreds more.

The Socialist win “is due to many factors that will have to analyze, but one of those factors were the policies and leadership of the government of Spain and Pedro Sánchez,” Illa said.

The Together party of Puigdemont restored its leadership of the separatist camp with 35 seats, up from 32 three years ago. He fled Spain after the 2017 secession attempt and has run his campaign from southern France on the pledge that he will return home when lawmakers convene to elect a new regional president in the coming weeks.

Puigdemont’s escape from Spain became the stuff of legend among his followers, and a huge source of embarrassment for Spain’s law enforcement. He recently denied during the campaign that he had hidden himself in a car trunk to avoid detection while he slipped across the border during a legal crackdown that landed several of his cohorts in prison until Sánchez’s government pardoned them.

Now, the only way Puigdemont could keep the separatists in government would depend on the far-fetched possibility of a deal with Sánchez to guarantee the separatists’ support of his national government in Madrid in exchange for Illa returning the favor to the separatists in Barcelona.

The Republican Left of Catalonia of sitting regional president Pere Aragonès plummeted to 20 seats from 33. But the leftist separatist party, which has governed in minority during a record drought, could be key to Illa’s hopes, although that would require it to break with the pro-secession bloc.

READ MORE: Barcelona may need water shipped in during worst drought on record in Catalonia, authorities say

The Popular Party, which is the largest party in Spain’s national parliament where it leads the opposition, surged to 15 seats from three.

The far-right, Spanish ultra-nationalist party Vox held its 11 seats, while on the other end of the spectrum, the far-left, pro-secession Cup took four, down from nine.

An upstart pro-secession, far-right party called Catalan Alliance, which rails against unauthorized immigration as well as the Spanish state, will enter the chamber for the first time with two seats.

“We have seen that Catalonia is not immune to the reactionary, far-right wave sweeping Europe,” Aragonés, the outgoing regional president, said.

The crippling drought, not independence, is currently the leading concern of Catalans, according to the most recent survey by Catalonia’s public opinion office.

The opinion office said that 50 percent of Catalans are against independence while 42 percent are for it, meaning support for it has dipped to 2012 levels. When Puigdemont left in 2017, 49 percent favored independence and 43 percent were against.

More than 3.1 million voted, with participation at 57 percent. Potentially thousands of voters had trouble reaching their polling stations when Catalonia’s commuter rail service had to shut down several train lines after what officials said was the robbery of copper cables from a train installation near Barcelona.