Spain readies fight to keep Catalonia after vote

Pro-independence parties won a clear majority of seats in Catalonia's parliament in a regional election this weekend, piling the pressure on Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to keep Spain together ahead of a general election in December.

The regional election on Sunday was widely promoted by separatist parties as a de facto referendum on secession from Spain. As the results came in late Sunday night, the main pro-independence alliance and a smaller party notched up 72 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament, according to regional government data, with 77.4 percent voter turnout.

Having won a slim majority of the seats, the pro-separatist coalition -- made up of the secessionist coalition Junts pel Si (JxSI, or "Together for Yes") and the leftwing Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party -- could now work towards declaring independence from Spain within 18 months, as pledged ahead of the vote.


President of Catalonia Artur Mas (C) claimed victory in the regional election in Catalonia Sunday.
David Ramos | Getty Images
President of Catalonia Artur Mas (C) claimed victory in the regional election in Catalonia Sunday.

"Catalans have voted yes to independence," Catalonia's President Artus Mas, who heads the separatist agenda, told a jubilant crowd late on Sunday. "That gives us a great strength and strong legitimacy to keep on with this project," adding, "we have won!"

The result has put the wealthy north-eastern Spanish region on a collision course with Spain's national government, which has vowed to fight any secessionist move.

Troubles ahead

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has described breakaway plans as "a nonsense" and the government has said it would oppose any such move to secede from Spain. Opponents also say that pro-independence parties did not get more than 50 percent of the votes, making any secession from Spain a deeply divisive move. There has been no official government comment on the Catalonian result on Sunday as yet.

Catalonia has a strong sense of identity that is separate to Spain, with its own language, customs and booming regional economy. It is Spain's wealthiest region and accounts for 19 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP) – making it a crucial economic contributor for the national government.

What's more, any independence for one region could prompt more calls for the same in the Basque region in north-west Spain, another region with a strong separatist movement and fractious relationship with Madrid.

The vote will be a blow to Prime Minister Rajoy's premiership and will be an unwelcome distraction just three months ahead of a general election in December.

Not only is his government being shaken by rebels in Catalonia; he is also facing a new enemies in the form of both the anti-establishment, leftwing Podemos party and unionist Cuidanos party, called "the Podemos of the right."

Nicholas Spiro, head of Spiro Sovereign Strategy, said the result "raises more questions than it answered" and made for an uncertain national election later this year.

"It injects more uncertainty into an already volatile and conflict-ridden Spanish political scene in the run-up to a crucial parliamentary election in December," he said in a note Sunday.

Separatist struggle

Rajoy could be comforted by the fact that most analysts believe that the pro-independence coalition working with the CUP in Catalonia could struggle to overcome internal divisions.

"The secessionist parties' strong parliamentary majority is compromised by their failure to win a majority of votes, while tensions between the nationalist Junts pel Si, the main secessionist bloc, and CUP, the far-left secessionist party, are likely to undermine the pro-independence agenda," Spiro said.

Antonio Barroso, senior vice-president at risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence agreed, stating in a note Sunday that "difficult negotiations that could undermine the unity of the pro-independence movement will take place in the coming days."

Ominously for Rajoy, however, Barroso said that if those differences are overcome, the challenge to Rajoy and the headache from Catalonia won't be disappearing any time soon.

"If JxSI and CUP manage to get over their differences regarding Mas' re-election, the Catalan parliament is likely to start adopting symbolic moves towards independence, thus continuing the ongoing game of chicken with Spain's central government."

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt. Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld