Explainer-Catalonia's independence struggle – what now?

FILE PHOTO: Facing Spanish arrest warrant, Catalan politician campaigns from France

By Joan Faus

BARCELONA (Reuters) - Spain's Catalonia region holds an election on Sunday with big implications for the Socialist-led national government and a pro-independence movement rumbling for a decade.


Support for independence was marginal in the wealthy northeastern region, which speaks its own Catalan language and borders France, until the 2012 eurozone financial crisis that led to widespread job losses.

Unpopular austerity cuts prompted the regional government to ask for more control over its own budget, which the Madrid-based central government rejected.

Under pressure by grassroots separatist groups, the Catalan conservative and nationalist party that governed the region, CiU, changed course and embraced the independence cause. It asked the conservative central government to allow a referendum on independence but that was rejected too.


After several years of massive pro-independence protests and growing friction between Catalonia and Madrid, the breakaway push escalated in 2017.

Catalonia's pro-independence president Carles Puigdemont, backed by the separatist-controlled regional assembly, announced an independence referendum, sending shockwaves across Europe.

About 2.3 million people - around 43% of eligible voters - voted in a referendum not authorised by the courts, defying baton-wielding Spanish policemen. Some 90% voted to break away from Spain, according to the Catalan government. Many of those opposed to independence boycotted the ballot.

Catalan lawmakers voted by majority to recognise the result of the referendum and declared Catalonia independent.

Madrid imposed direct rule in the region, dissolving parliament and dismissing Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium. Nine activists and former Catalan government officials were jailed and sentenced for their roles. In 2021, they were pardoned by Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.


Two Catalan separatist parties have governed the region over the past decade and currently wield an outsized influence over Spanish politics as Sanchez's minority government relies on their votes to pass legislation in national congress.

In return for that support, Sanchez introduced an amnesty bill to expunge the criminal records of separatists involved in the independence bid.

Centre-left and moderate Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) currently controls the Catalan regional government with Pere Aragones as its president.

Junts is a spin-off of CiU created in 2017 by Puigdemont. He has been living in self-imposed exile in Belgium where he serves as a member of the European Parliament and is campaigning for the election from France. He has pledged he will return to Catalonia when Sanchez's amnesty bill, which would annul the arrest warrant he faces, comes into force in late May or June.


Both Aragones and Puigdemont are running as candidates on Sunday and both have said that if they succeed, they will resurrect an independence push including seeking a legal referendum. Sanchez has flatly opposed that.

The Socialists stand to win the most seats, surveys say, and there is a limited chance of ERC and Junts winning enough to form a coalition. However, with surveys showing as many as 40% of voters still undecided, anything is possible.


Support for independence has slipped from its 2017 high after Spain imposed direct rule and since Sanchez has dialled down hostilities by improving dialogue with regional leaders and rowing back criminal prosecutions. The movement has also been marred by infighting among parties.

A survey conducted in February and March by the government-run Catalan Centre for Public Opinion found 42% supported independence compared with 49% in 2017. However, 76% of respondents said they still wanted a referendum.

In last year's national election, that cooling enthusiasm was reflected in the result. ERC representation fell from 13 seats to seven while Junts fell from eight to seven.

(Reporting by Joan Faus, Editing by Aislinn Laing and Andrew Cawthorne)