A postal service employee talks with officials during the postal vote recounting after closing a polling station in the Ninot market in Barcelona during regional elections in Catalonia on February 14, 2021 AFP
After winning more than half of the votes in Sunday's regional election, Catalonia's separatists have strengthened their chances of retaining power, neutralising the gains chalked up by Spain's ruling Socialists.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had been hoping former health minister Salvador Illa, who led the ticket for his ruling Socialists, would win enough votes to end the separatist parties' grasp on power, thereby turning the page on the independence crisis.
Although the Socialists won most votes, equating to 33 of the Catalan parliament's 135 seats, they fell well short of an outright majority of 68, allowing the separatists to form another ruling coalition for this wealthy northeastern region of 7.8 million people.
"If they were hoping to remove the separatists from power, they misread the situation," said Berta Barbet, a political scientist from Barcelona's Autonomous University, describing the aim as "totally unrealistic".
Despite bitter divisions which have rankled since the failed independence bid of 2017, the separatists actually emerged from the election with a stronger hand, increasing their number of parliamentary seats from 70 to 74
Helped by record abstentions which also played into their hands, the pro-independence parties even secured 50 percent of the votes for the first time in a regional election.
But the numbers don't reflect the reality on the ground with a January survey showing 44.5 percent of Catalans in favour of separating from Spain, and 47.7 percent against.
- The same, but different -
Within the separatist camp, the vote reshuffled the deck putting the more moderate ERC ("Republican Left of Catalonia"), which has supported Sanchez's government in the national parliament, ahead of its hardline rival JxC ("Together for Catalonia"), which has a more confrontational approach towards Madrid.
With the ERC taking 33 seats, its candidate Pere Aragones looks set to be the region's chief heading a coalition that would include JxC (32 seats) and the hardline leftwing CUP (9 seats).
In theory another formation could achieve the same numbers comprising ERC, the Socialists and leftwing hardliners Podemos (8 seats), in an echo of the Socialist-Podemos coalition in Madrid. But both ERC and the Socialists have ruled out the idea.
"The most likely scenario is a repetition of the ERC-JxC coalition, with ERC at the head," said Barbet.
"The easiest way of saying it is things will carry on as before but with slight changes," said Ernesto Pascual, professor of political science at the Open University of Catalonia.
Within the separatist camp, the vote gave ERC the edge over JxC which took the lead in the December 2017 vote. Since then, ERC has relinquished support for a unilateral break from Madrid and pushed for dialogue with the Sanchez government.
"We will begin talks today," Aragones said on Monday, ahead of tough negotiations with his potential partners who advocate a confrontational line with Madrid.
- Won't be easy -
"Their relationship isn't great and it will be complicated because they have contradicting aims," Barbet said.
Even though Sanchez's hope of dislodging the separatists from power didn't come off, the outcome is "good news for the Spanish government", said political analyst Josep Ramoneda.
On the one hand, Madrid will have a easier partner in Barcelona, while on the other, the outcome "grants legitimacy to the government's policy" of dialogue, he said.
This will give Sanchez room to tackle the Catalan issue and make gestures such as pardoning nine separatist leaders who were jailed for their role in the 2017 crisis in which the region held a banned referendum and briefly declared independence.
Since the end of January, the prisoners have benefited from a semi-open regime allowing them to work on weekdays and spend weekends at home, privileges which were overturned by Spain's top court late last year.
Despite the willingness on both sides to engage in dialogue, their positions remain far apart and difficult to reconcile, with Aragones already calling for a referendum on self-determination that has been firmly ruled out by Madrid.