Catalonia election: A big win for separatists? Not exactly.

Sunday's regional election in Spain has no legal bearing on Catalans' aspirations for a separate state. But it was billed as an unofficial referendum on the issue. 

Andrea Comas/REUTERS
Catalan President Artur Mas (c.) answers a question next to Oriol Junqueras (l.), leader of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), and Raul Romeva, a former university professor and member of the European Parliament, during a news conference in Barcelona, Spain, September 28, 2015. Separatists on Sunday won a clear majority of seats in Catalonia's parliament in an election that sets the region on a collision course with Spain's central government over independence.

It was billed as a de facto referendum on Catalonia's independence from Spain. But the election for the Catalonian regional legislature Sunday produced a muddled result – and both pro- and anti-independence forces are claiming a win.

Catalonian President Artur Mas claimed victory for the region's independence movement after the "yes" bloc of which his party is part, Junts pel Si, won 62 of 135 parliamentary seats. But his claim of a mandate to pursue Catalonian independence rang hollow for some, as the cumulative pro-independence voters captured only 48 percent.

Moreover, the party that Junts pel Si needs to form a majority of seats in the legislature is a radical fringe group which opposes much of Mr. Mas's platform.

A loud plurality in Catalonia, Spain's industrial heartland, has long sought independence from the central government in Madrid. This is partially due to a sense of Catalonian nationalism, partially due to frustrations over the region giving more in taxes to Spain than it gets in return in services.

Mas has repeatedly pushed for a referendum to decide the issue. But that desire has been frustrated by both the Spanish Constitution's silence on legal mechanisms for independence and the refusal of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government to entertain either an independence referendum or a renegotiation of the relationship between Madrid and Catalonia.

As such, the best legal tool available to Mas and the pro-independence bloc has been to frame regional elections like the one on Sunday as de facto referendums on independence.

But Sunday's results show the ambiguity of such an approach.

With more than 99 percent of the votes counted, Junts pel Si, an alliance of several mainstream pro-independence parties, including Mas's own Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), was the far and away victor in terms of seats won, at 62 of the 135 overall. Together with the 10 seats won by the pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), pro-independence parties control a majority of the regional legislature.

Mas says he is taking the result as a "victory" for independence, reports Spanish daily El Pais. “We will not let up. We have won despite having everything against us, and this gives us enormous strength and great legitimacy to carry this project forward,” he said last night at a rally after results came in.

But while the seat tally favors the pro-independence bloc, the popular vote does not. The combined vote in favor of Junts pel Si and the CUP comes in at only 47.8 percent of the overall tally. The remaining anti-independence parties, led by the second-place Ciudadanos, won the majority with 51.7 percent, prompting headlines like "Independents win the election but lose the referendum" in El Pais and "Catalonia does not want to go" in ABC, a conservative daily, reports the Associated Press.

Ciudadanos leader Ines Arrimadas called on Mas to resign, saying he had lost the independence referendum. “Artur Mas called these elections because he said the majority of Catalans were with him,” Bloomberg quotes her as saying. "Today the majority of us have turned our backs on him."

Mas's pro-independence bloc is claiming victory partially on a technicality, reports El Pais: it is not considering votes cast for Catalunya Sí que es Pot (CSQEP), a leftist coalition that earned almost 9 percent of the popular vote, as "no." CSQEP is against independence for Catalonia, but does support holding a referendum on the issue.

The other major complication for Mas's pro-independence bloc is its reliance on CUP to achieve a parliamentary majority. While CUP agrees with Junts pel Si on independence, it disagrees on practically everything else, writes the Financial Times.

[CUP's] manifesto promises to take Catalonia out of the EU, out of the Eurozone and out of Nato. It supports the nationalisation of key industries and more state intervention in the banking sector. Crucially, it has also made clear that it will not support Artur Mas, the Catalan president, for another term in office. The other pro-independence parties, however, want Mr Mas to continue in his job. The dilemma here is clear for both sides: the pro-independence camp can only claim to have a majority in parliament if Junts pel Si and the CUP are united. And there is, at least for now, no real indication that the CUP´s radical agenda can be reconciled with the conservative base that supports Mr Mas.

Regardless of which side of the independence vote was the winner, "there was at least an obvious loser: the People’s Party [PP] of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy," writes Bloomberg.

Spain's ruling party saw its share of representatives in the regional government shorn to 11, down from 19, in what Bloomberg called "its worst result in 23 years." While the PP was "never going to be a major player in the Catalan elections," said Angel Talavera, an analyst at Oxford Economics in London, "the result is a very bad sign for the general elections."

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