BARCELONA—The victory by separatists in Catalonia will embolden pro-independence groups to continue their push for secession from Spain, prolonging the country’s political crisis and pressuring the Rajoy government to find a way to avert another showdown with the restive region.
In a vote for Catalonia’s regional assembly, pro-independence parties won a majority of seats, taking 70 out of 135. “There were more than two million votes in favor of independence,”
the former head of the region said Friday morning. “This is not a fantasy.”
Spanish stocks were lower in Friday trading, while the euro slipped against the dollar in a sign of nervousness among investors over the fallout. Two Spanish banks with deep roots in Catalonia, CaixaBank SA and Banco de Sabadell SA were among Europe’s worst-performing shares, down 3.6% and 2.9%, respectively.
In a research note, Moody’s Investors Service wrote that uncertainty over how the Catalan crisis will evolve will damage business confidence.
The results were a setback for Spanish Prime Minister
who bet that months of social and economic turmoil would drive more Catalans to rebuff the independence movement.
“Those of us who wanted change didn’t win enough seats,” he said in televised remarks Friday.
Still, the premier said the elections were an opportunity to reset relations between Madrid and Catalonia—if the separatists moderate their demands. “I am confident that a new phase is starting, based on dialogue and not confrontation,” Mr. Rajoy said.
The victory means the turbulence is unlikely to recede for some time. The crisis erupted when secessionists staged an illegal referendum on Oct. 1, in which officials in the region say Catalans overwhelmingly supported secession. Later that month, the pro-independence government in Catalonia made a unilateral declaration of independence.
In response, Mr. Rajoy imposed direct rule on Catalonia and sacked its government, including Mr. Puigdemont. Mr. Puigdemont fled to Belgium, where he remains, and faces likely arrest should he return to Spain.
Despite Thursday’s victory, the separatist movement faces hurdles to form a government and the vote strengthened the hand of more moderate elements. That makes it unlikely they will resume their pursuit of unilateral independence.
Separatist leaders could instead seek to negotiate secession with Madrid, possibly through a legal referendum on independence that has Madrid’s blessing—a tall order given fierce resistance by Mr. Rajoy to such an option.
Mr. Puigdemont’s party and the other major separatist party had already toned down their calls for an independent Catalan republic before the vote, spooked by the negative reaction by the region’s business community and disappointed by the international community’s repudiation of their push. Those two parties together won 66 of the 70 seats won by pro-independence bloc.
A third, hardline secessionist party—the Popular Unity Candidacy, known as the CUP—which had doubled down on its call for a unilateral break during the electoral campaign, lost nearly half its voters compared to the most recent local elections in 2015.
“CUP is in a weaker position,” said
a Eurasia Group analyst. That gives it less leverage to compel the other separatist parties to resume their direct confrontation with Madrid.
Still, Mr. Puigdemont and other separatist leaders will need the CUP’s support or abstention to govern. And the radical party is unlikely to make it easy, raising the possibility of weeks of negotiations or even the threat of a second round of elections if this bid fails.
Meanwhile, for pro-union politicians, the strong showing in Catalonia of Ciudadanos, a party that fiercely opposes independence, and the hardening of opinion against Catalan secession elsewhere in Spain validates the hard line that Mr. Rajoy and other pro-union leaders took. In his remarks Friday, he warned the separatists against seeking unilateral independence again.
The fact that Mr. Rajoy deployed direct rule in Catalonia—the first-ever time such powers have been invoked—will hang over the secessionists as they decide their next move. But Mr. Rajoy could come under pressure to find a way to appease the separatists to avert a renewed drive for independence.
Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party didn’t reap the benefits of his tough stance in Catalonia. His party’s support plummeted to three seats from 11 in 2015, as voters appeared to have abandoned the Popular Party for Ciudadanos.
One option for Mr. Rajoy is to open talks on reworking the agreement that governs the sharing of tax revenue between Madrid and Spain’s 17 regions, a reform that economists and lawmakers have long called for. That would address a long-standing grievance by Catalans that they contribute more in tax revenue than they receive.
Write to Jeannette Neumann at email@example.com