Catalan separatists, in uncharted waters, keep the faith

Barcelona (AFP) –


Voters like David Hornos drove separatist parties to success in Catalonia's last election in 2015, giving them an absolute majority of seats in the Spanish region's parliament for the first time.

But even though the Catalan government failed to achieve independence as promised -- and some of its leaders ended up in jail or left the country because of their efforts -- he still plans to vote for a separatist party at the elections set for Thursday.

"I understand that some may feel disappointed but no one said it would be easy," Hornos, 50, a teacher of Spanish to foreigners in Barcelona, told AFP.

"Maybe they should have been more realistic and had more foresight to anticipate the strong reaction from the Spanish government. But I am not going to point the finger at the (separatist) leaders, especially when they are in jail or in exile."

Hornos is not alone in sticking by separatist parties.

Polls put support for Catalonia's three separatist parties at around 45 percent, down just slightly from the 47.8 percent score in the 2015 election.

That would give them 66 to 67 seats in the 135-seat Catalan regional parliament, one short of the absolute majority of 68 seats needed to control the assembly. They won 72 seats in the 2015 election.

Madrid ejected Catalonia's regional government and called new elections after the parliament's October 27 declaration of independence -- a move no country has recognised.

Most of the Catalans who in "good faith believed separatism was possible, continue to believe in it and will take time to react" to the failure of the independence drive, said Joan Botella, dean of politics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

The separatist cause has "two million supporters and they will not be converted overnight; it is very hard for people to admit they were tricked," he said.

- 'Economic disaster' -

Political science professor Oriol Bartomeus agreed, saying that abandoning support for independence after years of campaigning for the cause, going to rallies and collecting signatures for petitions, would be like "committing harakiri".

"If you accept that it was all a lie... that means that everything you did was not worth anything," he said.

Backers of separatist parties have a much rosier view of the state of the Catalan economy in the wake of the separatist crisis, which might help explain their continued support.

Nearly 3,000 companies -- including the largest banks, utilities and insurers -- have moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia to other parts of Spain since the banned independence referendum on October 1, and tourist numbers are down.

But the "majority" of supporters of Catalonia's three main separatist parties feel the region's economic situation is "good", said Jose Pablo Ferrandiz, a sociologist at the Metroscopia polling firm.

By contrast, most voters who back parties that want the region to remain part of Spain feel it is "very bad", Ferrandiz said.

"It seems like they are living in an ideal world and don't want to see that the independence process has been an economic disaster," he said.

- Conflict boosts support -

Analysts said the jailing of the former Catalan government has helped fire up the separatist base.

At rallies, secessionist parties place empty chairs to represent the four separatist leaders who are still behind bars, including Catalonia's former vice president Oriol Junqueras.

And Carles Puigdemont, the ousted Catalan president who fled to Belgium to escape arrest, has said he is being treated "like a paedophile" by the Spanish government.

"People want to support their side in a conflict, and they do that by defending them even though they are not doing what they promised to do," said Eric Guntermann, a political scientist at the University of Montreal who studies nationalist parties in Europe.

This explains why support for independence rose after the October 1 referendum, which was marred by a violent police crackdown against voting, he said.

But Guntermann said he believed that the level of support currently enjoyed by separatist parties in opinion polls "is their ceiling".

"They can't go higher than that."