Catalonia and Spanish state: million-strong rally brings showdown closer

 

 

By Dick Nichols

 

September 22, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On September 11, Catalonia’s national day (the Diada), between 870,000 and a million-plus came out to show their support for Catalan sovereignty and—for the majority of those present—for Catalan independence from the Spanish state.

 

The fifth annual mass mobilisation for Catalan statehood since 2012, again organised by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and the Catalan cultural association Òmnium Cultural, confirmed that this social movement remains by far the largest in Europe.

 

It continues to pose a threat to the Spanish state and will also become an increasingly critical issue for a European Union that continues to reel under the blows of Brexit, its brutal handling of refugees and economic stagnation in many major regions.

 

The question is: for how long can the present rulers of the EU maintain the convenient fiction that the Catalan national question is simply a Spanish domestic issue when the rulers of Spain persist in denying Catalonia a Scottish-style referendum?

 

Five mobilisations

 

This year’s Diada mobilisation featured a number of firsts.

 

Apart from the 2013 Catalan Way human chain across Catalonia, it was the first not to take place in capital Barcelona alone. Four other provincial centres—Salt, Berga, Lleida and Tarragona—shared the mobilisation. In all of them the demonstration was the biggest ever seen, as hundreds of thousands of independence supporters arrived from surrounding shires to show the flag.

 

The largest mobilisation, in Barcelona, drew 540,000 people (municipal police figure), and cut vertically across the city as a vast sea of people more than filled the two broad avenues assigned to hold the demonstration.

 

In the northern town of Salt, with its 40% migrant population made up of 70 nationalities, between 135,000 (police figure) and 200,000 participants (ANC and Òmnium Cultural figure) overflowed the avenue closed off for the demonstration after 60,000 had previously registered on internet that they would be attending.

 

Participation from the town’s African, Latin American and Asian communities produced a new Diada “décor”: traditional Catalan independence flags (esteladas), human towers (“castles”) and giant puppets came together with Latin American and African dance rhythms in a new mix that local media commentators sympathetically dubbed as “madness”.

 

Banners in the Salt mobilisation reading “independence for Catalonia” in Arabic will no doubt be used by the caretaker Spanish government of the People’s Party (PP) as evidence of the link between “separatism” and “terrorism”.

 

In Lleida, capital of Catalonia’s westernmost province, a huge mobilisation took place on the broad bank of the river Segre, in a space that the organisers had originally divided into ten sections. By the time of the rally, 14 sections had to be opened to hold the overflow crowd. The ANC in Lleida estimated attendance at 120,000. The Lleida municipal police, after first agreeing with the ANC, later put the figure at 30,000. This suspect number was actually 10,000 less than those who had registered their intention to attend!

 

Independent estimates of the Lleida demonstration put attendance at anywhere between 60,000 and 120,000 people, depending on crowd density. The Lleida branch of the left-nationalist People’s Unity List (CUP) will be asking the town council to explain how the municipal police arrived at their shrunken final attendance figure and whether they came under pressure to reassess from the council administration, run by the anti-independence Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

 

In Berga, in central Catalonia, the population multiplied by five when up to 70,000 participants (ANC and local police figures) packed out the town centre so tightly that thousands had to seek relief by retreating into the side streets.

 

In southern coastal Tarragona, where the nationalist vote and sentiment is weaker, between 50,000 (council police estimate) and 110,000 (ANC estimate) came out in a demonstration that also exceeded all predictions. The space assigned to the mobilisation was packed out two hours before starting time.

 

Notable in all demonstrations was the presence of people from outside Catalonia: from within the Spanish state (especially the Basque Country and Galicia), from Catalonia North (in Southern France, including the mayor of Perpignan) and from other European countries without a state (especially Scotland, whose flag is shown in demonstrations here to symbolise the call for a referendum).

 

The opponents of Catalan sovereignty and a Catalan right to self-determination gave very different attendance figures for September 11. The Spanish government representative in Barcelona put attendance at 370,000 while the pro-unionist organisation Catalan Civil Society (SCC) claimed it was only 292,000.

 

Unionist counter-mobilisations on the day drew around 700 people: five hundred at a “people’s breakfast” put on by new right party Citizens (official opposition in the Catalan parliament), 200 to a gathering of the Catalan branch of the People’s Party (PP, caretaker government in the Spanish state) and 23 to a protest of the extreme right.

 

Unlike the PSC, neither Citizens nor the PP even bothered to respect the traditional wreath-laying ceremony that takes place in the morning of September 11 at the statue of Rafael Casanova, who was the leader of the 1714 defence of Barcelona against the besieging troops of the Borbon monarchy.

 

In the evening, around 2000 people took part in the traditional separate Diada mobilisation of the Catalan nationalist left. It was addressed by CUP parliamentary spokesperson Anna Gabriel and ended in a mass “burn-in” of photos of Spanish king Philip.

 

Parallel initiatives

 

One novelty of this Diada was the effort of the left forces that are grouped in what has come to be called the “commons” to build events vindicating a Catalan sovereignty in parallel with the mass mobilisation organised by the ANC and Òmnium Cultural. The “commons” refers to the various convergences of older and newer left forces that have over the past two years led to the victory of Barcelona Together in Barcelona City Council, the arrival of Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP) in the Catalan parliament and the emergence of Together We Can (ECP) as the biggest Catalan presence in the Spanish parliament.

 

The older left forces involved are Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left (IU), and Equo, the all-Spanish environmental party. The newer forces are Podem (Podemos in Catalonia), Constituent Process (whose goal is a “Catalan Republic of the 99%”), Let’s Win Barcelona and other smaller formations. The recognised leaders of “the commons” are Barcelona mayoress Ada Colau and Xavier Domènech, spokesperson for ECP in the Spanish parliament.

 

Not all these forces participated in all three electoral coalitions (Barcelona Together, CSQEP and ECP) and within this broad left milieu stances towards the Catalan independence movement cover a range of positions running from the sympathetic to the hostile.

 

That variety was again on show this Diada, beginning with the announcement by ICV (the largest of the “old left” forces) that it would not be participating in the ANC-Òmnium Cultural mobilisation because it was supposedly exclusive of supporters of Catalan sovereignty who want to maintain a federal or confederal tie with Spain.

 

By contrast Ada Colau said that she saw “more reasons to take part than not” — given the need to affirm Catalan national rights against an increasingly harsh anti-Catalonia offensive from the central Spanish government. (The most serious recent salvo from Madrid is the possible charging of Carme Forcadell, speaker of the Catalan parliament, for refusing to implement a court ruling forbidding a vote on a process for Catalan independence.)

 

Colau, Domènech and other leaders of “the commons” attended the Barcelona mobilisation, but kept themselves away from the pro-independence personalities at the head of it.

 

On the morning of September 11, they also attended an ECP-organised meeting in the working-class town of Sant Boi de Llobregat, in the industrial region to the south of Barcelona. The meeting, called in the name of “A People’s Catalanism”, drew about one thousand people, who heard Doménech outline the ECP approach in these words:

 

It’s not worth just waiting [for a referendum on Catalan independence], but it’s also not worth hurrying either, because we don’t want to set up a crash barrier behind which we get trapped inside road maps [a reference to the “road map” to independence being followed by the Catalan government] … The struggle for the freedom of Catalonia is also the struggle for the freedom of the other peoples of Spain.

 

Sant Boi was also the site, on September 9, of a meeting called by the local branches of the ERC, CUP and Podemos to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the first mass mobilisation for Catalan rights of the post-Franco dictatorship period. It was held there on September 11, 1976 and convened by the then newly-formed Assembly of Catalonia.

 

The appearance on the same platform of Albano Dante Fachin, newly elected secretary of Podem, CUP leader Anna Gabriel and Oriol Junqueras, Catalan treasurer and president of the Republic Left of Catalonia (ERC), set the media rumours flying. Were the CUP and ERC, allied with the conservative nationalist Democratic Party of Catalonia (PDC) in the pro-independence majority bloc in the Catalan parliament, somehow sniffing the possibility of switching to a bloc of the left?

 

The PDC reacted sharply to the Sant Boi commemoration. Formerly Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) — which when governing in Catalonia had a black history of corruption, implementing austerity and doing deals with the PP — the PDC is the majority force in the ruling pro-independence Together For The Yes (JPS) electoral coalition, which also includes the ERC, other smaller forces and prominent unaffiliated supporters of independence.

 

Before the Sant Boi commemoration PDC national coordinator Marta Pascal criticised the exclusion from the event of the PDC (“the middle ground of the pro-sovereignty movement”). She said: “You can glimpse the temptation of another tripartite alliance [of left parties] when we get excluded from an act of historical recognition. Sant Boi belongs to everyone.”

 

Pascal’s reaction revealed the nervousness of the PDC in the face of Catalonia’s left-inclined social majority, expressed most clearly in the electoral victories of Barcelona Together and ECP. In a September 4 interview with the Catalan progressive daily Ara Ada Colau, who as mayoress of Barcelona has also been pressuring the ERC to join the alliance ruling the city, called on both the ERC and the CUP to abandon their bloc with the PDC and form a pro-sovereignty left majority in the Catalan parliament.[1]

 

However, both the CUP and the ERC immediately hosed down expectations that they might be abandoning the pro-independence camp’s road map. Anna Gabriel said at the Sant Boi commemoration itself: “We don’t have any tripartite alliance, or electoral calculations, or political or individual careers, or government formations on our horizon. There is no transformation without the struggle in the streets and without the people standing up for themselves in the workplaces and the neighbourhoods.”

 

Interviewed on radio Jonqueras said: “The first thing we’ll be doing is to build the republic. And we won’t be making an agreement with those who don’t want to do that.” This included Podem, “unless they change their priorities ... which a lot of people would like to see.”

 

A Catalan Republic

 

The slogan for the 2016 Diada was, in Catalan, “a punt”, conveying the ideas “ready to go” and “on the verge”. This reflected another important first for this Diada. It was first Catalan national day mobilisation to take place since the election last September 27 of the pro-independence majority (JPS plus the CUP) in the Catalan parliament and the subsequent formation of a pro-independence Catalan government.

 

The government was formed after over two months of fraught negotiations between JPS and the CUP had ended in the “stepping aside” of former CDC premier Artur Mas and his replacement by present Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont.[2]

 

To register the fact that the movement has now captured government in Catalonia and supports the process towards “disconnection” being advanced by the Puigdemont government, this year’s Diada also featured the presence of “the politicians”.

 

They were led by Puigdemont himself—the first time a Catalan premier has attended what has always portrayed itself as a people’s movement. Puigdemont attended the Salt mobilisation as one more participant, while other government figures attended in the other centres. Parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell, former spokesperson of the ANC, attended in Tarragona.

 

However, now that pro-independence forces rule the Catalan state institutions, exactly where is the movement “ready to go”? What is it now “on the verge” of? The answer given by the Diada organisers is a Catalan Republic, a goal supported by pro-independence forces but also by those who would want to see such a republic in a federal or confederal relationship with Spain.

 

This last group includes a sizeable slice of the voting base of ECP, which emerged as the main Catalan party at the December and June Spanish general elections, supports a Catalan right to decide but opposes the Puigdemont government’s road map to independence as impracticable and possibly supported by only a minority of Catalan society. [3]

 

As part of their effort to broaden the social base of the movement, the ANC and Òmnium Cultural used this Diada to make the concept of a Catalan Republic as seductive as possible, including producing a “cool” T-shirt featuring a large capital R. Interviewed by Catalan nationalist web site Vilaweb on September 7, Òmnium Cultural president Jordi Guixart said:

 

What is the message? Forward to the Catalan Republic! It’s that simple. It’s time to stop adding so many qualifiers—everyone together! … Let’s simplify things, or we’ll get them wrong. Mrs Colau, Mr Junqueras, Mr Puigdemont, are they for the Catalan Republic? Yes. Well, great. September 11 is for all those who want the Catalan Republic.

 

This approach was reflected in the manifesto for the day, which outlined the republic’s five desired defining features. These were described in turn from each centre of mobilisation by five well-known figures from culture, sport and the movement to defend the Ebro River’s ecosystem.

 

They portrayed a country that would be democratic, socially just, cultured, peaceful, accepting of difference, welcoming to refugees and committed to rescuing its environment and restoring the balance between its cities and countryside.

 

Symbolic of the effort to draw together the various sensibilities in favour of a Catalan Republic was the choice of 87-year old film producer and communist Pere Portabella, founder of the Assembly for Catalonia and organiser of the 1976 Sant Boi demonstration, to read the Barcelona part of the manifesto.

 

ANC president Jordi Sánchez ended the day by telling the mobilisation: “We want to win the republic, and we want to win it on the basis of unity.”

 

Towards showdown

 

The day after the Diada, the mainstream Spanish media of all stripes remarked that this outpouring was smaller than its four predecessors (“The Diada deflates” said the most pro-PP paper, La Razón). However, the core political impact of this fifth million-strong demonstration of the Catalan desire for sovereignty was to be seen in the most common comment of the participants—the people have done their job and now it is time for Catalonia’s political leaders to bring “the process” to a successful conclusion.

 

The Spanish establishment knows this full well and, while its loyal media spin self-interested tales of movement decline, the Spanish state powers-that-be are under no illusion that the Catalan national threat will become manageable through a process of slowly rising demoralisation.

 

Hence the 2016 Diada took place in the face of rising aggression from the Spanish state and the PP caretaker government. Besides the possible charging of Catalan parliament speaker Forcadell, the latest shellfire from “Madrid” has included rejection by the Spanish interior ministry of the name “Catalan Democratic Party” on the grounds that the new party advocates Catalan independence[3]; refusal for the first time to allow the CDC-PDC to form a parliamentary group in the Spanish parliament; and increasing red-baiting of the Puigdemont government as being hostage to the CUP.

 

These attacks follow on from the rejection of the call by former premier Mas and three former Catalan government ministers for the dropping of charges against them. The charges regard their alleged role in allowing the November 9, 2014 consultation of public opinion on statehood and independence to go ahead in the face of a court ban.

 

The attacks also follow on the revelation of a conspiracy between the acting Spanish interior minister Jorge Fernández Díaz and the former head of the Catalan anti-fraud agency to get compromising financial information on the leaders of the PDS and ERC.

 

Other recent moments in the dirty war have been: the withdrawal by the Spanish foreign ministry of the authorisation of pro-independence activist Xavier Vinyals to act as Latvian honorary consul in Barcelona; the revelation in the September 18 edition of Catalan daily Ara that the Spanish central bank successfully pressured the country’s six largest private banks to issue a joint declaration against Catalan independence; and this September 10 statement from acting foreign minister José García-Margallo:

 

[The Catalan independence challenge] is the biggest, the most serious problem facing Spain. You can get out of a crisis, you can get over a terrorist attack, but the dissolution of Spain is absolutely irreversible, absolutely unimaginable.

 

Within Catalonia, Inés Arrimadas, parliamentary leader of Citizens, affirmed in a radio interview on September 13 that her party would not respect the result of elections that led to the creation of a Catalan republic.

 

These latest salvos came after the CUP indicated that it would vote in favour of a September 28 motion of confidence in the Puigdemont government. This motion was brought on by the CUP’s earlier refusal to support the government’s 2016 budget. The CUP is still negotiating over the budget, regarded by the government as absolutely necessary for laying the financial basis of “disconnection”.

 

However, its decision, announced by Anna Gabriel on September 5, would seem to end any possibility of early elections in Catalonia and thus guarantee that the Catalan and Spanish governments are headed for showdown. Moreover, this engagement will take place when nine months has passed without the formation of a Spanish government, and with the possibility of third general elections in Spain in December.

 

As both sides manoeuvre for advantage it is still far from clear on what battleground the final clash with the Spanish state will take place. For its part, the Catalan administration is pondering whether it might not be worth formally asking its Spanish counterpart — for the eighteenth and last time — for a Scottish-style referendum. It would make this appeal as publicly and dramatically as possible, and on an international scale. The goal would be to put the PP on the spot and make it very difficult for any self-styled democrat—in Catalonia, Spain, Europe and internationally—to then ignore the results of a unilateral Catalan referendum in the event of almost certain rejection of a negotiated process by Madrid.

 

(On September 12, the acting Spanish attorney-general, Rafael Catalá, again stated the PP position: “It will never be possible, under the existing constitution, for a part to decide what it wants. We all decide together. Puigdemont has no power to do what he’s considering: we are all bound by the rules of the game.”)

 

A unilateral independence referendum is not part of the present “road map”, which envisages a participatory process of developing a draft Catalan constitution, a referendum on the constitutional draft and constituent elections. However, in a September 12 radio interview the Catalan premier indicated that he had not discarded the possibility of a unilateral referendum, provided that it could take place “with guarantees, is binding, and passes all the stress tests that a mechanism of these characteristics demands”.

 

The debate on how to complete the process is now running hot in the pro-independence camp, with the CUP and, to a lesser degree, ERC inclined towards a unilateral independence referendum instead of the originally agreed road map. The PDC is more cautious, having regard for “international standards”. On September 14, vice-premier Neus Munté said:

 

The process will finish at the ballot box. By next summer we shall have set up the necessary state structures. The instrument that brings the road map to a close will be that which offers most guarantees, that which is most secure and clarifying.

 

The Puigdemont government’s precise tactics will be explained at the confidence motion debate in the Catalan parliament on September 28.

 

The ‘commons’ and the ‘process’

 

The determination within the pro-independence camp, whatever its internal differences, to press ahead with the independence process — most critically the decision of the CUP to underpin the stability of the Puigdemont government — now places a critical test of orientation before the broad pro-sovereignty left that is the “commons”.

 

The CUP, which has for a year been divided down the middle over the terms on which it should support the JPS government, seems for the time being to have solved the conflict between its “national” and “social” wings with the election of a new consensus secretariat. The formation of the new secretariat was followed by the decision to vote confidence in the Puigdemont government on September 28.

 

That decision could well have been influenced by a July Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies poll which showed the CUP losing up to four of its ten seats in the Catalan parliament and Anna Gabriel as Catalonia’s least popular political leader. The poll also indicated a doubling in support for CSQEP and the potential loss of the pro-independence parliamentary majority (presently 72 in the 135-seat parliament).

 

The CUP’s decision not to risk taking Catalonia to an early election and the coming conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish establishment now puts a difficult question straight to the “commons”: Is it a better outcome for the left—in Catalonia and the Spanish state—to have an independent Catalonia in which the nationalist right of the PDC may still maintain hegemony or should it withhold support from the independence process for as long as the PDC remains hegemonic within it and/or until the left advances in the rest of the Spanish state and removes the PP from power in Madrid?

 

To date the orientation of the various currents within the “commons” has, with nuances, been to call for the effective displacement of the PDC from the centre of the process and for its reconstitution on a left axis that does not just cover the national question but, in the slogan of ICV, “decides everything”.

 

This point was common to all left tendencies Diada declarations. Three examples:

 

Communists of Catalonia (main affiliate of EUiA):

 

The forces that have so far headed up the vindication of Catalan sovereignty have failed to give effective structure to the proposal of a break from the [Spanish] State. That’s so because these forces have conceived the break exclusively in national and institutional terms, that is, in secessionist terms that they know are in the minority… Nothing can be done until the Process is completed, but the Process can’t be completed if nothing is done in a different way… the Process can only continue in a satisfactory way if it becomes a Constituent Process.

 

Global Revolt, the Catalan sister organisation of the Anticapitalists current in Podemos:

 

The main strategic challenge is to articulate a constituent alliance that brings together pro-independence forces, and supporters of the right to decide and of a break with the Regime. A constituent alliance with these characteristics would not only form a very broad social majority and isolate the PP, Citizens and the PSC, it would also allow for a change in alliances inside Catalonia and the displacement of the PDC from the centre of gravity of Catalan politics.

 

Xàvier Domènech (ECP) in the September 14 issue of La Vanguardia:

 

Giving concrete form to a proposal on the national question starts from the certainty that we have to build Catalonia, not in relation to an horizon the reaching of which seems to require the subordination of everything else, but from working out concrete, really all-encompassing, alternatives. The here and now rather than the arrival of a future D-Day which consigns us to a time of change-free waiting. The option here is to build the country on the basis of a very broad pro-sovereignty majority, one that wants to talk about all issues of sovereignty and include the national right to decide in this framework … It’s a question of building so as to be able to decide, not deciding so as to be able to build.

 

The strategic problem this orientation now faces is that key parts of the social and political majority it requires (represented by the CUP and ERC) are refusing to break with the PDC. They see a better chance of reaching social and environmental justice goals through driving the struggle for Catalan independence to its conclusion and injecting these goals into the process of developing the constitution of an independent Catalan state.

 

The CUP, for example, is launching on October 15 a movement to begin creating a “people’s constitution for Catalonia”. According to national secretariat member Quim Arrufat, the October event “will be preparation by part of the pro-independence left and the people’s movements of the content of the constituent process that we hope takes place in this country.”

 

The CUP also doubtless thinks that future elections in an independent Catalonia will reflect the country’s broadly left social majority, and that this will put the PDC in its proper place after playing its role in helping win independence.

 

The most immediate test of line for the “commons” will come at the September 28 motion confidence in the Puigdemont government. How will CSQEP deputies vote? In the vote last November on the road map to Catalan independence they voted against, putting themselves in the company of the PP, Citizens and the PSC and experiencing internal tensions when Podem MP Joan Giner suggested that abstention would be a better course.

 

At the time of finishing this article similar tensions seem to be again looming in the CSQEP caucus, reflecting differences between ICV and Podem over their orientation towards the Puigdemont administration and the independence movement. However, the possibility of CSQEP changing its position even to one of support for the government is not excluded, because its parliamentary leader Lluis Rabell has said that its parliamentarians should give support to the Puigdemont government on two conditions: if it pledges to ask Madrid for a Scottish-style referendum and if its budget can be satisfactorily amended.

 

Meanwhile, for socialists, progressives and democrats outside of Catalonia the job is much less tricky than locating—day after day, battle after battle—the best tactic in the jungle that is Catalan and Spanish politics. It is simply to build support for Catalonia’s right to decide its future as a nation. A victory in that battle would be a victory for democratic rights everywhere—beginning with “democratic” Europe.

 

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article has appeared on its web site.

 

Notes

 

[1] The most complete expression of the orientation of Barcelona Together is to be found in this article by deputy-mayor Gerard Pisarello http://www.elcritic.cat/blogs/sentitcritic/2016/08/09/els-comuns-el-processisme-i-la-conquesta-de-noves-sobiranies/

 

[2] For a snapshot of internal CUP politics and its role in the resignation of Artur Mas see http://links.org.au/node/4600.

 

[3] For the results of the Catalan Centre of Opinion Studies latest investiagtion (in English) go to http://ceo.gencat.cat/ceop/AppJava/loadFile?fileId=24518&fileType=1

 

[4] The irony here is that the PDC’s predecessor, the CDC, voted in favour of the legislation enabling this attack when it was adopted in 2002 in order to outlaw the Basque left-nationalist party Batasuna.

 

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