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Catalonia: Premier falls on sword to allow pro-independence government to form
Artur Mas announced he would be stepping down from the role of premier of Catalonia on January 9 in order to help pave the way for the formation of the region's first pro-independence government
By Dick Nichols
January 14, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On January 9, the front-page headline of La Vanguardia, Catalonia's establishment daily read: “Together For Yes and the CUP exhaust options for agreement — failure of negotiations opens the way for elections on March 6.”
Talks within the pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament — composed of the mainstream Together For Yes coalition and the anti-capitalist People's Unity Candidacies-Constituent Call (CUP-CC) — had finally collapsed after over three months of meetings. This majority had emerged from Catalonia's September 27 “plebiscitary” elections, called as a substitute for the Scottish-style referendum that has always been refused by Spain's major parties, the ruling People's Party (PP) and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).
Despite the last-minute intervention of the three mass organisations of Catalan nationalism — the Catalan National Congress (ANC), the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) and the movement for Catalan culture Omnium Cultural—the CUP-CC was still refusing to accept acting premier Artur Mas as head of Catalonia's first pro-independence government.
For Mas to be invested, at least two of the CUP-CC's ten deputies would have had to join the 62 deputies of the majority Together for Yes coalition, giving the pro-independence camp a 64-63 majority in the third and final investiture ballot. Within the CUP-CC many, including its prominent former MP David Fernández, supported this course of action. However, the CUP-CC majority was against any support for Mas, the long time leader of the conservative nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC).
The CDC, Catalonia's main ruling party since the end of the Franco dictatorship, has been surrounded with the stench of corruption for over a decade, with former leader and six-time premier Jordi Pujol presently facing a barrage of tax-evasion charges and other CDC luminaries up on counts of organising kickbacks to the party from winners of government contracts.
The CUP-CC even rejected a proposal that Mas be installed as premier for a two- to three-month period, with open primaries or a participatory process then held to definitively decide the premiership. For the left nationalists, that process was fine so long as Mas could not be a candidate.
For his part, Mas said (in a December 29 Catalonia Radio interview) that “the CUP-CC is strong, but not strong enough to change a premier” and (in a January 5 press conference) that “the premiership is not a fish auction”.
But then, on the afternoon of January 9, came the news that Mas would “take a step sideways” to allow a government to be formed with CUP-CC support. With opinion polls showing that an early election would at best see stagnation of the pro-independence vote and within it the overtaking of the CDC by the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the proud and stubborn Catalan premier decided that falling on his sword was his least evil option.
On January 10, the Catalan parliament invested Charles Puigdemont, CDC mayor of the regional capital Girona and Mas's choice as his replacement, to be the premier of a Together For Yes government. The vote was 70 in favour (Together For Yes plus eight CUP-CC), to 63 against — the social-democratic Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the conservative People's Party (PP), the new-right Citizens and the left-wing Catalonia, Yes We Can (CSQEP).
Two CUP-CC deputies abstained, as testimony to the anti-capitalist organisation's “healthy and necessary” internal differences, while CSQEP leader Lluis Rabell described the radical coalition's opposition as “left” in order to distinguish it from the other forces opposing investiture: “Our 'No' is a hand held out to progressive forces to build a grand alliance for change.”
Earlier in the day, CUP-CC leader and MP Benet Salellas had hailed the result as vindication of the anti-capitalist organisation's refusal to accept Mas a premier. “We have stuck Artur Mas in the dustbin of history”, were his words after the CUP-CC's political council voted 44-9 with seven abstentions in favour of the agreement with Together For Yes that allowed the investiture of Puigdemont.
However, the deal struck with Together For Yes required the CUP-CC to make three specific commitments: to vote for the candidate for premier “whom the present premier proposes”; to guarantee the incorporation of two CUP-CC deputies in the Together For Yes parliamentary caucus on a stable basis; and “in no case to vote in the same way as the parliamentary groups opposed to the process or the right to decide” if that action were to put the stability of the government at risk. In effect, this agreement restricts the CUP-CC parliamentary caucus to support or abstention if the other groups vote together against Together For Yes.
The agreement also included the following self-criticism from the anti-capitalist organisation:
The January 10 CUP-CC political council also decided that two of its deputies — one from either side of the debate over Mas's possible investiture that has wracked the organisation — would be replaced by substitutes. At the same time, Antonio Baños, the CUP-CC's lead candidate on September 27, resigned from parliament: the journalist had favoured investing Mas as premier on the basis of progress made in the negotiations on the political program of the incoming government.
Behind Mas's abdication
Understanding how Mas — to the outside world the Alex Salmond of the Catalan independence struggle — came to be replaced as Catalan premier by a mayor who was only number three on the Together For Yes ticket for Girona province — starts with the ambiguous outcome of the September 27 “plebiscitary” election. At it, the pro-independence forces won a 72-63 seat majority with 47.8% of the vote, a result made possible by the gerrymandered Catalan electoral system, which gives some regional votes over twice the value of a vote in the Barcelona area.
For both Together For Yes and the CUP-CC this result meant that an incoming pro-independence government could start the process of “disconnection” from the Spanish state, but that this could only be completed through a Catalan constitutional process that would need to end in majority support for the draft constitution developed.
For the rest of the parties — including CSQEP, grouping together Initiative for Catalonia, Podemos, the United and Alternative Left and all-Spanish green party Equo — the “plebiscitary” election had been lost by the pro-independence forces: an incoming Together For Yes government had no mandate to start its journey towards an independent Catalan republic.
On November 9, the first anniversary of the 2014 “illegal” consultation of Catalan public opinion carried out by the Mas government, the Catalan parliament adopted a resolution presented by Together For Yes and the CUP-CC which outlined the steps to be taken along the path of “democratic separation from the Spanish state” — including a pledge to ignore the rulings of Spanish courts. At the same time, discussions between Together For Yes and the CUP-CC around a program for government that the CUP could support got under way at three thematic negotiation tables, covering an emergency social welfare program, building the constituent process and organising the break from the Spanish state.
However, as these negotiations were coming to an end the results for Catalonia of the December 20 Spanish elections revealed a big fall in the vote for the pro-independence parties. Between them Democracy and Liberty (DiL, a right-nationalist alliance based around the CDC) and the ERC scored just 31.16%, compared to 39.54% for Together For Yes on September 27 — 456,000 voters had left the mainstream nationalist fold.
Most of them had gone to the people's unity alliance Together We Can (24.74%), which attracted 561,000 more votes than its approximate counterpart CSQEP had managed in the Catalan regional poll. Together We Can is now the leading Catalan force in in the Spanish parliament with 12 of Catalonia's 47 seats, as against 18 between the three unionist parties (PP, PSC and Citizens) and 17 between the two pro-independence forces (ERC and DiL).
(The CUP-CC did not participate in this “Spanish election”, and its 330,000 votes on September 27 would have been dispersed between Together We Can, ERC and abstention.)
The CUP-CC debate
This result increased the pressure within the independence camp for a solution, with an intensifying campaign by the Catalan nationalist media for the CUP-CC to drop its veto of Mas. The CUP-CC, which had already reaffirmed this position at a November 30 mass assembly, decided to take the decision to another mass assembly of its members, active supporters and affiliate organisations on December 27.
That gathering ended in an extraordinary 1515-all tie, which saw the CUP-CC divide between those for whom critical support to a Together For Yes government was indispensable if the independence struggle was to advance, and those for whom the independence movement could not advance while Mas remained at its head.
This latter bloc contained two sub-blocs: those for whom the key problem was Mas as symbol of continuity with everything that has been rotten in the state of Catalonia (“Pujolism”) and those for whom the independence struggle could not advance under any sort of CDC hegemony, no matter how purified of Pujolist filth.
The tied vote of the CUP-CC's mass assembly meant that the final decision had to be taken by a January 3 joint meeting of the CUP political council, composed of 57 representatives from its 13 territorial assemblies, and the Constituent Call's Parliamentary Action Group, representing its eleven affiliate organisations This body voted 36-30 with one abstention to uphold the CUP-CC veto of Mas, with the vote of the CUP political council 29-27 and that of the CC's Parliamentary Action Group 7 to 3 with one abstention.
The result sparked a storm of protest within the broad independence movement, apologies to constituents from a number of CUP mayors and councillors, and the resignation of Antonio Baños as lead MP. In his resignation letter Baños said that he felt unable to defend the position adopted, writing: “Having achieved the pro-independence majority on September 27, my understanding was that the explicit mandate of the country was for us to start the break from the Spanish state without delays or doubts. That's why I found myself in the ranks of those supporting acceptance of the proposed agreement with Together For Yes and of voting to invest its candidate.”
In a January 5 radio interview Baños said: “There's no social revolution or transformation without independence. It wasn't a question of investing Mas or not, but of building the [Catalan] republic and in that Mas was an element to be valued, but not the element.”
The following comment by Robert Sabater, the CUP mayor of country town Vildamat and a supporter of lifting the veto on Mas, gives a feel for the intensity of the CUP-CC's internal debate and impact of its January 3 decision:
In a January 8 statement, In Struggle, which is aligned internationally with the UK Socialist Workers Party, reminded Sabater — whose comment was used in a red-baiting campaign by some pro-independence media — that the CUP political council itself had voted in favour of maintaining the veto of Mas.
Mas's last days
With its January 3 decision the CUP-CC increased the pressure on Together For Yes to come forward with a replacement candidate. The premier in turn sought to bring the ERC into his acting government and get a commitment from the ERC that in case of an early election there would be a re-edition of Together For Yes (with ERC and CDC standing together).
The ERC leadership, mindful of having finally beaten the CDC in the December 20 Spanish elections, rejected that invitation and redoubled its exhortations for the CUP-CC and the CDC to “save the process”. In this way the ERC was increasing the pressure on Mas to step aside even as they formally continued to support him. However, Joan Tardà, the ERC's lead MP in the Spanish parliament also tweeted that “since the CUP-CC hasn't been able to solve the puzzle, in the name of patriotism let everyone do whatever is needed to avoid new elections.”
It was at this point, facing the January 12 deadline for investing the government and the possibility that the now depressed independence process would end in demoralisation and defeat at an early poll (and — very importantly for the CDC — that it would be out of power), that various Together For Yes and CDC figures put it to Mas that the least evil course would be for him to step aside.
This the premier did, but only after securing the greatest possible gains in exchange for his abdication. These were that he appoint his successor and that the CUP-CC guarantee the stability of the transition government and participate in the Together For Yes parliamentary caucus.
Mas also ensured that his close collaborator and former cabinet secretary Jordi Baiget got the position of business minister in the incoming cabinet, thus keeping government links with the Catalan commercial circles in the hands of the CDC, even as ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, the incoming deputy premier, becomes the super-minister for economy and finance.
Mas also made it clear that he would not be leaving politics and would keep open the possibility of returning to a leadership role if needed. At the same time he would be available to help the independence process in whatever way possible and to dedicate himself most to rebuilding the CDC.
For the outgoing premier, this last task is probably the most urgent — to reorganise and reconsolidate the shrinking political space of the right in a country that is — if opinion polls are to be trusted — the most left-leaning in Europe. (For example, in the Catalan government's December Centre of Opinion Studies poll, 62% of those interviewed identified as either centre-left, left or extreme left.)
Mas's resignation and the investiture of Puigdemont set off chain reactions in Catalan and Spanish politics, beginning within the Catalan and all-Spanish left.
Inside the CUP-CC, the resignation opened up the differences between those who were satisfied with having decapitated Mas and those opposed to any deal that left Together For Yes, with its CDC majority, at the helm of the independence process.
The most outspoken opponents of any deal with Together For Yes were Constituent Call affiliates Internationalist Struggle and Red Current. In a January 9 leaflet calling for the deal to be rejected and put to another mass assembly, Internationalist Struggle damned the agreement as “a political kidnapping of the CUP-CC”, while the commitment that two CUP-CC deputies would vote with the Together For Yes caucus was “a scam against everyone who voted for us”. The CUP-CC self-criticism was “a negation of our mass assemblies and of the programmatic basis of the CUP-CC”.
For the Red Current the deal involved acceptance of a €300 million social emergency plan that was a “parody” and “brings into question the CUP-CC's character as an anti-capitalist and anti-systemic force.”
However, in an implicit criticism of these condemnations In Struggle member Diego Garrido wrote on January 11: “While this apparent kidnapping was already enough reason not to sign the agreement and I believe that another formulation could have been sought, the representatives of the CUP-CC have made it very clear that this commitment only applies to the questions of the democratic break with the Spanish state, the constituent process and the emergency social plan, which are the pillars upon which the pro-independence process is unambiguously understood from the left.”
Free Land, the CUP-CC current that had always supported tolerating Mas as premier if this were the price of advance towards independence, greeted the final arrangement with this comment: “Analysing the points of consensus now achieved, this agreement could probably have been reached before, provided that a more politically capable negotiating effort — giving priority to content over personalities and policies for real change over symbolism — had been followed by both sides.”
Endavant (Socialist Organisation of National Liberation), a revolutionary left-nationalist current within the CUP-CC and among the most determined supporters of maintaining the veto of Mas, abstained in the January 10 vote on the CUP political council and CC Parliamentary Action Group, a step back from the position expressed in its December document “The present institutional situation in Catalonia and the options for a breakthrough to independence”. This said: “We propose a 'No' to the investiture of Artur Mas, and a 'No' to the CDC having exclusive control of the levers of the [independence] process.”
For the Catalan left that is not pro-independence but which supports a Catalan right of self-determination, the agreement between Together For Yes and the CUP-CC was everything from a disappointment to a betrayal. CSQEP leader Lluis Rabell, who had welcomed the “consistency” of the CUP-CC's January 3 vote, described the January 9 agreement as “humiliating for the CUP itself”, adding that “the path before us is simply a deception aimed at gaining time to allow a reset of the CDC, a party doomed to electoral failure.”
Podemos leader and MP Iñigo Errejón said that the investiture of Puigdemont “strengthened the possibility of a PP-PSOE pact” at the level of the Spanish state and was “a step backwards compared to [the results of] December 20”. Barcelona mayoress Ada Colau said: “So much for the ballot box. What with the CDC's electoral decline and the victory of Together We Can in the general elections, Mas has now had a panic attack at the thought of new elections.”
For Global Revolt, the Catalan sister organisation of the all-Spanish Anticapitalists which is active in Podemos, the agreement was “not good news” because “Mas's temporary retreat makes this agreement neither a political nor a symbolic victory, does not weaken him politically in a decisive way and does not open any crisis of leadership in the CDC.”
For Constituent Process, the movement “for a Catalan Republic of the 99%” initiated by nun Teresa Forcades and economist Arcadi Oliveres, “the agreement is not satisfactory and we are troubled by the possible consequences of the CUP's undertaking to guarantee parliamentary stability.”
Roots of the CUP-CC's internal conflict
How to understand the furious debate within the CUP-CC over whether to invest Mas or not? Firstly, it is the result of the struggle between two potentially hegemonic social and political currents that are fighting over the political space created since the onset of the economic crisis and the surge in independence sentiment began to undermine the previous Catalan status quo.
The first current groups social and political actors under the banner of Catalan independence and the second under the banner of a radical institutional transformation in Catalonia as part of a parallel transformation across the whole Spanish state — one embracing recognition of the right of self-determination of the nations that compose it.
In 2015, the political struggle between these two broad currents ended two-all, after swinging first one way, then the other. In May, the victory of Barcelona Together in the city's council election marked the emergence in an important political institution of a movement for political change fuelled by grassroots resistance to the social crisis and paralleled by similar movements in other major cities in the Spanish state.
It also shocked the CDC and Artur Mas into making the concessions needed to bring about the greatest possible unity in the independence movement (including demoting Mas himself to fourth on the ticket for Barcelona). The result of that effort was Together For Yes, grouping together not just CDC and the ERC, but the pro-independence wing of the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC, the CDC's former partner in the ruling Convergence and Union federation) and dissident pro-independence PSC and ICV members (notably Raul Romeva, the ticket's lead candidate).
The success of Together For Yes on September 27 went with the failure of CQSEP, and seemed to give the upper hand to the pro-independence forces. However, with negotiations with the CUP-CC going nowhere and with the Together We Can victory in the December 20 Spanish elections, another reversal took place, putting the pro-independence forces once again on the defensive.
Within the CUP-CC this turn of the tide intensified strategic differences and tensions. At one extreme, the Together We Can victory on December 20 was greeted as an opportunity — to swing the independence movement to the left by looking to create a Together We Can-CUP-ERC alliance (along the lines of the coalition ruling the industrial city of Badalona), and in this way marginalising the embattled CDC.
At the other, the victory of Together We Can was felt as a threat. After the CUP-CC's rejection of Mas on January 3, forces like Free Land stated that it would “not accept any proposal that implies diluting the pro-independence content of the CUP”, while Baños stated on January 5 that “we cannot wait until [Podemos] leader Pablo Iglesias offers us a referendum in which he has already said he will defend the No [to independence] position...we cannot wait until they give us permission to vote.”
With the stakes in the fight rising, each side within the CUP also got support from their potential allies outside. For example, the pro-independence caucus in ICV tweeted: “Respect for the CUP's decision: a radically democratic and transparent process of deliberation and a decision in line with its election undertaking.”
However, on the pro-independence side, an important figure like former ANC leader and speaker of parliament Carme Forcadell tweeted that “I always thought that in the end the CUP would help to make the democratic mandate of September 27 a reality. It hasn't turned out that way. I was wrong. And how!”
Thus, the determination not to be seen in any way to be apologists for Mas, combined with understandably strong sentiments of resentment and distrust towards CDC as fickle latecomers to the independence cause, made forces like Endavant particularly unyielding.
This stance clashed with the equally obdurate sentiment of those who felt the CUP-CC's intransigence was undermining the future of the independence movement itself. For example, a January 6 declaration of Free Land described the CUP-CC's January 3 decision as “endangering the accumulation of forces won by the independence movement up to September 27”.
Given the victory of the “No to Mas” forces in this contest, the acting premier's decision to remove himself as focal point of conflict was unavoidable if the independence movement was to recover the initiative.
So was Mas's departure a victory for the CUP-CC and for the left within the independence movement? It is hard to draw that conclusion, because none of the progressive changes that will accompany the installation of the Puigdemont government were in any way dependent on the resignation of the former premier. All of them would have been achieved if Mas had remained.
This applies to the entire content of the “Proposed agreement towards independence”, which was developed through negotiations between Together For Yes and the CUP-CC on how to implement the November 9 declaration outlining Catalonia's road map to independence, its emergency social rescue plan and the participatory citizens' process for developing its draft constitution.
Moreover, the CUP-CC's apparent success in “putting Mas in the dustbin of history” not only came at the expense of the morale of the independence movement, but at the expense of the CUP-CC itself. It is sworn to support the government whenever it faces a censure motion from the other parliamentary parties, and has been forced to issue a self-criticism and replace two of its MPs as a ritual sign of contrition.
Nor, in removing Mas, has the CUP-CC significantly weakened CDC hegemony within the independence camp, for the simply reason that at least 600,000 Catalan voters still continue to identify with that conservative force, despite its steadily losing support to its left over the past five years of national ferment. Having had one head cut off, the CDC dragon can still readily grow a replacement.
Indeed, given this reality, and should Puigdemont stumble, it is not excluded — though not likely — that Mas himself could come climbing out of the dustbin of history, especially since he has acquired a lot of moral authority in the eyes of many as the man who sacrificed himself for the good of Catalonia.
None of this would have happened if the CUP-CC had not unthinkingly adopted its “Mas Must Go” slogan in the first place. That political pose may have harvested it a few extra votes, but it was based on a misunderstanding — a happy illusion — about how readily the hegemony of the CDC in the independence movement can be overturned.
That can only come about under two conditions: if the right visibly betrays the national struggle in the eyes of its supporters and if a viable alternative is in formation.
In the meantime, given the ever-intensifying warfare between Catalonia and Madrid — mostly recently exemplified in the refusal of King Philip to meet with Carme Forcadell — Catalan right nationalism will be regarded by the majority of independence-minded Catalans as a necessary and legitimate part of their cause.
With the inauguration of the Puigdemont government it would be surprising if that legitimacy does not increase. Not only is Puigdemont already making a favourable impression with his disarming and engaging presentation of the Together For Yes government's program and approach, the old CDC ministers associated with cuts, austerity, corruption, cover-ups and police violence have all gone. They have been replaced by a younger, more female, ministry made up of seven CDC members, six ERC members and two independents.
Moreover, both the Puigdemont government, which is charged with preparing an 18-month transition to independence, and the broader independence movement are perfectly aware that the eventual referendum on the draft constitution of a Catalan Republic will not win unless the undecided become convinced of the material benefits of independence. This dictates that the government focus on implementing its emergency social program and on making the process of developing the draft Catalan constitution as involving as possible.
What will “left” opposition to that government consist of? CSQEP continues to claim that the Together For Yes has no mandate to carry out its program, but what will CQSEP oppose in practice? Social measures of the kind it has itself advocated? The participatory process for developing the constitution? In both cases it would find itself in the uncomfortable company of the PP and Citizens.
CQSEP has already created disquiet within parts of its own base by voting with the unionist parties against the inauguration of the government. Moreover, its alternative to the independence process — a Scottish-style referendum — has no chance of coming about, despite Podemos's gains in the December 20 Spanish election.
As this article is being completed, the formation in extremis of the Together For Yes government is provoking a wave of panicky aggression in Madrid, with the PP, PSOE and Citizens already forming a bloc in the incoming Spanish parliament to prevent the people's unity tickets elected for Galicia, the Valencian Community and Catalonia from having their own parliamentary groups (robbing them of resources and parliamentary presence).
Also, in the four days since the new Catalan government formed, it has been snubbed by the king, told it will be investigated for Puigdemont's failure to swear by the Spanish constitution and monarchy, and threatened by acting finance minister Luis de Guindos with suspension under section 155 of the Spanish constitution. Citizens has already indicated that it demand of the Spanish parliament that it take a formal position in favour of compelling the Together For Yes government to comply with Spanish law.
Given all of that, the main job of a left opposition in Catalonia must surely be to oppose the authoritarian brutality coming from Madrid, support the Catalan people's right to decide its future and defend the Catalan government's right to implement the program on which it was elected.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]