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Showdown in Catalonia: Can the independence referendum actually happen?

 

 

By Dick Nichols

 

June 26, 2017
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Nothing alarms Spain’s establishment more than the prospect of the unity of the Spanish state being threatened by the desire for self-determination of the peoples that live within its borders. “Spain: One, Great and Free” — the catchcry of the Francisco Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) — is still the guiding principle and ruling emotion of this elite, even under the regionalised “state of autonomies” created by the 1978 post-dictatorship constitution.

 

This reality explains why prime minister Mariano Rajoy, head of the People’s Party (PP) government, announced at its inauguration on August 30 last year that “Spain’s most serious challenge” is the possibility of secession by Catalonia. So the June 9 announcement by Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont of the date and question of his government’s promised referendum on Catalonia’s future relation with Spain inevitably had the Madrid establishment media (dubbed “the cavern” in progressive circles) in a frenzy.

 

The pro-independence premier said that the referendum would be held on October 1 and that Catalans would be asked to respond Yes or No to the question: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” Typical of reaction from “the cavern” was the headline of the June 12 editorial of La Razón: “The State Must Prepare Itself For Separatism’s Dirty War”.

 

For the Spanish state the “secessionist threat” is more important than other grave concerns: more important than the climate crisis or the ongoing fragility of the Spanish banking system, and certainly more important than the fight against terrorism. On June 16, José Antonio Nieto, the Spanish secretary of state for security, justified the eight-year-long refusal of his department to convene a meeting of the joint Spain-Catalonia security committee in these words:

 

The citizens would not understand a meeting of this type in a climate of defiance or confrontation, in which loyalty between administrations is not respected and terms like disobedience are used.

 

In a situation where international terrorism analysts identify Catalonia as a potential base for jihadist attacks and the anti-terrorism alert stands at four out of five, the Spanish government has effectively decided to exclude the Catalan police (unlike their Basque equivalents) from direct and automatic access to anti-terrorism intelligence coming from the European Police Office (Europol). At the time of writing (June 22), the Spanish interior minister, intent on quashing what has become a growing scandal even within pro-unionist public opinion in Catalonia, has had to agree to set a date for the committee to meet.

 

Along with the sort of perverse vindictiveness this incident betrayed goes the other main feature of Spanish centralist patriotism—haughty indifference towards rational discussion and the contradictions in its own positions. On May 27, prime minister Rajoy told the 33rd meeting of the Economy Circle (big business’s annual gabfest held near Barcelona) that “the right to self-determination does not exist”. Spain’s leader was either indifferent to or ignorant of the fact that his country is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose opening sentences read:

 

All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.

 

Not that this inconsistency worried the magnates in attendance. They gave Rajoy a warm enough reception even as they called for him to negotiate more with Catalonia. By contrast, they received Catalan premier Puigdemont’s eloquent defence of his country’s right to self-determination with icily polite hostility.

 

Old PP and ‘new PSOE’: no right to decide

 

Puigdemont’s June 9 declaration was the farthest point yet reached by the millions-strong, seven-year-long mass movement for Catalan independence. This movement, the largest in Europe, gave birth to a pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament at the September 27, 2015 regional elections (27S). The declaration came came after the Spanish government had turned down — for the eighteenth time since 2002 — any discussion of a negotiated referendum on Catalonia’s future.

 

The Rajoy government has been impervious to all appeals for it to follow the approach of the British conservative government of David Cameron in negotiating the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence or of the Canadian government in holding the 1995 referendum on independence for Quebec. The latest of these appeals was a petition organised by Catalonia’s National Pact for the Referendum, which brought together all forces supporting a Catalan right to decide and gathered half a million signatories, including many from elsewhere within the Spanish state. In a May 25 letter to Puigdemont repeating his government’s latest refusal, Rajoy wrote:

 

I have had occasion, both publicly and privately, to reaffirm to you the constitutional obligations that both my position and yours entail. The foremost of these, for me unavoidable, is defence of the constitutional order. It escapes no one that the political proposal I am being offered consists in reaching an agreement with the government you head as to the way to violate the essential core of the Spanish constitution.

 

That is blatantly untrue. As has been pointed out by many jurists — including those opposed to any change to the present Spanish institutional set-up — a Scottish-style negotiated referendum that would allow the Catalan people to decide their future is possible under the present constitution. In 2006, for example, Catalans voted under the appropriate constitutional clause on whether they supported a new statute of Catalan autonomy negotiated between the Spanish and Catalan governments, then respectively led by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

 

The barrier to reaching a solution is not constitutional, but political: the Rajoy government has zero political interest in accommodating the 70%-80% of Catalans who want to vote on their future. Quite the reverse: behind all its solemn constitutionalist posturing the PP — cynical exploiter of Catalanophobia in the rest of Spain — sees advantage in maintaining conflict with its rebellious Mediterranean province if it can be sure of success. Spain’s conservative party will be commander-in-chief in that holy war for Spanish unity and the PSOE, its traditional opposition, will enlist in the crusade.

 

As if to confirm this sacred constant of Spanish politics, PSOE spokesperson Jose Luis Abalos said on June 14: “The law is indivisible and does not admit partial compliance ... break-up will not prevail.” Abalos expressed his party’s support for any legal measures the Rajoy government might take against the Catalan government.

 

Ábalos also criticised the June 11 declaration of Manchester City trainer Pep Guardiola before a 30,000-40,000 strong Barcelona demonstration in support of the government’s announcement of the referendum. The rally was called by the Catalan pro-independence mass organisations, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) and Omnium Cultural (association defending Catalan language and culture). Guardiola, previously the trainer of Barcelona FC, said (in Catalan, Spanish and English):

 

We ask the international community to help us. We call on all democrats in Europe and the world to stand beside us in defence of the rights that are under threat in Catalonia today, such as the right to freedom of political expression and the right to vote. To confront the abuses of an authoritarian state.

 

We Catalans will vote on October 1 and when the government of Catalonia carries out its democratic mandate it will not be alone.

 

On June 12, Ábalos commented:

 

I don’t know whether Guardiola has always had this conception or if he’s suddenly started thinking that this is an authoritarian state, the important thing is that no-one believes it and no-one could think that our democratic system is an authoritarian regime.

 

Ábalos was the temporary parliamentary spokesperson of the “new PSOE” that emerged on May 21 when former general secretary Pedro Sánchez was returned to that position on the back of a rank-and-file anti-apparatus revolt. This win sidelined the old PSOE establishment that had previously forced Sánchez to resign for not agreeing to allow the PP to form government after the inconclusive June 26 general election last year.

 

Some of these older PSOE grandees are more hawkish in their defence of the unity of Spain than their successors (or even some PP ministers). For example, in the latest issue of the magazine Tiempo, former PSOE deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra calls on the Rajoy government to suspend the Catalan government under article 155 of the Spanish constitution. This article allows the Senate, where the PP has a majority, to suspend a regional government in the case of non-compliance with the constitution or “putting at serious risk the general interest of Spain”: for Guerra the unilateral referendum called by the Catalan authorities (“the only remaining Francoism in Spain”) is a “coup" demanding the immediate application of the emergency article.

 

Guerra also takes the new PSOE leadership to task for conceding too much to the radical anti-austerity force Podemos with its new formula of Spain as “nation of nations” (even though the Sánchez PSOE continues to maintain that these “nations” have no right of self-determination. For Guerra, the new formula is “a solemn piece of nonsense” because “if a nation exists when the inhabitants say it does, will [the port city of] Cartagena be a nation if the people of Cartagena so decide?”

 

Guerra’s extreme-unionist position repeats that of his former PP “arch enemy”, one-time prime minister José Maria Aznar, who on February 27 had told the business daily Expansión that in Catalonia it was impossible to do “more damage in less time”. He too called for the Rajoy government not to flinch in applying article 155.

 

Path to showdown—Spanish government tactics

 

In the coming showdown, the fairy tale of Spanish constitutionalism versus secessionist Catalan lawlessness will be essential for the Rajoy government to justify the measures it must take if the October 1 referendum is to be stopped. Its strategic task is to shore up sufficient political support to make the necessary repression politically acceptable (or at least wearable).

 

The Spanish government has to win this struggle in a country where the younger generations are increasingly open to accepting the right to self-determination, where the PP government is increasingly seen to be sunk in corruption and where its dirty tricks campaign against Catalan politicians (“Operation Catalonia”-- run by a secret Spanish interior ministry police unit) has become visible because of the work of investigative journalists from the web-based daily Público.

 

On the international front, the Rajoy government still enjoys the backing (more or less willing) of the European Union’s member states and the European Commission, which regularly intone that the Catalan issue is “an internal Spanish matter” . Tthe latest example is French president Emmanuel Macron, on the occasion of a June 16 visit to Paris by Rajoy. As was the case with the September 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the key powers in Europe (Germany, France and Italy) are very nervous of the example of any people without a state acquiring statehood through democratic, peaceful mass struggle.

 

However, cracks are showing in the wall of unanimity. Support for a Catalan right to decide has been expressed in the Danish and Swiss parliaments, and parliamentary committees supportive of that right exist in many parliaments, especially in the Baltic and Scandinavian states, Ireland, Westminster, Scotland, Belgium and Slovenia. Establishment media in other European states is becoming increasingly increasingly impatient with Rajoy’s obstinacy, a recent example being a June 21 Irish Times editorial comment that “Spain is sleepwalking towards an existential crisis that no-one could have imagined 10 years ago.” Of greater impact inside Spain was the June 23 editorial in The New York Times, which recommended to the country’s leaders that they negotiate a Scottish-style referendum and achieve a ‘Scottish’ result—a win for unionism.

 

In addition, in what is becoming an increasingly regular occurrence, on June 13 the European Court of Human Rights found that the Spanish Constitutional Court had violated the European human rights convention when it ruled that the Spanish Supreme Court did not have to hear the appeal of former members of the speakership panel of the Basque parliament against their being barred from office for refusing to implement the outlawing of the left-nationalist organisation Patriotic Socialists.

 

On March 22, former Spanish foreign minister José Manuel Garcia-Margallo boasted of the work that the Spanish diplomatic corps and he personally had been forced to undertake to get other EU countries to describe Catalonia as an internal Spanish concern: “Nobody knows how many favours we owe to how many people to get them to make the declarations that they have.”

 

Garcia-Margallo’s greatest problems were with the Baltic states (“that consumed an enormous amount of energy”). There the former social-democratic prime minister of Lithuania, Algirdas Butkevicius, said in 2013 he was “very happy” that Catalonia was following a peaceful path to independence while former centre-right Latvian prime minister and present EU commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis said he supported Catalonia’s right to self-determination. A Spanish police claim that Dombrovskis was paid €6 million to make this statement was dismissed by the Latvian Anti-fraud Office.

 

However, all that diplomatic effort will be of no avail if the Rajoy government does not take its three years of steadily rising legal repression against elected officials in Catalonia to a qualitatively higher level. To date, the Spanish legal system has over 400 lawsuits open against elected officials in Catalonia, mainly involving such apparently trivial matters as not flying the Spanish flag on council buildings and councils working on Spanish national holidays.

 

Its most serious attacks have been the barring from public office of former Catalan premier Artur Mas and three former ministers for facilitating the November 9, 2014 “participatory process” (known as 9N) in contravention of a Constitutional Court order and the charging of the Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell and other speakership panel members for allowing “illegal” parliamentary debate.

 

Other high points have been the charging of a councilor from the inland city of Vic for saying in a council meeting that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs” (the omelette being an independent Catalonia) and the arrest of the mayoress of the Pyrenean city of Berga for refusing to respond to a court order. Both these elected officials are members of the left-nationalist People’s Unity List (CUP).

 

Actually stopping October 1 will require a chain of actions such as:

 

• Having the Constitutional Court--equipped since September 2015 with the power to suspend elected officials—to find the Catalan government guilty of ignoring a legal injunction (section 118 of the constitution). The grounds for triggering such an application to the Constitutional Court are being multiplied, with investigations announced into the “potentially illegal” actions of Catalan government ministers in relation to referendum preparations;

 

• Giving the Catalan government one last chance to accept Spanish legality;

 

• In case of refusal, declaring a state of seige or emergency under section 116 or suspending the Catalan government under section 155, and;

 

• Putting the Catalan police force under central government control and using them, backed if necessary by the paramilitary Spanish Civil Guard, to prevent the referendum.

 

In the meantime, the Spanish judiciary, led by the Supreme Court of Justice of Catalonia, is prosecuting or threatening to prosecute any individual or organisation that has anything to do with the preparation of October 1. Targets include companies that have submitted quotes for manufacturing ballot boxes and individuals who volunteer to be election agents instead of the public servants who generally do this work (the Catalan government has said that any public servant can decline to work on the referendum).

 

This approach can, of course, be counterproductive: when, Spanish prosecutor general José Manuel Maza said on June 16 that he could not rule out charging the approximately 4500 volunteers the Catalan government is seeking, he simply guaranteed an overflow of applicants. Similarly counterproductive are central government “displays of strength”, such as the minister of defence Dolores de Cospedal’s holding a meeting of the Army Supreme Council in Barcelona on June 19 and celebrating the role of Catalonia in “the creation more than 500 years ago of this great nation that is Spain” [nonsense: Catalonia was incorporated into the Spanish state following the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1715)]

 

Another angle of attack the Rajoy government is contemplating is to confront those responsible for October 1 with eonomic ruin, by making them personally liable for any public moneys “misspent” on carrying out the referendum. The general approach was announced by deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria on June 16, while the unionist Catalan Civil Society (SCC) is presently testing out this tactic with a case against former premier Mas and his ministers for “misuse” of €5 million in allowing 9N to go ahead.

 

Path to showdown—Catalan government tactics

 

Is that level of agression politically sustainable? It certainly was in October 1934, when the army arrested the Catalan cabinet for proclaiming a “Catalan state within a Federal Spanish Republic” in the midst of a general strike against the right-wing Spanish government of the day.

 

But today? The movement for Catalan independence is very broad and completely peaceful. Support for independence runs at anywhere between 40% and over 50% and support for the right to decide has even more massive support (70% to 80%). This was once again confirmed in the latest opinion poll, taken by Opinometre for the Catalan daily Ara in the week after the announcement of the referendum--when it was already clear that the consultation would be unilateral and hence “illegal”.

 

Despite that, 68.5% of those interviewed said they were strongly or basically in favour of its taking place (64.2% said they were certain or likely to vote), as against 26.5% who said they were against (and 24.3% said they were certain or likely not to vote), while the remaining 5% had no position on the referendum (and 11.5% said they weren’t sure if they would vote or not). Most tellingly, 64.3% of PSC voters supported the referendum to which their party is opposed, as did 86.4% of voters for Together We Can, the Catalan left electoral alliance in the Spanish parliament, even while its leadership as yet only supports October 1 as a popular mobilisation and not a binding plebiscite.

 

Probably most importantly, 34.7% of those opposed to independence said they would vote, around 750,000 more than took part in 9N. As a result, participation would be 64.2%, around the average for elections in Catalonia. Independence would win 62% to 19% with 19% informal or don’t knows. The only way these proportions would change would be if all those opposed to independence took part: then the result projected by the poll would be 42.3% for to 38.9% against, with 12.8% don’t knows and 6% informal.

 

These figures confirm how much visceral Spanish centralism is the victim of its own tactics, which force it further and further down the road of repression: its threats are driving increasing numbers, including a growing proportion of anti-independence voters, to support the referendum as their basic democratic right. The intransigence of the Rajoy government is such that, in the words of Galician writer Suso de Toro, “it leaves the Catalans no other option but to close ranks in support of the referendum rather than betray their status and dignity as citizens.”

 

On June 10, Puigdemont told the national council of his party, the conservative nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat):

 

The moment has arrived for the citizens to take the leading role. They can prosecute, suspend, disqualify and threaten the politicians, but they won’t be able to even tickle a mobilised people … How will they be able to persuade anyone that 12 judges of the Constitutional Court should override 7.5 million people?

 

Puigdemont also made it clear that the only body from which he would accept instructions is the Catalan parliament.

 

The Catalan government is now intent on projecting the case for the referendum to the maximum number of people in the Spanish state, where support for a Catalan right to decide, if growing, is still opposed by a majority (61.5% to 33.9%, according to a February GESOP poll). The plan begins with a request for Puigdemont to address the Spanish parliament’s lower house, the Congress.

 

The deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, had already invited the Catalan premier to submit his plan for a referendum to this body, with a view to having the Spanish unionist majority (PP plus PSOE plus Citizens, the “Podemos of the right”) vote it down. That ploy would have repeated the treatment meted out to Basque premier (lehendakari) Juan José Ibarretxe in 2005 when he submitted his plan for greater Basque self-government to the Spanish parliament: that proposal--dubbed “treachery” by then-opposition leader Rajoy--was defeated by 313 to 29 with two abstentions.

 

Puigdemont’s proposal is simply to explain his government’s decision to the televised Congress, with a view to exposing the groundlessness of the anti-referendum case before as a wide an audience as possible. At the time of writing the Congress speakership panel is wrestling with the tricky issue of finding a half-plausible basis for rejecting the Catalan premier’s request.

 

The Spanish upper house, the Senate, with its PP majority, had no such problem with a similar request in May: its rejection forced Puigdemont to ask the progressive Madrid City Council for the hire of a hall. The council’s acceptance of the hiring request was met with outrage by PP, PSOE and Citizens councillors protesting this concession to “illegality”.

 

To drive home that its commitment to the right of self-determination isn’t just for Catalans in the face of the Spanish state, the Puigdemont government makes an example of Catalonia’s relationship with its one region with a distinctly different language, culture and history: the Pyrenean district of the Vall d’Aran where the Aranese variant of Occitan is spoken. In 2013, the Catalan parliament unanimously recognised, with PP abstention, the Vall d’Aran’s right to self determination and on this year’s Aranese national day, June 17, Catalan minister of state Meritxell Borràs declared that “at this crossroads in Catalan history, Aran will be what the Aranese decide.”

 

The rocky road ahead

 

What remains to be done for the referendum to take place with a chance of success? Jaume Asens, fourth deputy mayor of Barcelona and a strong supporter of Catalonia’s right to self-determination, wrote on June 11 on the Critic web site:

 

The debate over the referendum isn’t at all simple. Premier Puigdemont has set October 1 as the date for its celebration and has also reiterated that it will not be a consultation but an effective and binding referendum. Asserting that, however, doesn’t mean that it will end up coming about. Issues such as the electoral roll [normally provided by the Spanish Central Electoral Board], control mechanisms, the quorum, the neutrality of the organising body and other guarantees are basic. International recognition depends, in large degree, on that. And on the balances of forces needed for the result not to be a simple expression of desire in the case that it is favourable to independence. Sovereignty and control of territory and borders aren’t just won with words.

 

For Asens, the holding of a successful referendum will depend critically on the capacity of the forces supporting a Catalan right to decide but not necessarily independence (Catalonia Together and Podemos) and those supporting independence (PDECat, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the CUP) to reach an understanding.

 

For Quim Arrufat, national co-spokesperson of CUP, interviewed on the June 11 edition of the web site Nació Digital, the technical challenge of the referendum preparations, including its meeting internationally recognised standards of fairness, is being “overcome with considerable imagination, thoroughness and success”. However, the CUP — the most left-wing of the independence movement’s base — worries about the political preparedness of the Puigdemont government. According to Arrufat:

 

The Spanish state has all the mechanisms it needs to stop [the referendum] ... Depending on the level of repression the Spanish state is prepared to exercise, there is an extreme point where the referendum maybe can’t be organised, even though that would be ruinous to the prestige of the Spanish state.

 

More likely for Arrufat is medium-intensity warfare involving the suspension of ministers and senior government officials.

 

We need to be prepared for that because it’s a road already travelled. It would not be acceptable if, at the beginning of September, the [Catalan] government were to say: “Oh well, two ministers barred from holding office, court injunctions, we can’t guarantee it. It can’t go ahead ... [or] they’ve withdrawn our control over the Mossos d’Esquadra [the Catalan police], we can’t carry out the referendum.”

 

The CUP co-spokesperson said:

 

The doubt is there as to what strategy the [Spanish] state will follow and whether we are sufficiently prepared to confront and defeat it. ... What to do at each step, that’s where the difficulty lies. To what degree is the [Catalan] government ready to take the jurisdictional steps necessary to jump over this blockade. We are pressuring to have a replacement ready behind each minister so that the moment the incumbent is barred from holding office, another minister is there to carry on, putting their signature to the things that are needed. We have to have a back-up premier in case the premier himself is barred from holding office.

 

While understanding the difficulties involved in developing the detailed plan for implementing the referendum under permanent legal shellfire from Madrid—to the point of agreeing with the Catalan government’s decision to keep its “law of jurisdictional transition” secret until early August—the CUP is anxious as to the effect of the permanent PP government propaganda barrage on morale and commitment. Arrufat’s assessment--made before the latest Opinometre poll was published--was:

 

At the moment the referendum has a problem, people’s lack of belief that it will be celebrated. The vast majority of people, pro-independence people too, don’t see how. That’s a big shortcoming: the government has to provide a lot of assurance that the referendum will be organised.

 

The signs are that the Puigdemont government is acutely aware of this concern. A June 13 prime time TV interview with Puigdemont and deputy premier Oriol Junqueras basically took the form of a polite but persistent grilling of the two leaders as to the state of preparation of the referendum. While there were quite a few questions that they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—answer, it was clear from their answers that these would be attended to as well as could possibly be managed. “In the 111 days that remain we will explain everything”, Puigdemont said, “but imprudence in this situation would be a great act of irresponsibility...[W]e have thought all options through in great detail but obviously are not free to discuss them now”. At the same time, the two leaders guaranteed the presence of an independent international commission of observers who would act as guarantors of the rigour and thoroughness of referendum organisation.

 

The issues still needing decision and public clarification are many and complicated, having to be resolved in the face of intensifying fire from opponents of the referendum internal and external as well as criticism from supporters concerned that prepations are not being done as well as possible. The main outstanding problems are:

 

The electoral roll. Since the Spanish Central Electoral Board will not make available the electoral roll used in normal elections, how will an alternative roll be developed? Alternatives include allowing registration on referendum day through presentation of the national identity card (as at 9N), use of municipal residency lists or use of the Catalan health service list or Catalan Statistical Institute list.

 

A specific problem is the formation of the roll of Catalans presently living overseas (over 200,000 but only 15,000 of whom have taken part in recent elections). An alternative register begun by the Catalan foreign affairs office has attracted only 5000 names to date.

 

Electoral law. The referendum will have to be conducted under a specific Catalan electoral law, which will have to lay out internationally accepted norms for its conduct, including criteria for forming an independent referendum commission and specific rules to govern constitution of the Yes and No platforms and official media coverage. It will also have to address security, legal and logistical concerns. This is not a problem in itself, but a debate exists within supporters of the referendum as to whether this law should be part of the umbrella “law of jurisdictional transition” or a separate piece of legislation.

 

Voting mechanisms. Once the Spanish courts declare the referendum illegal, the Spanish postal service will be instructed not to assist it in any way, and private postal firms will be threatened with legal action if they provide an alternative service. The Catalan government will have to work out whether it can set up an alternative service and/or whether to provide a system of computer-based voting.

 

International observers. Because this will be an a unilateral referendum carried out with the opposition of the Spanish state, the usual international organisms that would verify its authenticity (such as the UN) will not send observers. One particular institution that has already indicated that it will not certify the quality of the referendum is the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, whose code of good practice for referenda is accepted as setting the standard. On June 2, its president, Gianni Buquicchio, wrote to Puigdemont that “not only the referendum as such, but also the co-operation with our Commission will have to be carried out in agreement with the Spanish authorities.”

 

Clearly, given all these daunting problems, the solution of which will also require that the Catalan government zig-zag under fire, it would be unrealistic to expect a “perfect” referendum. This is also the case if the condition for the referendum´s going ahead is its increasing dependence on the organised efforts of volunteers, that it becomes more and more the product of an increasingly mobilised Catalan society and not just of its government.

 

Which side are you on?

 

The Catalan government’s June 9 declaration has acted as a rallying cry to everyone supportive of a Catalan right to decide. It has also posed the question point blank to all forces inside Catalonia and across the Spanish state: which side are you on? This is an easy question for some, but even those with a ready in-principle answer are having to nuance their stance in the face of the majority sentiment in favour of the referendum.

 

For example, the PP in Catalonia is happy to accept the role of behind-the-lines commando squad for the Rajoy government, endlessly throwing its one brand of grenade: “This illegal referendum will not take place.” However, Citizens, the official opposition in the Catalan parliament, while agreeing on the referendum’s illegality prefers to stress the impossibility of its being carried out by a supposedly incompetent administration. According to Inés Arrimades, Catalan leader of Citzens (where it began life as an operation opposed to the 2006 statute of Catalan automony):

 

The premier spends the whole day saying that the government of Spain has to explain how it will prevent the referendum. First, he has to explain how he wants to carry it out, and he hasn’t explained that because they can’t do it. The time has come to look Catalans in the eye and tell them that it can’t be done...even the people who want independence and want a referendum don’t deserve to be deceived again. (Ara, June 22)

 

The PSC repeats the PSOE’s attacks on the legality of the referendum and its has recommended that the municipalities it controls not make council property available on October 1, but six of its mayors and lead councilors are already refusing to carry out the party line. The mayor of the industrial city of Terrassa, Jordi Ballart, told the June 17 edition of the web-based daily Vilaweb:

 

I won’t be the one who stops the citizens of Terrassa from expressing their opinion at the ballot box. The people have the right to vote, and I’m not anyone to block that and not collaborate in making it happen. If there’s a democratic government that, on a legal basis, asks for it...it will happen.

 

Other towns with PSC mayors and councilors have adopted the same position and will be present at a July 1 mass rally of local elected representatives in support of the referendum. By contrast, in Catalonia’s westernmost provincial capital, Lleida, the PSC mayor voted with the PP and Citizens to prevent the use of council property for October 1.

 

In those parts of the Spanish state where nationalist forces rule—usually in alliance with regional affiliates of the PSOE—the response to the announcement of the Catalan referendum has been muted. In the Basque Country (Euskadi), the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) attacked the intransigence of the PP and asserted Catalonia’s right to self-determination while stressing that Euskadi was different from Catalonia. By contrast, the left-nationalist coalition EH Bildu welcomed Puigdemont’s announcement, committed to building solidarity with the Catalan referendum campaign and asked, pointedly, when the PNV would start fighting for a similar referendum in Euskadi. Addressing the June 17 refoundation congress of EH Bildu, coordinator Arnaldo Otegi said: “We are with you [Catalonia], in the highs and the lows.”

 

Aralar, the left-nationalist Basque organisation in EH Bildu that enjoys a notable influence in Navarra, declared on June 9:

 

In recent years Catalan politicians, institutions and people have given us a lesson in coherence and democracy, as the process that advances step by step to express their will and freely decide shows. In this sense they are making an important contribution to Basque society, its institutions and its political parties: there is no help more precious on the path to achieving our people’s right to decide than the process of another people travelling along the same road.

 

In the Valencian Country, Monica Oltra, the deputy premier and leader of the Valencian nationalist alliance Compromís (Commitment), has restricted herself to calls for dialogue between the Spanish state and Catalonia. Biel Barceló, the deputy premier of the Balearic Islands and leader of the regionalist Més Per Mallorca (MES), has been even more circumspect, saying the issue isn´t covered by his portfolio.

 

The forces most tested by the June 9 announcement are Unidos Podemos (the electoral coalition between Podemos and the United Left) and the various multi-party confluences with which they are allied in Galicia, Euskadi and, most importantly, Catalonia itself. The announced referendum has produced tensions within these forces: they all support the right of self-determination but have different stances on what to do in the face of the rejection of this democratic principle by the PP-PSOE-Citizens majority in the Spanish parliament.

 

This majority was again in action on June 21, when it voted down a PDECat motion calling on the Rajoy government to respect the Catalan government decision to call the referendum and cease its legal aggression.The motion won the support of 92 MPs (PDECat, ERC, Unidos Podemos, PNV, Compromís and Bildu) with 250 against (PP, PSOE, Citizens and three right-wing MPs from Navarra, Asturias and the Canary Islands).

 

At the time of writing, Podemos and the forces around it are divided on whether to accept the referendum as a binding plebiscite, even while all support it as a democratic mobilisation of Catalan society. In favour of accepting October 1 as real referendum is Podemos’s Anticapitalista tendency, which has called on all left forces in the Spanish state to support the consultation, not the least because its successful holding would mark the beginning of the end of the corrupt and authoritarian Spanish state. Its June 12 statement read in part:

 

Obviously we have deep differences with the forces that are leading the Catalan independence process, who defend and apply neoliberal policies against the Catalan people they say they defend. Nonetheless, the referendum is a majority demand in Catalonia, also counting on broad support from sectors opposed to independence. To deny that is to deny democracy and open the way to dangerous positions, where “voting and deciding” becomes a “concession” of the ruling classes and ceases to be a right of the people.

 

Recognition of October 1 as a genuine referendum has also received the support of En Marea, the confluence of Galician parties that includes Podemos Galicia.

 

Within Catalonia, the new force Catalonia Together, associated with Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, is still to finally make up its mind whether the referendum offers sufficient guarantees or whether it would not be a rerun of 9N. Within Catalonia Together opinions differ as to what guarantees would be sufficient, dictating a careful balancing act on the part of spokespeople Xavier Domènech and Elisenda Alamany. After these met with Puigdemont and Jonqueras on June 19, Doménech said: “A mobilisation for the right to decide is never a waste, but what Catalonia really needs is a referendum with guarantees.”

 

As for Podem (Podemos in Catalonia), it asked its branches to decide between three indicative positions: no to October 1, yes to October 1 or yes to October 1 but only as a mobilisation in support of a real referendum. After consultation, Podem’s branches voted 35% in favour of the third option. Catalonia Together and Podem’s final decision will be made when full details of the referendum organisation become available.

 

Whether October 1 can become a real referendum for the majority of Catalonia Together will soon become clear. For some, chiefly from Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), this is not possible given the refusal of the Venice Commission to certify a referendum not negotiated with the Spanish state. Such a position disqualifies any unilateral referendum, making a legal consultation possible only when a majority in favour of the right to self-determination controls the Spanish parliament.

 

If that approach prevails in Catalonia Together, it would make the exercise of the Catalan right to self-determination hostage to the course of the all-Spanish social struggle, which would have to reach such a pitch as to overthrow the present balance of forces in the Spanish state--Unidos Podemos and its allies would have to become a majority and/or the PSOE would have to experience a Pauline conversion on the right of Spain’s nations to self-determination. Such an outcome is impossible in the immediate term.

 

In the meantime, the provisional position of Catalonia Together runs the risk of helping demobilising support for October 1. Little wonder, then, that CUP parliamentary spokesperson Mireia Boya characterised its stance on June 19 as a “boycott” of the right to decide. She said:

 

Whoever takes part in the referendum has to recognise its results. To want change is to do it and not to want it is to stick with the status quo ... They [Catalonia Together] have to decide if they are part of the solution or one of the obstacles in the way of voting.

 

However, such tensions between CUP left-nationalism and Catalonia Together and the forces associated with it are not universal. For example, in the industrial city of Badalona (third largest in Catalonia), where both form part of the governing council majority, mayoress Dolors Sabater has come out in full support of October 1:

 

We are absolutely committed to the citizens’ right to decide. The people of Badalona have to be able to give their opinion without exception ... For [the referendum] to be effective, binding and with guarantees all local administrations need to do their bit.

 

The latest news is that the issue of guarantees is to be addressed at a public meeting by Jonqueras and Puigdemont on July 4. This date will also see the launch of a special web site garanties.cat dedicated to explaining the functioning of the referendum and the government’s guarantees that it will be carried out correctly: July 4 will be followed by meetings in 200 cities, towns and villages.

 

Undoubtedly, the Catalan government will come up with the best guarantees that it can manage in the state of rising warfare with the Spanish state—it has every interest in doing so. In this context it will surely also become clear to all supporters of the Catalan right to self-determination that the best guarantee of a viable referendum will not come from its technical quality and the presence of international observers—essential though these aspects certainly are--but from the level of popular participation it attains.

 

It is the duty of any force calling itself left to act to make that participation as great as possible.

 

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.

 

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