Are new Catalan elections coming despite pro-independence majority?
By Dick Nichols March 16, 2018 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — After the December 21 Catalan election reconfirmed a majority for independence, it seemed only a matter of time before a new administration would be sworn in. More than two months later however, the spectre of a repeat election troubles the political landscape. The December 21 result effectively ratified the pro-independence result of the October 1 referendum and the October 27 proclamation of a Catalan Republic. It also showed an overwhelming rejection of the Spanish government’s squashing of Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the constitution. So why have matters reached this point? First, because the entire Spanish establishment — led by the government of People’s Party (PP) prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the upper echelons of the judicial system doing its bidding — refused to accept the election result. They immediately set about subverting it with a legal offensive led by a January 28 Constitutional Court “provisional” judgment that ruled that outgoing Catalan president Carles Puigdemont could not be invested in absentia from his Brussels exile, disqualified the vote of the four MPs in exile with him and threatened the Catalan parliament’s speakership panel with severe sanctions if it disobeyed the ruling. Second, because this judicial assault immediately sparked differences within the pro-independence bloc about how to respond.
To broaden the social majority two ideas are indispensable without which nothing makes sense: that Catalonia is and must be one single people in the framework of freedoms, economic progress and social justice … and that we need to learn the best route to reach the summit [of an independent Catalan Republic] and with whom to make the journey.
In this sense, republicanism must converge with the other political forces that also defend a binding referendum, led by [Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP) leader] Xavier Domènech, and must open the road to a frank dialogue (local council work can be a good laboratory) with the Catalan socialism of the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) of Miquel Iceta, who has to decide whether to oppose or foster the decline in rights and freedoms.
A joint March 9 statement by jailed ERC president Oriol Junqueras and general secretary Marta Rovira put the position more bluntly:
The shortest road back to regional government is if the independence movement returns to being a noisy minority increasingly distant from political centrality. Every step, every gesture that makes the building of broad all-embracing majorities harder takes us further away from the future we want.
For the ERC, repeating elections is a folly to be avoided at all cost. It would offer the pro-unionist camp of Citizens and the People’s Party (PP) the chance to demolish what unionism regards as the main institutional supports of independence sentiment — the Catalan education system, police force and the public broadcaster. That would complete the work that the article 155 intervention has yet really to start.
The main practical impact of ERC caution was the January 30 decision of parliament speaker, the ERC’s Roger Torrent, to suspend Puigdemont’s planned investiture to avoid a Constitutional Court sanction. The second was Puigdemont’s March 1 decision to step aside as candidate — provisionally — and allow jailed former Catalan National Assembly (ANC) president Jordi Sanchez to take his place. If with the present configuration of the pro-independence bloc the way to form government can’t be found, let the people decide on another configuration. Or let them repeat the current one, which would send a strong message to the parties that they have to negotiate seriously.
And in any case, let the people respond to the great background debate that is masked by the negotiations: do we need to move straight to building the Republic or is it necessary to first look to build whatever can be managed in the framework of regional government, accepting, therefore, the rules imposed by the coup d'etat?”
On March 9, Carles Puigdemont effectively backed this position, saying: “New elections would not be a drama even though it's not a priority anyone wants.” Puigdemont knows that the day a new Catalan president is elected his own eclipse begins. International denunciation of the authoritarian behaviour of the Spanish government has a limited time span and nowadays the focuses of media attention get replaced very rapidly. And the idea of a parallel government is pure fantasy. However, fear of losing the spotlight doesn’t justify the strategy of dragging out the match, first resisting standing aside and then proposing impossible candidates. At the beginning the need for a grieving ritual could be understood. But now it’s become obscene.
This stance actually coincides with that of the Spanish government. The PP is anxious to resume normal government in Catalonia so that the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in the Spanish parliament will lift its veto on approving the budget and free Rajoy to spend money to help ward off the rise of Citizens, presently leading the PP in Spanish polls.
However, the Rajoy government is certainly not so anxious for a government to form in Catalonia that it is prepared to accept Puigdemont or Sànchez as candidate for president. While the Catalan independence bloc keeps putting up "impossible" candidates Rajoy will continue to allow the Spanish legal system to disqualify them. It will be encouraged in this stance by any increase in effective acceptance in the independence camp of Madrid’s right to dictate who can be Catalonia’s president.
Clara Ponsatí, the outgoing Catalan minister for education who on March 10 returned to her former teaching post in Scotland’s University of St Andrews, stressed the impossibility of imagining any return to "normality" in Catalonia. She observed in a March 12 Vilaweb interview that, observing the negotiations over forming government, "it is not clear that they focussed on what’s most important: how to maintain the tension with the Spanish state so as to stop the repression and recover democracy".
Ponsatí also regretted that the "sottogoverno ["under-government", in Italian in original] that we left behind is not resisting as it should", noting also that "the blackmail from the Supreme Court and the Spanish government is very effective in Barcelona, in the parliament, and with the behaviour of some senior officials of the Catalan government."
The former education minister added that "this is a long distance race, one of resistance" against a Spanish state whose project is annihilation of Catalonia. In this context, "I wouldn’t get so nervous about the situation of impasse we’re in because that’s the way we have of continuing to act politically and to confront the Spanish state with its own monsters."
In a March 12 interview on radio RAC1 Ponsatí also counselled against fear of new elections:
When there are elections it’s not because there’s been a mistake, but because things have arrived at a point where there’s no other way out. The Spanish state has placed the Catalan parliament in an ungovernable situation. If there are elections we’ll have to confront that and I’m confident the majority would be maintained. If the majority weren’t maintained, it would be a lesson that we would also have to learn from.
At bottom, without resistance and without a revolt against some decision of the Spanish courts and/or government against Catalan sovereignty there can be no Catalan government that is not simply a Spanish regional administration. This is even more so because such an administration would be worse off than other regional administrations; its finances would continue to be controlled from Madrid until the Rajoy government got watertight guarantees of obedience.
The debate, then, is really about how best — with what combination of government and movement action — to prepare for and carry out disobedience. This will be a very tricky process because the Spanish government will make sure that any cuts to services are foisted on an incoming Catalan government while any "goodies" are ostentatiously delivered straight from Madrid. The Spanish administration will also continue to enjoy the full, if increasingly nervous, backing of the European Commission and the European Union member states.
It is undeniable that the movement for Catalan sovereignty needs to broaden its base and neutralise the campaign to divide Catalans by language and place of origin in order to save the sacrosanct unity of Spain. This, however, cannot come at the cost of lowering the morale and commitment of the movement for sovereignty itself — the central guarantee that the struggle will continue and that the Catalan right to self-determination will remain a burning and unavoidable issue in the politics of the Spanish state.
Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. An earlier version of this article has appeared on its web site. His live blog on the Catalan struggle can be found here.
Consolidate or keep up the offensive?The reaction of some, mainly but not only from the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), was caution. Their absolute priority is to recover the Catalan institutions lost under article 155. If needed, they are prepared to sacrifice Puigdemont’s chance at resuming the presidency and accept that an incoming Catalan administration will essentially be a regional government within the Spanish state, regardless of the inevitable republican rhetoric with which it is window-dressed. At the heart of this position lies the assessment that the independence movement needs to consolidate the gains made since 2012 and accumulate more social support. This is especially so because its December 21 victory took place in a context of deepening of the national identity divide within Catalonia itself. This breach was — and continues to be — cynically forced by the Spanish establishment and the unionist parties without any regard to its social cost, in pursuance of the goal of saving the unity of Spain by dividing Catalans and then blaming any resultant social disharmony on the independence movement. Joan Tardà, senior ERC MP in the Spanish parliament, expressed the argument for caution and consolidation in a March 4 article in El Periódico:
JxCat-ERC agreementThe ERC’s risk aversion is shared by leaders of the right-nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat), part of Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat). But it provoked sharp reactions from other pro-sovereignty forces. In the negotiations over government formation, JxCat leaders closest to Puigdemont, such as spokespersons Eduard Pujol and Elsa Artadi, held out for more than a month in support of a “Puigdemont or elections” stance. They argued that December 21 had been about the legitimacy of the president’s sacking. Therefore, not having Puigdemont as candidate would be to accept the right of the Spanish authorities to overturn the will of Catalan voters. It was only when ERC made it clear that it would not give unconditional support to this position if it threatened the speakership panel with legal sanction (probably jail, given the form of the Spanish Supreme Court) that JxCat backed down. This retreat opened the door to a February 27 agreement that marked a JxCat-ERC compromise between the need to affirm the Puigdemont government’s legitimacy and the need to make it impossible for Madrid to stop a new Catalan administration forming. It envisaged that:
• The Catalan parliament would vote recognition of Puigdemont as Catalonia’s legitimate president, reconfirm the October 27 declaration of independence and demand the lifting of article 155;
• An Assembly of the Republic, made up of representatives of Catalan local government and civil society, would be set up in a “Free Space in Brussels”, along with an Executive Council of the Republic, headed by Puigdemont. Its main tasks would be to unfold the process of developing a Catalan constitution and build support for the Catalan independence case internationally;
• A government would be set up in Catalonia, with 14 ministries equally divided between JxCat and ERC. The candidate for president would be Jordi Sànchez. If Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, responsible for Sànchez’s detention, did not allow him to leave jail for the investiture session, this ruling would be appealed all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. JxCat leader Jordi Turull would be candidate for president in the meantime.