Catalan elections analysed: what now after Spanish unionist assault repelled?

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By Dick Nichols

February 25, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The February 14 elections in Catalonia took place in a phantasmagorical setting created by the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ruling of the High Court of Justice of Catalonia that they had to go ahead despite the danger of an increased infection rate in a country where 20,000 have already died of the pandemic.

As a result, 25% of the 90,000 citizens chosen by ballot to staff polling stations requested exemption; candidates gave rousing speeches to vacant halls while thousands of eyes watched on over Zoom, and the TV debates between the lead candidates were weird combinations of robotic set speeches and uncontrollable screaming matches.

With COVID-19 still raging in a half locked-down country, it was inevitable that the abstention rate would surge and decide the main issue in the elections: would the independentist majority in the Catalan parliament withstand the onslaught of Spanish unionism, this time carried out under the banner of the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the Catalan affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE)?

The independence bloc won the contest, because the PSOE-PSC plan for an unstoppable “Illa effect”—to be unleashed by its “dream candidate”, the former Spanish health minister Salvador Illa—provoked a stronger “anti-Illa effect” from pro-independence voters. 

On February 14, one and a half million fewer electors—over 25% of the electoral roll—came out than at the last election in December 2017, producing the lowest participation rate ever (53.5%). Yet, while the unionist vote was down by 764,000, the pro-independence vote fell by less, 642,000. The vote for Together We Can (ECP), the left coalition that is generally called the Commons and acknowledges a Catalan right to self-determination but is not pro-independence, fell by 132,000. 

The upshot was that independentism lifted its seat majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament from 70 to 74, the pro-independence vote topped 50% for the first time (at 51.2%), and the lead of the pro-independence over the unionist bloc widened from 13 seats to 21. Independentism won a seat majority in all four Catalan provinces—Barcelona, Lleida, Tarragona and Girona—and a vote majority in all provinces except Barcelona. The pro-independence vote exceeded 50% in 88% of Catalonia’s 947 municipalities, 25 more than in 2017.

Within independentism, the shift was leftwards, with the left-independentist alliance People’s Unity List-Let’s Win Catalonia (CUP-GC), increasing its tally from 4 seats to 9, the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) from 32 to 33, while the seat haul of Together for Catalonia (JxCat), ex-president Carles Puigdemont’s catch-all party of Catalan republicanism, fell from 34 to 32.

The PSC came in first with the highest vote (23% compared to ERC’s 21.3% and JxCat’s 20%), but with the same number of seats as the ERC (33). The PSC’s 16-seat gain (representing an increase in absolute vote of 46,000 and in percentage vote increase of 9.2%) came overwhelmingly from the neoliberal, Spanish-centralist Citizens: a reservoir of anti-independence votes in the 2017 poll, it imploded from 36 seats to six, losing the support of 952,000 electors.

Independentism’s win would have been even clearer if the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat) had not stood. A rebadging of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, the former ruling party of conservative Catalanism, PDECat campaigned as the low-tax, business-friendly wing of the independence camp: a vote for the PDECat would liberate independentism from being hostage to the radical CUP-GC, hated for forcing former CDC premier Artur Mas to step aside for Puigdemont after the 2015 election. However, PDECat’s score of 2.7% fell short of the 3% parliamentary representation threshold. Had it not stood, PDECat’s 77,000 votes would have mostly gone to JxCat and added up to 3 seats to the independence majority.

The failure of PDECat to enter parliament is another important step in the seemingly non-stop crisis of centre-right Catalan politics: the party that presented itself as continuation of all that was good in the formerly ruling Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) is now outside the parliament that its predecessor dominated for decades.

The Spanish-patriotic media was in no doubt about the meaning of the result. After years of headlines predicting collapse for the Catalan “soufflé”, its tone after February 14 was apocalyptic: “Catalonia, insoluble” and “The Catalan disaster” (La Razón); “A despotic nationalism, a sterile socialism, a residual opposition” (El Mundo); “A chronic anomaly”, “Nationalism endemic” and “Catalonia is a clinical case” (ABC). In this last article, ABC deputy-editor Luis Ventoso concluded that “Spain will lose Catalonia in the medium term unless there’s a drastic shift to joining the educational, media and cultural battle once and for all.” 

As one Catalan TV commentator noted on election night: “Independentism isn’t a soufflé, it’s a nougat bar from Alicante” [i.e., rock-hard]. 

PSOE-PSC: winners?

Backed by major Spanish media and with the advantage of ruling in the Spanish state, the PSOE-PSC easily achieved its initial goal of becoming the lead force within unionism. Its votes were mostly concentrated in Barcelona and the surrounding mainly Spanish-speaking working-class industrial “belts”: there the PSC’s “socialist” message of “rescuing Catalonia from division and hatred” and ending the (fictitious) “crisis of social harmony” won it ten extra seats. Its other six gains came two apiece from the three other provinces.

At the local government level, the PSC headed the vote in 105 of Catalonia’s 947 municipal regions, as opposed to only two in 2017. At the regional level, it was the most-voted party in eight of the country’s 42 shires (including the Occitan-speaking Vall d’Aran), up from zero in 2017.

Yet these advances went with a small fall in support for unionism in its areas of traditional strength. Most importantly, in Barcelona the decline was matched by increased support for centre-left and left independentism. Of the province’s 85 seats, 40—two more than in 2017—went to pro-independence parties, with the CUP-GC increasing its presence from 3 to 5, while the ERC took one seat from JxCat. Mirroring this increase was the fall in the unionist seat tally—from 40 to 38—with ECP, pro-sovereignty but not pro-independence, continuing to hold the remaining 7 seats.

The PSC still fell well short of its best results in past elections (37.9% and 31.2% in 1999 and 2003 respectively), as reflected in only partial recovery of the working-class vote in Catalonia’s main urban centres. Political analyst Jordi Muñoz explained this development in the February 21 Ara: the vote in Catalonia’s major industrial centres is now generally threefold when it had previously been a case of better-off neighbourhoods voting in their majority for the CDC and the working-class neighbourhoods voting PSC. 

On February 14, a relative majority voted for JxCat in the gentrified city centres; in the working-class and poor peripheries this went to the PSC, but in between these poles, in the older working-class neighbourhoods born of post-war immigration from the rest of the Spanish state, the relative majority now went to the ERC at the expense of the PSC. This was the case in the major industrial cities Tarragona, Terrassa, Sabadell, Reus, Mataró, and Badalona.

The PSOE-PSC won primacy within unionism with a virulent message against independentism in a campaign pitched at those who had voted Citizens in 2017. Victory thus came at the cost of the contraction of the unionist camp itself as well as of the PSC becoming more hostage to its most reactionary, Spanish-patriotic, sentiments. To ensure itself of the support of those who had voted for Citizens in 2017 and who remembered the “tripartite” 2003-2010 government of the PSC, ERC and Initiative for Catalonia (ICV, now part of ECP), Salvador Illa repeated: “I will never govern with a pro-independence party, that would be bad for Catalonia.”

Although done in the name of the supposedly “Catalanist” PSC, the Illa election campaign was a PSOE affair, headed up by prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s chief adviser Ivan Redondo, a political mercenary who has done racist dog-whistling campaigns for the right-wing People’s Party (PP). It featured seven interventions by Sánchez himself as well as a stream of special appearances by PSOE ministers: the message was that Spain and Catalonia would both work wonders if a Sánchez-Illa tandem were ruling in Madrid and Barcelona.

Since election night Illa and other PSC spokespersons have behaved as if they didn’t actually lose their February 14 contest with independentism: their party had come in first “decisively” and he would stand for the premiership in the first session of the new parliament. Illa will seek the support of ERC and ECP in forming a progressive government that “turns the page” on the divisions of the last decade. With this posturing Illa, who will get no support from ERC, is intent on reinforcing his legitimacy as “natural” premier in the case of the independence parties failing to form an administration.

Vox: the unionist right shrinks and radicalises

The other main development within unionism was the emergence of the xenophobic, Spanish-chauvinist Vox as main force within a right-unionist camp that halved to 20 seats. With its 11 seats (7.7%) giving it a majority within this bloc Vox not only devoured Citizens, but also marginalised the PP, Spain’s main conservative opposition force: it won only 3 seats (3.9%), its worst ever Catalan result. It is the first time that Vox—which brings together elements originating in the PP, in Francoist and Falangist sects and in the xenophobic Platform for Catalonia—has overtaken Citizens and PP in a regional election in the Spanish state.

As in the last Spanish general election, Vox got its best results at the extremes of the social scale, reaching 17.7% in the posh Barcelona district of Pedralbes—where the attraction would be its proposals for tax cuts—and 18.5% in the impoverished Barcelona neighbourhood of Torre Baró—where its proposal for a war on “illegal” immigration would have won support. Its other high points were reached in neighbourhoods around Civil Guard and army barracks.

The Vox vote was the result of years of belligerent opposition to the Catalan right to self-determination by Citizens in particular, but also the PP, both of whom proposed curtailing Catalonia’s autonomy and the use of the Catalan language in education. Vox simply drew these proposals to their logical conclusion: if Catalan secessionism is the main enemy of Spanish unity, why not wipe out all concessions to it, up to and including Catalan self-government? Indeed, why not finish off the job the Civil Guard and Spanish National Police failed to do on October 1, 2017?

The radicalisation represented by Vox’s vote guarantees a phase of heightened conflict in parliament, probably accompanied by street violence. (There were several clashes between Vox and anti-fascist groups during the election campaign.) 

One of the reasons for the Citizens’ debacle was that the more frenzied anti-Catalanist layers got bored with its politics of theatrical provocation going nowhere (such as demonstrations in Amer, Puigdemont’s hometown, and campaigns to rip down the yellow ribbons of solidarity with the political prisoners). They were wanting real action against the secessionists, the illegal migrants, the reds, and all the other enemies of Spain. These layers were always going to vote Vox, whose campaign slogan was “Let’s Recover Catalonia”, and the caustic irony to which Alejandro Fernández, the lead PP candidate, subjected his Vox counterpart for standing for a parliament he was proposing to abolish would have been lost on them.

ECP (The Commons)

The ECP, which formally stands for the Catalan right to self-determination and has in the past supported an independence referendum, shifted in this election to demanding that a solution to Spain’s “territorial problem” be negotiated at the suspended Spain-Catalonia dialogue table. In the name of creating a “left” alliance for government involving some combination of the PSC, ERC and itself, it concentrated fire obsessively on JxCat as “the right” with which no party calling itself left, i.e, the ERC, could make an alliance for government.

ECP maintained its eight seats with a vote that fell from 7.5% to 6.9%. However, it lost the contest for the radical left vote—to the left of both the PSC and the ERC—to the CUP-GC, which increased its seat tally from 4 to 9, won with 6.7% of the vote (up from 4.5% in 2017). This is the first time since the CUP first stood for the Catalan parliament in 2012 that the seat tally of left independentism has exceeded that of the Commons. Moreover, the CUP’s seats were won in all four provinces (with two in Girona where its vote reached 9%), while the ECP’s seats only came from Barcelona (seven) and Tarragona (one).

The ECP’s repositioning in favour of a Catalan version of the ruling Spanish PSOE-UP government, a shift which began when Barcelona mayor Ada Colau chose in 2019 to ally with the PSC, undermined its verbal commitment to the right to self-determination. As a result, sovereigntist forces that had previously been part of the Commons, such as Anticapitalists, this time called for a vote for the CUP-GC.

Changes within the independence bloc

The main feature of the pro-independence vote, within which ERC reversed its narrow 2017 loss to Carles Puigdemont’s party, was the increased weight of the forces calling themselves left: from 51% to 57% of the seats won. The likelihood of ERC lead candidate Pere Aragonès becoming the next Catalan premier after the party’s 82 years in exile and opposition also has symbolic weight, especially when we remember that its last elected premier, Lluís Companys, was executed in 1940 by the Franco dictatorship after the Gestapo in France deported him at Franco’s request.

The main basis of the ERC’s win, while aided by PDECat drawing votes away from JxCat, was its steady expansion in Catalonia’s urban and rural regions. In 2017, it won only four of Catalonia’s 42 shires and came second in 32: at this election it won ten shires and came second in the other 32.

At the local government level, the ERC won 251 of the country’s 947 municipal regions, up from 143 in the 2017 poll. These gains mainly came at the expense of JxCat, which was the lead force in 562 municipal regions, compared to its score of 667 in 2017. JxCat came in first in 24 shires, down from the 29 it won in 2017.

The biggest contribution to overall growth of the independence vote came from the CUP-GC. Its percentage vote increased in 861 municipalities, well ahead of the ERC (462) and JxCat and PDECat taken together (363). However, the success of the CUP-GC emerges most clearly from the increase in its absolute vote in 563 municipal regions (59.5% of the total), despite the 25% rise in the abstention rate. The ERC managed absolute vote gains in only 32 municipal regions and JxCat in only 14.

The CUP-GC was rewarded because it went to these elections with a rethought strategy for achieving independence and a concrete and understandable program against the social crisis.

What strategy for independence? What government?

For the pro-independence parties the most important challenge emerging from these results regards their proposals for independence strategy and alliances for government: on both issues they went to the electors with contradictory proposals (see detail here).

The initial proposal from ERC lead candidate Pere Aragonès is for a four-party coalition of those supporting Catalonia’s right to self-determination and amnesty for the political prisoners and exiles (ERC, JxCat, CUP-GC and the ECP). ERC calls this an “October 3” governing alliance, a reference to the massive general strike and protest that engulfed Catalonia two days after the police violence of October 1 and which involved broad non-independentist sections of the population. ERC calls for the negotiating table between the Spanish and Catalan governments to be reconstituted, raising there the demand for a negotiated Scottish-style independence referendum.

Addressing the ERC National Council on February 19, Aragonès said:

We have to stretch the limits of the Spanish government by putting amnesty and self-determination at the centre. Patience is not endless and we have to confront [the period] as a stage of accumulation of forces. Whether the State accepts a referendum or not, we have to direct ourselves toward the victory that will come with maximum guarantees of success.

He added:

We face a historic opportunity. The victories of the ERC served to restore the republican Generalitat [the Catalan government, in 1931], and now victory must open the doors to creating the basis for amnesty, referendum and laying the foundations of the new republic.

The four-party alliance projected by the ERC will not happen, because of the mutual veto between JxCat and the Commons, but it may be possible for Aragonès to negotiate the latter’s abstention in an investiture session.

The ERC opened the initial negotiating round with the CUP-GC, which is having its own debate on whether to participate—and on what conditions—in a tripartite pro-independence government. That seems unlikely, with the more probable outcome being CUP-GC support in the investiture session in exchange for guarantees on advancing the independence struggle and action against the economic crisis. On February 16, the CUP-GC laid out four areas in which it requires progress before voting to support an ERC-led government: a new referendum, an end to repression (including Catalan police repression of protests), a “shock plan” to meet the social emergency and an ecological transition.

Last week’s clashes between demonstrators, looters and police in demonstrations against the imprisonment of rapper Pablo Hasél will complicate the negotiations between ERC and the CUP, which is demanding the dissolution of the Catalan riot squad.

Aragonès’s toughest problem will be to repair relations between ERC and JxCat and avoid a repetition of the chronic distrust and divisions of the last government. Finding agreement on next steps in the independence struggle between organisations with marked strategic differences will be key. On February 18, JxCat secretary-general Jordi Sànchez told Ara: “What we pro-independence parties with responsibilities in the Parliament have to do is to sit around a table and build a joint strategy.”

As for JxCat’s scepticism as to the value of the dialogue table between the Spanish and Catalan governments, Sànchez said: “We think that it is still a helpful proposal. JxCat has always said that it is for dialogue and negotiation, but not for the use of dialogue as party-political calculation. The balance sheet of the last year of supposed dialogue has shown that it was just smoke and mirrors, because the Spanish government has not believed in dialogue. We need a method, we need objectives and we need discretion.”

The negotiations over government are taking place with the Catalan mass organisations demanding different goals. The Catalan National Assembly wants a united pro-independence government while Òmnium Cultural demands a government committed to the struggle for amnesty and the right to self-determination. At the same time, the PSOE-PSC is looking for every opportunity to work the cracks between the two principal pro-independence parties. 

The PP-aligned upper echelons of the Spanish judiciary also remain intent on maintaining its persecution of the Catalan movement. Not 24 hours had passed after the election before the Spanish prosecutor-general’s office appealed against the decision of a Catalan court to grant day leave to the nine political prisoners: the move was obviously held up until February 15 to forestall a sympathy vote for the pro-independence parties.

It was a reminder of the huge responsibility on the independence parties to find an agreed path for forcing the “progressive” Spanish PSOE-UP government to stop ignoring the demands of the vast majority of Catalans—for amnesty and an independence referendum—and to develop a joint strategy of what to do in the inevitable event of refusal.

This is especially the case given that the leap in the abstention rate on February 14 could not be ascribed totally to the COVID-19 threat. It also reflected a growing alienation of people struggling to survive the social and economic crisis with a Catalan politics dominated by the struggle around the right to self-determination: the abstention rate reached extreme levels (90%) in Barcelona’s poorest and most marginalised neighbourhoods.

The great challenge for the incoming Catalan government—and for the broader Catalan sovereignty movement—will be to show through concrete initiative that the fight for self-determination is not some hobby for the better-off layers of Catalan society, but an essential ingredient in the struggle for a better life for all.

Dick Nichols is European correspondent for Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.