Catalan elections: A stride forward for national and social justice

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras campaigns for ICV-EUiA leader Joan Herrera campaign central act in Barcelona. Photo by Laura Guerrero.

By Dick Nichols, Barcelona

November 30, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Most pre-election polls picked the main trends in the November 25 elections for the135-seat parliament of Catalonia. What they underestimated—massively—was the strength of those trends, and for two reasons. It was not clear how large the expected increase in voter participation would be and right until the last minute up to 30% of voters were undecided.

As things turned out these critical elections stirred political passions so much that participation reached a record of just under 70%--5% above the previous high for a Catalan parliamentary contest. From early morning long queues formed at polling stations as 610,000 more people than in 2010 lined up to make their point (an increase of 11%).

The election took place against the background of massive mobilisation around both the Catalan national struggle and all-Spanish social struggle, dramatised by the 1.5 million-strong Barcelona demonstration for Catalan independence on September 11 and the 1 million-strong turnout in the city for the November 14 general strike protest.

It also took place two years early because the conservative nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) government, led by premier Artur Mas, decided that promising the people of Catalonia an act of free choice over independence was the only way of guaranteeing CiU’s survival as the rulers of the region. Before taking that plunge Artur Mas was just another hated implementer of austerity plummeting in the polls.

Mas’s plan was to surf the rise in Catalan independence sentiment to a 68-seat absolute majority. While the rhetoric of the CiU campaign was that the election was needed to create such a majority in favour of Catalonia’s right to decide, this was largely a smokescreen. That majority already existed in the outgoing parliament.

It was made up of CiU, the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the left alliance of Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and the United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) and Catalan Solidarity and for Independence (SI). It had actually adopted a resolution reaffirming Catalonia’s unilateral right to decide by 86 votes to 44.

While a larger majority in favour of this right would have strengthened CiU’s position against the national People’s Party (PP) government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, Mas’s primary motivation was to free CiU from its need for support from the PP’s Catalan affiliate (the PPC) on austerity policy.

In short, an absolute majority would have given Mas a free hand on both the national and the economic and social fronts. To achieve it he ran a messianic personal campaign parallel to CiU’s, increasingly presenting himself as a non-politician who would retire to play with the grandchildren once he had given his people their act of self-determination.

The Catalan premier, whose party is embroiled in a funding scandal based on kickbacks to CiU from government contracts, also took to quoting Gandhi (“first they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win”).

CiU’s disaster

The election result brought the exalted Mas to the ground with a thump. It was a disaster across all four provinces of Catalonia. In a poll where an extra 610,000 voted, 98,000 deserted CiU, which sank to its lowest point since 1980. Even in the two provinces where numbers supporting CiU increased (Girona and Lleida) its percentage of the vote fell.

CiU’s loss of 7.8% (from 38.4% to 30.6%) and of 12 seats (from 62 to 50) was overwhelmingly the result of two powerful and polarised reactions to Mas’s campaign: from those sceptical about the strength of CiU’s commitment to Catalan independence and from those dead set against any change in Catalonia’s relation to the Spanish State.

No poll, not even public channel TV3’s exit poll on election night, picked the depth of this double rejection. How it was divided, socially and regionally, is the main story of the election. The second story—scarcely less important—is the overall shift to the left revealed in the election result.

CiU’s rout was worst in the populous working class and industrial areas of the province of Barcelona, where the impact of its attacks on public health and education and welfare services have been most felt. In the “first belt” of dormitory suburbs and towns outside Barcelona proper CiU’s vote fell by around 12%. CiU lost nine seats in Barcelona province.

Its other disaster area was the southern industrial city and provincial capital of Tarragona, where its vote fell by 10% and it lost two seats.

No gains in the more sparely populated and conservative CiU heartlands along the Pyrenees could offset that thumping, even with the help of the electoral system, which gives a vote in Lleida province twice the value of one in Barcelona. With one-vote one-value CiU would have won only 41 seats.

In the few centres where CiU’s percentage vote increased it picked up voters deserting the Moslem-baiting Platform for Catalunya (PxC)—this was the case in the towns of Vic and Olot in the province of Girona and Cervera and Tàrrega in Lleida.

ERC leap forward

CiU’s loss was a direct gain for the ERC, which attracted 277,000 extra voters, nearly doubling its percentage support (from 7% to 13.7%) and more than doubling its representation, from 10 seats to 21. While all pre-election polls foresaw a rise in support for the ERC, none predicted this level of gain (the average of predictions was 16-17).

The ERC campaigned as the reliable force for Catalan independence. The vagueness of CIU’s election campaign slogan (“The Will of a People—Let’s Make it Possible”) contrasted with the ERC’s “A New Country for Everyone”. A sign that ERC attacks on CiU ambiguities was already having some impact in the campaign was the late rush of CiU advertising urging a vote for Mas as the man “who would have to lead the process to a state of our own”.

The ERC campaign not only exploited CiU’s record of supporting the national PP government’s worst measures in Madrid—such as its draconian labour “reform”—but also the ambiguities built into CiU itself. The party is a federation between the pro-independence Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) and the federalist Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC). Over the years it has also become the main party of patronage, attracting a sizable membership of people content with the status quo and comfortable with CiU’s Catalanist rhetoric so long as it isn’t acted on.

The ERC gain was greatest in the rural and regional areas where support for Catalan nationalism is strongest (reaching 26.7% in the shire of Conca de Barberá, and averaging 17.7% and 17.4% in the provinces of Girona and Lleida respectively). The party also recorded strong gains in the ordinary neighbourhoods of Barcelona proper, often displacing the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) as the second force behind CiU.

In the working-class “first belt” of towns around Barcelona and in the “second belt” its traditionally low level of support doubled to 10%-12%.

The surge in support for ERC went well beyond the decline in the vote for CiU. The ERC also gained support from the losses of the PSC (see below) as supporters of that party’s minority Catalanist wing shifted across to strengthen left-nationalism against Mas’s party.

In Llleida province the ERC picked up one seat from CiU and one from the PSC. In Girona it picked up one from the PSC, and in Tarragona two from CiU.

After two years of CiU austerity ERC’s record as a member of the 2003-2010 three-party government of PSC, ICV-EUiA and ERC also counted for less than its commitment to independence. The efforts of Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, UDC president and CIU parliamentary leader in the national parliament, to remind voters that in 2003 the ERC had preferred to form the “pro-Spanish” three-party government rather than stick to the nationalist camp were of no avail.

On the assumption that the vast majority of votes lost by CiU and the PSC went to the ERC, the party would have attracted the support of between a fifth and a quarter of new voters at this election (between 120,000 and 150,000).


A near mirror image of the ERC’s rise was the leap in support for the Spanish-centralist party Citizens (C’s), which tripled its representation to nine seats on the back of an extra169,000 votes, with its support more than doubling from 3.4% to 7.6%. Once again, the polls predicted that Citizens would gain, but only 6-7 seats.

The key to the success of the Citizens’ campaign was to exploit the three major concerns of the indignado movements—shared by the vast majority of people—in order to sweep the issue of Catalonia’s right to decide under the carpet. “Better United” said the Citizens slogan, in order to reform the country’s cruel eviction law, to make the banks pay for the crisis of the financial sector, and to tackle the corruption of the political establishments in Barcelona and Madrid.

Catalonia’s right to self-determination? The “democrats” of Citizens portrayed that merely as a ploy to switch attention from CiU’s corruption and social brutality. Forget about that diversion, said its smooth spokesperson Albert Rivera, we need politicians committed to cleaning up the whole Spanish mess.

The vote for Citizens’ was directly helped by the filthy ferocity of the national PP government campaign against Mas and CiU. This saw Rajoy make five visits to Catalonia in two weeks and unleashed all the Spanish oligarchy’s ancient and visceral hatred of things Catalan. It was to take the often tense relationship between the ruling elites in Barcelona and Madrid to breaking point.

For example, a week out from the poll the conservative daily El Mundo published a copy of a “legal document”, which purported to show that Spanish interior ministry police were investigating Mas for allegedly receiving funds from a scam involving the alleged Catalan government contract kickbacks to CiU. The funds were supposedly in a Swiss bank account. National PP finance minister Cristobal Montoro said that the national taxation agency would have to take an interest in any such account.

On November 21, the Catalan chief prosecutor Martín Rodríguez Sol, launched a case against El Mundo for publishing “radically false and deceitful” information. On November 22, the national chief prosecutor, Eduardo Torres-Dulce, asked Rodríguez Sol to withdraw the action.

On the same day Mas accused Rajoy and his ministers (“the sewers of the state”) of being behind this dirty trick, which had also targeted former CiU leader Jordi Pujol and interior minister Felip Puig.

While no-one was able to locate the original of the published document, this affair seemed only to help Mas. When the original document was finally uncovered by the police union, it was undated, unsigned and didn’t mention Mas by name.

None of this means that anyone would be surprised to find the CiU elite connected to Swiss banks accounts. Just that the hyper-corrupt PP accusations were the pot calling the cattle black, increasing revulsion for the PP as well as Mas and co.

The other source of votes for Citizens was the most anti-Catalanist sectors of the PSC’s traditional support base, those who disagreed even with that party’s highly conditional switch to a Catalan right to decide and to a federal structure for Spain.

Citizens got its highest vote in the areas where there is highest migration from other parts of Spain into Catalonia. In Tarragona city its vote more than tripled, from 2.7% to 7.3% (overtaking ICV-EUiA), with a similar result in the industrial towns of Reus and El Vendrell.

Across Barcelona province the vote for Citizens reached 8.4%, with peaks in the PSC-run industrial towns of Mollet, Rubí and Terrassa.

PSC: a debacle we can live with

Some of the pre-election polls predicted a holocaust for the PSC, with forecasts as low as half its already low 28 seats (it won 42 in 2003). The average prediction was 18-19 seats.

In the end the PSC lost “only” eight seats (down to 20) and 50,000 votes (4%). However, in the process it fell behind the ERC on seats, and became downgraded from Catalonia’s second political force to one of four fighting to emerge as “the” opposition to CiU. (The PSC won 27,000 more votes than the ERC, but suffered in seats because of the Catalan electoral system.)

This result was greeted by the PSC leadership as a disaster they could live with.

In its campaign the PSC lost on its left flank to ERC and ICV-EUiA, but probably contained further damage in its working class heartlands by increasing its attacks on CiU austerity (and by being visible at the November 14 general strike protest).

The PSC also paid a price for its position on Catalonia’s right to decide, summed up in the slogan “Neither Centralism, Nor Independence—Federalism!”

The PSC line is that it supports Catalonia’s right to decide, provided this is exercised constitutionally. Since the Spanish constitution only allows the regional governments (“autonomous communities”) to conduct a referendum on the say-so of the Spanish parliament, the PSC position means the Catalan right to self-determination will only ever be exercised when a majority in its favour sits in Madrid.

During the campaign people looked quizzically at PSC leader Pere Navarro as he doggedly outlined his party’s “sensible alternative”—a scenario of the national PP government “having to take notice” of Catalonia’s national desires and of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), also full of Spanish centralists, riding to the rescue if they didn’t.

No wonder Mas kept intoning that “no constitution, no law, no court can stop a people from fulfilling its destiny.” In a three-way TV debate between Mas, PPC leader Alicia Sánchez-Camacho and Navarro the Catalan premier easily emerged as the most democratic.

The PSC’s worst losses were in Barcelona city, the most politicised space of all Catalonia—29,000 of the 51,000 votes lost across the country deserted the PSC there. In 2010, in Barcelona city’s ten districts the PSC came first in one, second in seven and third in two (the wealthiest). In this poll the PSC score was first in one, second in one, third in three, fourth in two, fifth in two and sixth in one (behind Citizens).

Across Barcelona city the ERC scored 7000 votes more and ICV-EUiA only 2000 less than the PSC, the party which had held the Barcelona mayoralty for 35 years. In Barcelona’s most “alternative” neighbourhood, Gràcia, the PSC vote (7.9%) was only 1000 more than that of the activist-based left-independentist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP).

The PSC vote held up best in the working class and industrial greater Barcelona area, where losses were in the 3% to 3.5% range. That kept losses down to four seats in Barcelona province. In Lleida province the PSC fell from second to fourth place, losing two of its three seats (one to the ERC and one to ICV-EUiA), while in Girona it lost a seat to the ERC and in Tarragona a seat to Citizens.

In summary, the PEC’s performance at this election did not lead directly to the “Pasokisation” that some were predicting, but it now faces a grinding fight against the ICV-EUiA to hold off that outcome.

ICV-EUiA advance

The average of the pre-election predictions for ICV-EUiA was 11-12 seats. In the end the left coalition came in with 13 seats (9.9%, the best result for it and its predecessor organisations since 1980). The core of the gains came from a strong performance in Barcelona province, where the coalition harvested 108,000 of its extra 128,000 votes.

The ICV-EUiA campaign was summed up in its slogan “National Rights, Yes; But Social Rights Too”. It backed the need for a Catalan act of self-determination, but avoided a commitment to a specific outcome, saying this would depend on the options available at the time of choice.

In particular, in the words of lead candidate Joan Herrera to a November 20 meet-the-candidate meeting at the University of Barcelona economics faculty, “the sovereignty debate shouldn’t be approached in terms of identity or sentiment but in terms of what sort of political community we want.”

The ICV-EUiA campaign, based on giving a voice in the institutions to the vast range of social struggles that have been taking place in Catalonia, had enough impact to attract counterattacks from the other main contenders.

It also lifted the discussion around the campaign beyond Catalonia and Spain when it brought Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras to its main meeting in Barcelona. At this passionate gathering Tsipras and Herrera were at pains to explain the need for a left response to the crisis on a European, especially a southern European, scale, and to point out that the enemy of the indebted “peripheral” countries was not “Germany” but the German banks who had pressed money on everyone when the going was good.

Mas attempted to counter ICV-EUiA criticism of CiU-imposed austerity with attacks on the ICV-EUIA’s role in the previous tripartite government, whose “wastefulness” is supposed to be at the heart of the Catalan state’s financial problems.

The nervousness of the PSC was particularly marked, as former PSC mayors and over a thousand trade unionists called for a vote for the coalition. One emblematic moment occurred when Diana Garrigosa, wife of former Barcelona mayor and Catalan premier Pasqual Maragall, said she was hesitating between a vote for ICV-EUiA and spoiling her ballot.

The PSC response to this trend was to tell lies. Navarro told a meeting in working-class Hospitalet “whoever votes for ICV-EUiA is voting for independence.” On the same day ERC leader Oriol Junqueras attacked the left coalition for not committing to independence!

Navarro’s nervousness was well-placed. In the main towns of the industrial and working class “first belt” of Barcelona, the former stronghold of its predecessor, the United Socialist Party of Catalunya (PSUC), the ICV-EUiA vote increased by 37,000 votes, from 9.2% to 13.2%, its biggest percentage rise. Its campaign, stressing Catalonia’s right to decide as opposed to independence, probably helped keep a lot of working class votes on the left.

In Barcelona city ICV-EUiA’s 30,000 vote increase matched a similar decrease in the PSC vote. The left coalition picked up two seats in Barcelona province and one in Lleida.

The CUP emerges

Almost in a parallel universe to that of the mainstream election campaign was that of the CUP, with its slogan of “Independence! Socialism! Catalan Lands!” Pre-election polling showed that the pollsters didn’t really know what to say about this overwhelmingly youthful, assembly-based, left-nationalist force, with forecasts ranging from zero to seven seats.

In the end, at its first effort in a Catalan parliamentary poll the CUP won 126,000 votes, 3.5% of the vote and three seats, all in Barcelona province.

The CUP vote was strongest in Barcelona city, reaching 6.3% in Gràcia. It also scored well in a number of towns where CUP councillors have been prominent in the struggle against corruption, bureaucracy and cuts to services, as well as in the movement for municipalities to declare independence from Spain (reaching 7.3% in the coastal town of Vilanova i la Geltru). The highest provincial vote for the CUP was in Girona province (4.2%), where it narrowly missed winning a fourth seat.

The CUP campaign generated enormous enthusiasm amongst activists, with 450 meetings around country, culminating in a 2400 main rally in Barcelona, with hundreds having to follow the event from outside the hall.

It received endorsement from left nationalist and radical forces across the Spanish state, including from Arnaldo Otegi, the imprisoned leader of the Basque nationalist left.

In the streets of Catalonia’s main cities CUP material often predominated, testimony to the enormous mobilisation of its own activists and other social collectives that identified with its message.

Confident of winning seats, on November 21 the CUP announced the five proposals which it would carry into the Catalan parliament. They are: exercising the right of self-determination; stopping public service cuts and privatisations; closing nuclear power stations and reinstituting public management of water; realising a debt audit and not paying back any illegitimate debt; and immediately halting evictions.

The rest

The only forces for whom the polls’ prediction came true were the PPC, SI and PxC.SI, the maddest cousins within the broad family of Catalan nationalism with a happy line of “don’t worry, just declare independence”, lost its three seats in parliament as it fell below the 3% threshold for representation.

The PPC vote increased slightly (from 12.4% to 13%, by 84,000 votes), and it picked up one seat in Girona province (19 in all).

The main PPC line was that if Mas’s “separatist delirium” were successful, the incoming government in Catalonia would be obsessed with “separation” instead of dealing with the economic crisis and unemployment.

PPC leader Alícia Sánchez-Camacho’s campaign (“Catalonia Yes, Spain Too!”) was full of spooky nonsense about an independent Catalonia being doomed to Third World status—broke, out of the Euro, unable to pay its pensioners while forcing immigrants to Catalonia from other parts of Spain to adopt Catalan names.

This line worked best for the PP in those areas of working class immigration from the rest of Spain where the ICV-EUiA was not strong enough to provide a competing perspective, in particular in the industrial towns of Tarragona province stricken by the economic crisis. There the PP vote rose from 13.4% to 15%. By contrast in the “first belt” around Barcelona the PP vote remained stuck on 11%.

Another area of gain for the PP was from CiU in the wealthier suburbs of Barcelona, among well-to-do voters appalled with Mas’s fit of adventurism. It may also have picked up votes from the xenophobic PxC, especially in towns like Badalona where PP mayors have been implementing discriminatory policies against “illegals” and “undesirables”.

The defeat of PxC was another agreeable by-product of the campaign, with leader Josep Anglada submitting his resignation after its vote fell from 2.4% to 1.6%.

Some conclusions

When the results of the election became known, Dolores de Cospedal, PP general secretary, couldn’t wait to get onto television in order gloat over Mas’s and CiU’s debacle. The PP should enjoy this “victory” over its counterparts in Barcelona while it can, because this result spells further trouble for Madrid and the Rajoy government’s projects of austerity and repression of national rights.

First, the rotating two-alliance system based on CiU and the PSC is now dead. The CiU-PSC combined vote accounted in the past for up to three quarters of the vote. In the 2010 poll these two forces had already received only 56.8% of the vote. At this election the combined CiU-PSC vote fell to 45.1%

Second, the forces in favour of Catalonia’s unilateral right to choose emerged slightly stronger from the contest. They had 86 seats (56.1% of the vote) in the previous parliament, and now have 87 seats (57.7%). In 2010, 1.756 million voters supported parties backing that right, at this poll the number increased to 2.098 million.

Forces denying Catalonia’s right to choose increased their support more, from 21 seats (15.8% of the vote) to 28 seats (20.6%). In 2010, 493,000 voted for them, while in 2012 this figure rose to 746,000.

This shift represents a radicalisation within Catalonia around the country’s right to decide its future, but it is one in which the balance of forces within the nationalist camp has swung in favour of those most committed to it and away from those prepared to use it simply as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Madrid over funding.

Given the strength of sentiment around Catalonia’s right to decide within CiU’s own support base and Mas’s dependence on ERC support for investiture as the incoming premier, rising tension leading to a decisive clash with the institutions of the Spanish State seems unavoidable.

Thirdly, the CiU government is in a weaker position to implement austerity—beginning with a €4 billion cut in the Catalan budget that slipped Mas’s mind during his election campaign. CiU’s traditional ally in austerity, the PPC, has made it clear that the price of future support is Mas’s abandonment of “separatism”.

ERC or PSC support for CiU austerity is also pretty unimaginable, given the pressure on the left flank of both forces from ICV-EUiA and also the CUP. ICV-EUiA leader Joan Herrera has already proposed an anti-austerity pact to all left parties.

Relatively uncommented in the mainstream media here is the fact that the elections also produced a clear strengthening of left forces as well as of the ERC, which calls itself left even if vulnerable to CiU offers to swap acceptance of a bit of austerity for an advance along the independence path.

However, Mas’s attempt to put the struggle for national rights into a box hermetically sealed against interference from social struggles failed, largely because of the November 14 general strike and protest. A harbinger of this failure was the decision of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), co-organiser of the September 11 demonstration for Catalan independence, to support the strike.

This is the context in which to set the rise in support for clearly left forces (ICV-EUiA and CUP). This has increased from 10 seats to 16 seats, representing a doubling of votes from 231,000 to 485,000 (7.4% to 13.4%). Provided they can act together on the many issues on which they have common positions, an alliance of the CUP and ICV-EUiA could exercise great pressure on both the ERC and PSC to maintain opposition to CiU austerity.

That approach will be further helped by the statements of Joan Herrera during and after the campaign to the effect that the ICV-EUiA coalition falls short of expressing the full strength of left sentiment and activity in Catalan society, and that a key challenge is to find the way forward to new organisational forms that can achieve that.

Moving along that path will be critical to strengthening the struggle for national and social justice in Catalonia. It will have repercussions across Spain and Europe, especially if, as seems likely, a severely weakened CiU government is forced to another early poll.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal based in Barcelona. An earlier version of this article appeared in Green Left Weekly.]