Catalan national struggle enters critical stage

On the day after the Constitutional Court decision, the squares of Catalonia’s towns were full to the brim with protesters.

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By Dick Nichols

October 12, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On September 29, the normally sluggish Spanish legal system had an attack of extreme speed. Its Usain Bolt-like behaviour was sparked by the regional government of Catalonia formally decreeing the long-awaited November 9 non-binding consultation of Catalan opinion [referendum] on the future political status of the region.

Just three days after the Catalan parliament adopted the consultation law and two days after Catalan premier Artur Mas signed the decree, the Spanish Constitutional Court ordered their suspension while it was considering its opinion: the national Spanish People’s Party (PP) government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy had immediately petitioned the court to declare the law and the decree unconstitutional.

Nobody is expecting that this body, composed of appointees of the PP and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and notorious for overturning key parts of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy, will do anything other than eventually overturn both law and decree.

The court’s ruling immediately put the minority Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU) government on the spot: would it suspend the November 9 referendum or would it defy the court? Its immediate response was to announce that it was “suspending” its campaign for the consultation (for example, by freezing updating of the consultation web site). However, it continued with practical preparations, announcing at the same time that the consultation would still go ahead if there were “sufficient democratic guarantees”.

On October 1, the Catalan parliament nominated the independent seven-person commission to oversee the consultation, provoking a further appeal to the Constitutional Court from the Rajoy administration.

On October 3, the four Catalan parties in favour of the consultation—CiU, the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and its partner the United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) and the Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP)—agreed after a tense seven-hour meeting to keep working together to overcome the Madrid-imposed barriers to the consultation.

As a result, preparations for November 9 resumed, with foreign residents eligible to vote and Catalans living abroad again able to register on the voting roll for the consultation.

On October 9, the pro-consultation parties had a further, supposedly private, meeting which considered all the administrative and legal roadblocks confronting November 9. According to media reports, the representatives of ERC, ICV-EUiA and CUP urged Artur Mas to get directly involved in preparing the consultation and to counteract the timidity, hesitations and back-pedalling of the ministers responsible for it.


These events have been taking place against a background of ongoing popular mobilisation. On the day after the Constitutional Court decision, the squares of Catalonia’s towns were full to the brim with protesters, all under umbrellas because of the pouring rain.

On October 4, 800 mayors from Catalonia’s 947 local councils gathered in the Catalan government building in central Barcelona to express their support for November 9. In the end the motion of support for the consultation that was submitted to local council vote was passed by 920 (97.1% of the total), including by councils run by the PP (like Badalona, Catalonia’s third-largest city) and the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC, the Catalan affiliate of PSOE).

On October 7-8, a 48-hour student strike in support of November 9 took place across the country, with marches in major cities.

The Catalan National Assembly, the main organising force behind the last three years’ massive demonstrations for a Catalan right to decide, is planning further mass mobilisations before November 9, beginning with a massive protest in central Barcelona on October 19. Along with Omnium Cultural in the “Now is the Hour” platform, the Catalan National Assembly has also already begun carrying out a survey doorknock of every household in Catalonia.

The doorknock campaign was launched by 2300 volunteers in working-class Badalona, where many migrants from other parts of Spain, Latin America and North Africa live. According to a report in El Periodico, results were predictably mixed, with volunteers in one poor neighbourhood, La Salut, being greeted with more than one shout of “Catalonia is Spain!”, and with people refusing to open the door, or, if they did, not understanding the questions being asked in the survey.

Video in English from Catalonia’s left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP), explaining their position on Catalonia’s right to self-determination and their vision of an independent Catalonia.

On the other hand, involvement from Latin American families was high with some supporting outright independence. In the most Catalan-speaking parts of Badalona participation in the survey was consistently high.

All this mobilisation will certainly need to continue, most of all to ensure that the CiU government—quite unused to actually leading mass popular revolt—sticks to its guns in the face of intensifying fire from the Rajoy government, the PSOE and all parts of the Spanish establishment.

Spanish-centralist blitzkeig

The PP is organising its counter-offensive on all fronts, beginning with the usual “bodies of armed men”. On October 1, Catalonia awoke to learn that it had been blessed with 400-450 extra agents from the National Police riot squad—unsolicited by the Catalan government and additional to 300 sent in May. Leading Rajoy government hawk, interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, described this operation as “a normal rotation”.

However, in an October 6 interview with the conservative daily El Mundo, Fernandez Diaz remarked that Mas and ERC leader Oriel Jonqueras were bent on repeating “the events of this day 80 years ago”.

This was a reference to October 6, 1934, when the then Catalan premier Lluis Companys declared “the Catalan State within the Spanish Republic” in response to the incorporation of extreme right-wing ministers in the Spanish national government. The declaration led to clashes between the national and Catalan police in Barcelona, and the arrest and imprisonment of Companys and his ministers.

Fernandez Diaz is doubtless preparing for what would be for the Rajoy government a worse-case scenario, but the situation today is radically different from 1934, not the least because no one in Catalonia is thinking of anything like a unilateral declaration of independence without prior political preparation.

On November 9, Fernandez Diaz’s riot police will be confronted with a normal voting day. Is he really thinking of using them to stop people entering the 2700 voting stations planned for November 9? Or is he thinking of arresting the entire Catalan government if November 9 takes place? That might be popular with the Spanish extreme right, but it would be the end of the Rajoy government.

How would the army react to a call to invade Catalonia? According to Lieutenant Luis Gonzalo Segura, a whistleblower against corruption in Spain’s armed forces, “the greater part of the armed forces would understand” that an order to invade Catalonia would be illegal.

Despite its visceral Spanish centralism and the pressure from PP hawks (like former prime minister Jose Maria Aznar) the Rajoy government probably grasps that any use of physical force against the peaceful Catalan movement would come at a dreadful political cost for the ruling elites, in Spain and across Europe. Editorials last week in the Financial Times and on the Bloomberg financial website calling for meaningful negotiation from Madrid would have reinforced that point.

This reality is why, while trying to scare everyone with paddy wagons and references to Catalonia’s past tragedies, the PP is concentrating most of its energy on splitting the alliance of pro-consultation parties by spooking the more faint-hearted with the spectre of November 9 being a flop.

The PP is being helped in this by the forces within the Catalan ruling elite, who have become as frightened of the dynamic of the Catalan national movement as Scottish big business was with the pro-independence movement in Scotland. For example, on October 7, the Catalan daily El Periodico finally declared its hand by calling for an end to the “farce” of the CiU government preparing a consultation that it “knew would not take place”.

Of all the actors in the Catalan drama, the local big bourgeoisie remains the most consistent, repeating the script described by a cynical Madrid senior bureaucrat in the 1920s: “They scream against Madrid until the workers scream louder than them, and then they run to Madrid to beg us to silence the workers.”[i]

To make sure the consultation is suspended or found “illegitimate” if it goes ahead, national government representatives have sent all national public servants in Catalonia a letter threatening them with disciplinary action if they agree to oversee the consultation. The response from the pro-consultation forces has been to organise to run the event with Catalan government public servants and municipal employees.

At the same time, the Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD) has launched a suit against Mas and the presiding committee of the Catalan parliament, including speaker Nuria Gisbert, for deliberately breaking the law. On September 22, the hysterically Spanish-patriotic UPyD leader, Rosa Diez, remarked that “if it wasn’t for the fact that in the Basque Country they killed us[ii], the situation in Catalonia is worse”.

As for the PSOE, it has given full backing to the Rajoy government’s case in the Constitutional Court, while the PSC, after the experience of many of its local councillors voting in favour of November 9, has stated that any member who participates in helping an “illegal” consultation will be expelled.

The sour cherry on the cake of all this attention to Catalonia was the launch on October 6 of a Catalan language web edition of the pro-PSOE daily, El País. The launch was attended by a “glittering array” of PP and PSOE notables, including Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, and Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, the deputy prime minister. Now Catalan readers of El País will be able to read the paper’s slanders and pseudo-analyses of the Catalan national movement in their own tongue.

All this pressure produced a small win for the anti-consultation forces on October 4, when Quim Brugué, the ICV nomination for the consultation control commission, announced that he could not participate in a process that had been suspended by the Constitutional Court. Despite this setback, the control commission has been meeting to plan the proper functioning of November 9.

Lefts against independence

On October 9, a new actor in the drama made its appearance when El Periodico carried a two-page declaration, in Castilian and Catalan, entitled “For the Unity of Working People--Let’s Decide No to Independence!”. It outlined left arguments against independence, but was silent on the burning issues of the moment: Do the Catalan people have the right to decide their future? Should the November 9 consultation go ahead?

Given this ambiguity on the most critical moment to date in the fight for November 9, the declaration’s call for working-class unity against Rajoy and Mas (“the most diligent and obedient executor of the diktats of the IMF and Merkel”) came across as left and “communist” support to the forces trying to kill off the consultation.

In what was an open attack on ICV-EUiA (and, by implication the all-Spanish United Left, which supports a Catalan right to decide) the declaration said: “What is anyone who calls themselves left doing allying themselves with these people? Let’s not deceive ourselves with the false belief that the independence of Catalonia will create better conditions for political and social change. The only thing we will achieve is to divide Catalans and set them against each other and the rest of the Spanish people, with whom we share not only common interests, but the same tradition of struggle and a host of cultural, historical, emotional and family ties.”

The answer to the statement’s questions as to why the vast majority of the Catalan left—including the heads of the two main trade union confederations (the General Union of Workers and the Workers Commissions)—is allying with “these people” is that they all agree on one small thing: the democratic right to decide of the Catalan people (and on practically nothing else). If this alliance is not maintained the actual chances of that right being exercised will be seriously set back.

Do Francisco Frutos, former Communist Party of Spain (PCE) national secretary and one of the statement’s most prominent signatories, as well as the list of trade union officials who have also signed it agree with that right? Until evidence to the contrary emerges, the suspicion will persist that the declaration’s talk about the “unity of the working people” is merely a screen to mask their adhesion to the reactionary notion of “Spain, one and indivisible” (albeit republican and federal).

As to whether “the independence of Catalonia will create better conditions for political and social change”, that will depend on the class and political struggle within a sovereign Catalonia. As things stand six years after the economic crisis hit the Spain, if the combined national and social struggle in Catalonia has done one thing, it is to help strengthen resistance to the austerity policies of the Rajoy government across the whole Spanish state and increased the chances of a republican, federal Spanish state eventually emerging from the present crisis.

Unity ‘a porcelain vase’

Have Artur Mas and the CiU government really got the stomach for the looming confrontation with Madrid? Mas’s words are certainly brave, and his assertions of loyalty to the cause of the Catalan movement frequent. However, occasional allusion to the possibility of an early “plebiscitary” election if November 9 doesn’t go ahead makes CiU’s partners in the pro-consultation camp nervous.

To strengthen CiU’s backbone, the ERC has offered to join the government. And last week, the CUP called on the ERC to do everything possible to join the government (even if it wouldn’t be seen dead in the government itself!).

These sorts of daily media stance-taking reveal the tensions in the pro-consultation camp and how fragile the “porcelain vase of unity” (Artur Mas’s phrase) can at times be among forces that stretch from centre-right to far left.

Yet every time that Mas tells Catalonia that the consultation is going ahead and every time he lashes the anti-democratic PP and PSC in parliament he helps the chances of success on November 9 by addressing the doubts and concerns that PP and PSOE propaganda—carried into Catalonia by nearly all Spanish media outlets—tries to instil in the minds of the millions.

Clearly, the experience of the last three years shows that the best way to guarantee Novembet 9 and keep CiU’s “nervous nellies” concentrated on the job is to maintain the mobilisations of Europe’s biggest mass movement. In the words of a statement by EUiA coordinator Joan Josep Nuet, made on the day of the Constitutional Court decision:

“This court has no democratic legitimacy, and therefore we can’t accept in any way what it has decided.

“We will not comply. We have to stay in the streets, mobilisation cannot stop. The government has to remain firm in its commitment to convene and roll out November 9. In no way should people relax the struggle.”

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A shorter version of this article has appeared in Green Left Weekly.]


[i] Quoted in Catalunta Sense Cap ni Peus (“Catalonia without Head or Feet”), by Victor Alba, page 30.

[ii] A reference to the military-terrorist actions of Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA).