Catalan sovereignty movement: disoriented or preparing to fight back?

By Dick Nichols

September 22, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Below is a fragment of a conversation I had the day after 600,000 came out in Barcelona on September 11 to celebrate this year’s Catalan National Day (the Diada).

Occupying the Plaça d’Espanya and the surrounding streets, the vast crowd demanded the acquittal of the 12 Catalan social movement and political leaders presently awaiting a Spanish Supreme Court verdict on charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement, the release of the nine of them who have been in preventive detention for up to nearly two years, and an independence referendum.

Most of all, however, it called for a united strategy from the leaderships of the tension-ridden Catalan sovereignty and independence movement. Let the political parties—Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the People’s Unity List (CUP)—and the mass organisations—the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural—get their act together and show a way forward.

DN: “Did you go to the Diada yesterday?”

Committed Independence Supporter (CIN): “No, and that’s the first time ever, and I won’t be going again until these clowns decide what they want.”

DN: “But it was important to be there, if only to show that the Madrid’s war of attrition isn’t working...”

CIN: “Why? It was just a show: all this talk about unity, unity, unity, when everyone knows they’re more disunited than ever. I won’t be going until they decide on a single goal—independence, referendum, federal Spanish State, whatever—and then seriously organise to win it. Otherwise I’ve got better things to do.”

DN: “But it was important to have a strong Diada as prelude to the protests and civil disobedience needed when the Supreme Court brings down its sentence against the political prisoners [in mid-October]!”

CIN: “Are [Catalan president Quim] Torra (JxCat) and [vice-president Pere] Aragonès (ERC) really going to lead disobedience against the sentence? What plans do they have for challenging the State? Everyone admits there is no agreed strategy, that they are still ‘working on it’. If there is none, all the talk about the sentence ‘setting off a new wave’ of the movement is just blah-blah-blah. Will the Torra government dare to free the prisoners if they’re jailed in Catalan prisons? Don’t bet on it. So what is the ordinary rank-and-filer supposed to do?”

DN: “What should happen?”

CIN: “Ughh, [followed by vulgar Catalan expression]. We had it all in our hands on October 1 [2017, referendum day] and October 3 [massive civil strike against Spanish police violence] but now we’re back to square one.”

Two days later, at a rally in the town of Arenys de Munt—marking the tenth anniversary of the first of the hundreds of municipal independence consultation that gave rise to the ANC and the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI)—president Torra seemed to agree:

“The political class has got to learn to carry out the commitments it makes before the citizens ... we have to make a self-criticism because we’ve not been up to the job, the job the citizens were asking for, we have to recognise that.”

He added: “When our comrades went ahead with the referendum of October 1, they knew perfectly well it could mean prison or exile, and they accepted that. Our job from now on, in all the actions we have to take, is to accept all the consequences. And that means that fear and threats can’t paralyse us, not at all...”

Before the day

Numbers were down at this Diada, a point gleefully hammered in the main Madrid media, but did that mean their repeatedly predicted and intensely desired “deflation of the independentist soufflé” had at last set in? With 400,000 fewer than in 2018 and attendance less than half its 1.5 million 2014 peak, is the Catalan movement now running out of steam on the eighth anniversary of the first million-strong Diada (2012)?

The mood on the day was certainly different than previously. Past Diada demonstrations always were (or featured) a crowd “performance” (like the 2013 Via Catalana 400-kilometre long human chain or a young woman student voting at the point of a vast V made up of 1.5 million people in 2014). This time the crowd was organised in the form of a star centred on Plaça d’Espanya, but no-one seemed to feel that this meant that they were doing their bit in projecting some choreographed message—it was just another demonstration, albeit huge.

In addition, the preparation of this year’s demonstration had, unlike its predecessors, produced controversies. Its theme, “Objective: Independence”, was decided by the ANC, in effective contrast with Òmnium Cultural’s campaign platform “We Are The 80%”, which is focussed on organising all supporters of a Catalan right to self-determination and not just independentists.

The ANC also decided, in contrast with past Diadas, that this year there would be no special “enclosure” for the VIPs, in this way underlining its viewpoint that the deadlock in the struggle for Catalan self-determination is due to “the politicians” (or “the parties”) not listening to “the people”.

Partly as a result of this rebuke, some ERC representatives and those of Catalonia Together (CeC), including Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, announced that they would not be coming to the demonstration, even though they had been present at past editions. At the same time, CeC made sure to attend a “We Are The 80%” event organised by Òmnium Cultural earlier in the day.

This was the first time this organisation defending Catalan language and culture—and easily Catalonia’s biggest and fastest-growing social movement—had organised a major Diada event separately from the ANC. It meant that there were three demonstrations on September 11—Òmnium’s, the main ANC gathering (also supported by Òmnium) and the now-traditional evening march of the pro-independence left, grouping the CUP and other supporters of independence for Catalonia and the “Catalan Lands” (regions where Catalan is spoken).


The fraught situation was the latest reflection of the strategic divide within the broad pro-sovereignty movement, a divide that began to open after the symbolic declaration of Catalan independence on October 27, 2017—just days before the Spanish government suspended Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the Spanish constitution.

Its most blatant form has been party-political rivalry between JxCat and ERC. For example, while forming the ruling coalition in the Catalan government, in local negotiations following the May 28 municipal elections these two pro-independence forces made deals against each other about the make-up of a number of council and district administrations. Both formed coalitions with unionist forces, mainly the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the Catalan affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

At a deeper, social, level, the division reflects contrasting reactions to the setbacks suffered after the 2017 referendum. One pole, articulated most by the ERC, judges that the social base of the movement for a Catalan Republic needs broadening before any new showdown with the Spanish State can occur. The other, expressed by JxCat, Torra and exiled former president Carles Puigdemont, asserts the movement must adopt a new line of advance that can clarify, inspire and organise for a new round of conflict with Madrid. Otherwise, it runs the risk of serious demoralisation.

The difficulty of having a united strategy in this context was shown by the failure of a July 5 Geneva meeting involving all the “players” to agree on a united response to the looming sentencing of the political prisoners, even though negotiations continue in the hope of finding one.

The parties in the Catalan government have also been embroiled in polemics over whether early elections should be part of the response to the sentence, with the ERC — leading in the polls — in favour and JxCat opposed. They also disagree whether they should vote for the investiture in the Spanish State of acting PSOE prime minister Pedro Sánchez without asking for anything in return, with the ERC again in favour and JxCat not.

On September 6, jailed ERC president Oriol Junqueras tweeted in reaction to Puigdemont’s and Torra’s opposition to an early Catalan poll that they feared might “weaken the institutions”: “Never been seen before that someone should say that the fact that people vote weakens the institutions.”

Yet Junqueras’s outburst also coincided with efforts by all sides of the movement to urge people to attend the Diada. Picking up the pre-Diada mood of flatness and the lower level of inscription for the day on the ANC website, the movement’s major figures kept issuing calls for attendance, including in a video clip by Puigdemont and exiled ERC general secretary Marta Rovira. On September 10, Catalonia awoke to a statement signed by all its political prisoners and exiles that urged the biggest possible turnout.

A week before, a new initiative called Democratic Tsunami (a term of jailed Òmnium Cultural president Jordi Cuixart and boasting the support of all pro-independence forces and figures and some pro-sovereignty figures), appeared rather mysteriously on social networks, billboards and banners on prominent Barcelona structures. Its founding statement acknowledged the rising level of frustration and disorientation in the movement but ended: “There is a response. There is a strategy. A new wave begins and its protagonist is you.”

On the day

These last-minute efforts had an impact, with a final jump in registrations and sales of this year’s Diada t-shirt (400,000). The 600,000 turnout was the smallest of the present eight-year phase of mobilisation, but it was still immense (8% of the population), easily representing the biggest ongoing mass movement in Europe.

Yet the mood of the day was curious, being a bit distracted and introverted. As the speeches rolled by with the by-now familiar catch phraseṣ — ”unity, unity, unity”, “we’ll do it again” and “politicians, just get your act together, the people are getting impatient” — many spent their time chatting with friends or discussing the intricacies of the moment.

The day’s vox pops by Catalan public TV captured the variety of opinions within the movement, from the impatience of “let’s just go for it” through to gloomy predictions that the “democratic tsunami” would be a rhetorical flop and the movement was doomed to a long defensive phase of resistance after a passing storm of protest following the sentencing of the twelve.

The crowds also thronged around another feature of this Diada. This was the mushrooming of stalls of the pro-independence mass movements and their local branches, with the Council for the Republic (the Brussels-based body representing nearly all pro-sovereignty forces) and the National Call for the Republic (the effort by Puigdemont to form an umbrella force open to all independence supporters) seeming to do the best trade.


The 2019 Diada was down in numbers because a swathe of Catalan sovereignty supporters, including some of those who had been most active in building the referendum, just couldn’t see the point in attending. The militant core of the movement, mainly but not only grouped in the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), has been growing increasingly impatient and frustrated with sitting in the tent while their “generals” argue about what is to be done. Not going to the Diada, seen as a “performance”, was a protest against this impasse.

Another grouping would have been put off by the ANC’s “onward to independence!” message at a moment when the movement is unprepared for the clash this would involve with the Spanish State. What most unifies it is outrage with the show trial of the political prisoners and the affirmation of a Catalan right to decide.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to see in this decline in attendance a fall in support for Catalan sovereignty and independence itself: the numbers were down on September 11 but opinion polling continues to show a steady or even increasing majority for pro-independence parties in the Catalan parliament while support for independence runs between 45% and 50%.

If the polls are accurate, the only major changes at a Catalan election would be the ERC replacing JxCat as lead party, with the CUP picking up more seats. On the unionist side, the PSC would overtake a rapidly deflating Citizens.

On September 14, the Governing Council of the Council for the Republic tried to confront this complex situation with a post-Diada declaration on the way forward. The four-part statement:

  • Proposed setting up a negotiating platform with the Spanish State based on recognition of the right to self-determination, the lifting of repression and the appointment of an independent mediator;
  • Supported the continuation of all action, political and social, in support of the right to self-determination despite the denial of this right by the Spanish government and the majority of Spanish political forces;
  • Called on Catalan civil society and its institutions to prepare itself to implement the mandate of October 1, using peaceful civil disobedience tactics. If that mandate could not be fully realised, any Catalan parliamentary election would have the character of an independence referendum; and
  • Called on international and European institutions, in particular the European Union, to carry out their duty of guaranteeing observance of human and democratic rights in the Spanish State.

There is, of course, no way that the PSOE government is going to make the slightest step towards dialogue. Indeed, in its interminable negotiations with other parties over the terms for forming government, it has refused even to meet with JxCat. Its attitude was expressed with unveiled bluntness on the eve of the Diada by PSC MP Eva Granados: “In no case do we believe in self-determination, nor do we believe that such an potentially important question should be decided by the citizenry.”

The attitude of the Spanish authorities, political and legal, is to prepare to repress or ride out the coming post-sentence storm of protest, inflict defeat on the Catalan movement and bring the tensions within it to breaking point. This approach became visible at the September 9 inauguration of the Spanish judicial year, presided over by King Philip and featuring special praise for Supreme Court judge Manuel Marchena’s handling of the trial of the Catalan 12.

The Spanish establishment’s response will become even more necessary if the Supreme Court of the European Union finds at its October 14 sitting that the Spanish Supreme Court and electoral commission have wrongly blocked Oriol Junqueras from being seated as a member of the European Parliament.

The Catalan sovereignty movement and government is therefore on the brink of another of its periodic historic showdowns with the Spanish State, the determining factor in which will be the degree of determination, mobilisation and organisation of the movement itself. As the February 14 editorial of the web-based daily El Nacional noted:

“After this trenchant statement [by the Council for the Republic] it will have to be seen which part of it is adopted by the Catalan institutions, whose parties are represented on the Council, run the government of Catalonia and have signed the document. That is the million-dollar question.”

Dick Nichols, European correspondent of Green Left Weekly and Links, runs this blog on the trial of the Catalan 12 and developments in Catalonia