Catalonia: Coalition government formed after prospect of mass disaffection forces independence parties into agreement
By Dick Nichols
May 25, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On May 17,with negotiations over forming a Catalan government bogged down and a repeat election looming, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (Junts) reached an unexpected agreement for coalition government. Hammered out in two days of secret meetings between ERC national coordinator Pere Aragonès and jailed Junts national secretary Jordi Sànchez, the accord was ratified on May 19 by the ERC National Council and by a plebiscite of Junts members (83% to 17%).
Four days later, the 135-seat Catalan parliament voted 74 to 61 to invest Aragonès as premier (president) of the Catalan government (the Generalitat). As the ERC’s lead candidate in the February 14 Catalan elections, he will head a 14-member cabinet made up half-and-half by the appointments of the two parties. Catalonia’s third pro-independence force, the radical People’s Unity List (CUP), voted to invest the government but not to participate in it.
The other force associated with the Catalan left, Catalonia Together (CeC, party of Barcelona mayoress Ada Colau often referred to as The Commons), joined the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the Catalan franchise of the Spanish Socialists Workers Party (PSOE), the extreme-right and racist Vox, the neoliberal Citizens and the right-wing People’s Party (PP) in opposing Aragonès’s investiture.
The CUP had earlier reached an agreement with the ERC that allows it to make a mid-term review of the progress of an ERC-led administration and decide whether to maintain or withdraw support, or even become part of it. In presenting the ERC-Junts accord, Aragonès confirmed that the ERC-CUP deal carried over into its agreement with Junts. This is despite the silence of the ERC-Junts accord on important points in ERC’s agreement with the CUP, such as the commitment not to use the riot squad to enforce evictions. In the May 21 investiture session, CUP lead candidate Dolors Sabater made clear that ongoing CUP support depended on concrete action on the points of its agreement with the ERC.
The February 14 Catalan election produced two firsts: a pro-independence seat majority won with a vote majority (of 52%), and the ERC finally scraping in ahead of Junts as lead party of independentism after it last dominated Catalan politics in the 1930s. The composition of the 74-seat pro-independence majority is ERC (33), Junts (32) and CUP (9), while the 61 seats of the opposition are divided between the PSC (33), Vox (11), CeC (8), Citizens (6) and the PP (3).
The ERC-Junts agreement came just nine days after Aragonès had announced that his party had abandoned its attempt to form a coalition with Junts and that he would instead seek to be premier of an ERC-only administration that would hopefully be invested with the vote of Junts, the CUP and even CeC. The ERC was encouraged in this move by an earlier commitment from Sànchez: to avoid a repeat election in the event of failed negotiations, Junts would “lend” ERC the votes needed to make Aragonès premier and then go into opposition.
However, when the ERC acted on this offer, it put all the main actors in Catalan politics into a spin. Junts, facing the prospect of opposition and having around 300 of its senior public service appointments hand over their office keys to ERCers, “clarified” that Sánchez’s offer was not unconditional. Within this catch-all party of Catalan independentism tension also increased between those appalled by the prospective loss of power and a minority prepared to risk a repeat election to reconquer the hegemony lost to the ERC.
CeC demanded that the ERC take one step further: end its dependence on the “right-wing” Junts and form a “left government”. Its daydream was that this would include or be supported from without by 33 PSC votes.
The PSC’s response was to demand that the ERC abandon all hope of premiership and support its lead candidate, former Spanish health minister Salvador Illa. The PSC, with CeC as its junior partner, would produce a Catalan version of the Spanish government formula (a Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) administration with Unidas Podemos (UP) holding minor portfolios).
ERC’s move also conjured up fleeting mirages of other options, left and right. Xavier Domènech, former leader of The Commons in both the Spanish and Catalan parliaments, fantasised that the best solution from a left viewpoint would be an ERC-CUP-CeC administration installed via abstention by the PSC or Junts—impossible given the February 14 election’s confirmation of the ongoing predominance of the “national axis” over the “social axis” in Catalan politics.
Sniffing early elections, former business minister Àngels Chacón, leader of the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat), announced a special congress of her party with a view to recovering the presence in parliament it lost on February 14. PDECat is the impoverished heir of the formerly ruling conservative nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the dominant force in Catalan politics from 1980 to 2015.
…and gets avoided
During the deadlock in negotiations the CUP got the ERC and Junts to sign a four-point “Commitment to a National Accord for Self-Determination”: its one new feature was commitment to “achieving a space for debating independentist strategy outside the framework of governability”. The initiative marked a further moment in the CUP’s development as honest broker within the independence movement, a shift from its previous line of denouncing ERC and Junts for their supposed betrayal of the October 1, 2017 independence referendum and the October 27 declaration of independence.
Catalonia’s mass independentist civic organisations, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural, entered the fray next. On May 12, Òmnium Cultural president and political prisoner Jordi Cuixart, allowed out on day leave, received a standing ovation when he told a Barcelona meeting:
We ask the political class, with all our heart, to abandon the policy of grinding down opponents, of super-tacticism, because all political spaces, absolutely all, are indispensable. The goal of the adversary is to divide us and we must continue to struggle without letting them divide us. The decisions that the parties take in the next few days could have an irreversible impact on Catalan civil society. If the pointless conflict between parties prevails, don’t count on Òmnium Cultural for support.
ANC president Elisenda Paluzie told a May 16 rally in central Barcelona: “If you take us to elections or repeat a government with no plan [for achieving independence] the ANC won’t be with you.”
These interventions would have rammed home to ERC and Junts what was already obvious to anyone in contact with the depressed mood in the pro-independence universe: a repeat election would endanger its parliamentary majority. The tens of thousands of fed-up independence supporters whose sentiment Cuixart and Paluzie were expressing might just decide to stay at home on election day. With an ERC-only government and repeat elections now both ruled out, only one course was left — Junts and the ERC somehow had to do a deal.
The accord became possible when Sànchez and Aragonès personally took hold after the discussions of the ERC and Junts’ negotiating teams had stalled. In a May 23 interview in the Catalan daily Ara, Sànchez, when asked to explain the moment of breakthrough, replied:
There wasn’t a moment. It wasn’t that weekend, either, because what we did was fix up minor aspects of documents that were already very advanced. What we did was, let’s put it this way, carry out an act of authority that ended the existing discussions. And we also talked about re-establishing trust because we’ve all made mistakes. The negotiation wasn’t theatre, both sides wanted to maximise the benefits, I wanted the best for my party. These are tensions that are part and parcel of democratic normality.
The chances of reaching the accord were helped by the decision of exiled former president Carles Puigdemont to play no role in the negotiations and make no comment on them. In a May 22 letter to Junts’ members explaining the cryptic silence of someone who habitually comments on all aspects of Catalan and Spanish politics, Puigdemont wrote:
I arrived at the conclusion that [involvement] would have impeded the possibility of reaching agreements and of being able to restore the internal unity of independentism. As a result, I have tried not to be an obstacle to the conversations aimed at reaching agreement, nor to the agreement itself. In any case, my intention was that the result finally reached (agreement or not) would need to be explained in a much more rigorous and thorough way than with the simplistic and dishonest argument linking it to my supposed desires or personal interests. Some already had that story written, the commentary ready to go, the punch-line recorded.
Achievement of the accord required the defeat of positions opposed to it in both the ERC and Junts. The 17% vote against in the Junts´ poll would have reflected a mixture of opposition to this particular agreement or opposition to any agreement with ERC when it is hegemonic. The referendum question only offered the choice of investing Aragonès and taking part in his government or that of investing him and then passing into opposition. The option of simply not investing Aragonès (and so triggering early elections) was not presented, a choice that came in for criticism from former education minister and European Parliament member Clara Ponsatí and former premier Quim Torra (neither members of Junts).
Within the ERC, opposition to a deal with Junts was led by former and present ERC spokespersons in the Spanish congress, Joan Tardà and Gabriel Rufián. Six days before the signing of the agreement, in the midst of the negotiating deadlock, Rufián compared the “independentist right” to the “Spanish right and far right”. After the agreement was signed, he said that “maybe they’re not as right-wing as is said” and added: “With Junts we’ve approved a bank tax, a tax on the nuclear power generators, a guaranteed minimum income […] if only we had a right wing like that in Congress.”
Compromise on independence strategy
In presenting the accord, former ANC president Sànchez, jailed for nine years and on day leave, apologised for the negotiation spectacle. “It’s clear that two days were enough to reach an accord, and that we’ve taken a few days more.” However, in his desire to acknowledge people’s disaffection, Sànchez at this point downplayed the real difficulties in achieving agreement.
The final accord certainly appeared to resolve some major points of conflict, but it also put others in the in-tray of the new government. The main stumbling block was strategy for the independence struggle and the roles within it of the Catalan government and the exile Council for the Republic, formed as a representative umbrella after the Spanish government sacked the Catalan administration in 2017. Presided over by Puigdemont, it is distrusted by the ERC and most of the CUP even while major CUP affiliate Poble Lliure (Free People) actively participates in its work.
Aragonès had said at one point that no government he headed would accept the “oversight” of another entity. In reply, singer-songwriter and Council spokesperson Lluís Llach vehemently denied any such ambition on its part. In his May 23 Ara interview Sànchez asserted:
That was bad because it was false, it caused irritation. Puigdemont, as a past premier is the first to have maximum institutional respect for premiers. There was no attempt at oversight, that was a criticism that didn’t match reality.
The two parties also disagreed over whether the October 1, 2017 referendum had been an effective plebiscite, the usefulness of the dialogue table with the Spanish government and the tactics of their MPs in the Spanish congress. The accord notes these differences but looks to overcome them via a series of compromises based on a shared assessment of the present state of the independence struggle:
The best instrument for resolving the conflict is a referendum of self-determination agreed with the [Spanish] State. We are, however, at the same time conscious that the process of negotiation with the State faces enormous difficulties and very limited possibilities of success, especially if we don’t succeed in increasing our negotiating strength … What is needed therefore is persistent, continuous work in the perspective of bringing about a new democratic offensive that allows realisation of the Catalan Republic and the independence of our country.
Under the accord, which clarifies that “only a referendum of self-determination agreed with the Spanish state can substitute for the political mandate of the referendum of October 1”, the leadership of the independence struggle gets placed in the hands of a “strategic leadership space” of the three independence parties and the two mass organisations. It will coordinate with the Council for the Republic until that can be restructured so that all forces are confident that the independence fight can be done within its framework.
In his Ara interview, Sànchez agreed that there was still no agreed strategy for independence but stressed that “we now have a common space in which to discuss it. What we couldn’t pretend was that the debate over strategy, stalled for three years now, could be resolved in the framework of an agreement on the legislature.”
A potential gain
Notwithstanding, the creation of a strategic space where decisions will be taken by consensus is a step forward: it creates an arena outside the battlefields on which “debate” has fruitlessly taken place since the failure of the Declaration of Independence to make real the result of the October 1 referendum This “debate” amounted to acrid dogfights within and between the parties, within the ANC, and in the media and on social networks. It is placed in inverted commas here because in this three-years-long war of words, the Catalan public has seen little in the way of a thorough and thoughtful discussion of the merits and weaknesses of the two main strategic positions in play: one in the Council for the Republic’s discussion document Let’s Get Ready and the other in We’ll Win Again (and How We’ll Do It), written by jailed ERC president Oriol Junqueras and the party’s exiled national secretary Marta Rovira.
The present accord begins the indispensable job of “harmonising” the ERC’s approach of broadening the support base of independentism and Junts’ approach of prioritising what it calls “intelligent confrontation”: it embodies a shared understanding that without strategical and tactical unity, winning the next clash with the Spanish state is inconceivable. Such was the main lesson of October 1 and October 3, 2017: the concrete, understood and desired goal of having, organising and defending their referendum was what inspired tens of thousands to protect the polling centres and millions to vote and protest Spanish state violence. A similar effort, scaled-up tenfold, will be needed to achieve and win acceptance of Catalan sovereignty and independence.
The Aragonès government thus starts the next phase of negotiation with the PSOE-UP government with the sceptical but agreed support of JxCat and the CUP. In Aragones’s speech to the investiture session the target was the PSC and the refusal of the PSOE-led Spanish government to entertain a Scottish-style referendum. He said: “Let’s compare projects, democratically and let no-one be afraid of losing. That’s called democracy [...] That is my obsession. To overcome once and for all the conflict with the Spanish state. And that inevitably means amnesty and self-determination.”
The new government will immediately initiate a National Accord for Self-Determination and Amnesty to “make visible the very broad social majority that knows that the resolution of the conflict with the state requires freedom for the prisoners and exiles and the free exercise of the right to self-determination”.
What remains to be thrashed out is the hard bit: what to do if the PSOE-UP government just continues in the position expressed by PSC leader Illa in the investiture session — Catalan independence is “impossible” and the sooner the new government recognises that “fact of life” the better for all concerned. A May 24 statement by the Council for the Republic welcomed the terms of the ERC-Junts agreement but stressed that this could not exclude ongoing preparation of strategy in the likely case that negotiations with the Spanish state fail:
Independentism cannot limit its strategy only to a negotiation with the Spanish State, which will probably not guarantee the right to self-determination of Catalonia. For that reason, the movement must also prepare in a methodical and rigorous way the conditions for a successful response in the confrontation to which the State will probably bring us if we want to complete the process of constituting the independent Catalan Republic.
The Governing Body of the Council reaffirms this mission and this strategic vision above and beyond conjunctural situations that may be produced within the institutional framework of regional government and reiterates its determination to be loyal to these undertakings in all its political action.
The restructured Council will have to harmonise the differing positions of the three parties about what to do in the case of a failure of negotiations with the Spanish state, in particular the issue of whether another unilateral referendum should be organised in this case.
However, the immediate task facing the incoming government is to work out how to use the negotiating table with Madrid to revive the Catalan right to self-determination as a burning issue in Spanish politics. Here the National Accord for Self Determination can be a weapon not only for mobilising all democrats in Catalonia, but also for carrying the arguments for this basic democratic right into all parts of Spanish society. The goal of “increasing our negotiating strength” will also — even most importantly — be more in reach when support for that right, which has steadily been increasing in Spanish opinion polls (particularly among younger voters), erodes support for the PSOE’s bloc with the PP, Citizens and Vox on the issue, hurts UP for its governmental alliance with the PSOE, and makes impossible the European Commission’s argument that Catalonia is an “internal Spanish affair”.
The better that work is done, the higher the political price that will be paid by the Spanish state if it persists in its denial of Catalonia’s right to decide its future, and the more powerful any unilateral action implemented by the remodelled Council for the Republic can be.
Proposals for the legislature
The rest of the ERC-Junts agreement covers policies in the areas of post-pandemic economic recovery, social justice, environment and democratic rights. These are conceived as fitting into the framework given by the European Union’s Green New Deal and Next Generation EU funding. Despite shortcomings, most seriously in the area of action against climate change, the policies proposed are at least as progressive as those of the Spanish PSOE-UP administration. Notable commitments include:
Economy. Devote Next Generation EU funds to essential public services — the transition to sustainable energy, health, education, universities, research, public transport and culture. Transform the Catalan Institute of Finances into a public bank; develop a roadmap for a circular economy; and convert the important motor industry to the production of electric vehicles.
Health. Increase public health spending by €5 billion over the next five years, with special emphasis on completing anti-COVID vaccination as rapidly as possible (hiring 3700 extra staff), boosting resources in primary care, integrating health and social support to the elderly and people with disability, and increasing the salaries of health professionals to the European average.
Housing. Increase the public housing budget by €1 billion a year; reintroduce the Catalan anti-eviction law (suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court), which outlaws the eviction of families without providing them with public housing; enact an anti-homelessness plan; demand transfer to the Catalan government for public housing of the 3000 empty housing units in Catalonia owned by the Spanish “bad bank” SAREB; and invest €810 million of Next Generation EU funds to make 25,000 housing units a year environmentally sustainable.
Social services. Trial a guaranteed universal income and establish a €700 million emergency fund to support people most hurt by the COVID-19 crisis.
Environment. Adopt a National Plan for the Energy Transition, with the goal of achieving 100% renewables by 2050; set a 65% recycling target and phase out energy generated by waste.
Citizenship. Pass an anti-discrimination law and set up a network of anti-discrimination offices with free services on discrimination and hate crime; provide newly arriving migrants with 135 hours of special training on entering the Catalan education system.
Education and research. Increase the public education budget towards a target of 6% of GDP (2018, 3.67%) and progressively introduce free pre-primary schooling (0-3 years); introduce special plans to address school drop-out rates; implement compulsory courses in sexual and emotional health from a gender perspective; reduce university fees by 30%; set a Research and Development target of 2.12% of GDP (1999, 1.44%).
Feminism. Establish a new ministry of feminism and equality, charged with introducing gender equality in government, action against domestic violence, equality in care, the introduction of a gender perspective in all government policies, plans and contracts, and the progressive entry of women into non-traditional areas of work.
Culture and Language. Meet cultural spending target of 2% of government budget; implement a National Language Pact to protect and increase the use of Catalan in all spheres, especially where most lacking (legal system, labelling, videogames).
The program seeks to implement as much of its content as possible through the establishment of National Pacts, agreements that aim to win the support of parliamentary parties beyond the pro-independence camp as well as of social movements, civic organisations and local and regional government. With this orientation the ERC looks to associate the pro-independence government with advances that benefit broad social majorities. In the words of Junqueras and Rovira’s book:
Governing well is a way of talking with the citizens of the No [to independence], of managing their problems, which are everyone’s, those of Catalan society. And, at the same time, an opportunity to recall day-by-day our motive for wanting independence: to fix things and improve people’s lives. Governing well is building bridges, as [jailed former foreign minister] Raül Romeva always reminds us.
Ongoing tension and conflict is inherent in the agreement, most of all because it incorporates commitments between the ERC and the CUP that the neoliberal economic leaders of Junts will want to dilute. The most glaring differences are over taxing the wealthy, private schooling, criteria for disbursing Next Generation EU funds, the actual model for transition to sustainable energy, Catalan policing practice and the proposed expansion of Barcelona’s El Prat airport.
With the publication of the Junts-ERC accord, the CUP already had reasons for concern, given the document’s silence on issues in the CUP-ERC agreement and despite the assurance of Aragonès that this agreement still stood in full. The subsequent appointment of former banker Jaume Giró as economy and finance minister (proposed by Junts) would only have increased CUP reservations.
The agreement ends with dispute resolution procedures aimed at forestalling the breakdown in trust that marked the 2018-2021 Catalan administration. These include mechanisms that will give Catalonia’s wicked satirists a field day, but which experience has shown to be essential.
When the agreement became public, the PSOE-UP government pretended to welcome it, the parties of the right saw the evil hand of Puigdemont in it, and The Commons cursed the ERC for capitulating to Junts. The majority of supporters of Catalan sovereignty just breathed a sigh of relief. They are now hoping for the best from a government that they are certain is better than early elections.
However, how well the new Catalan administration will perform in practice will depend critically on two factors: renewed mobilisation to support it in the struggle with the Spanish state for amnesty and the right to decide, and renewed mobilisation to ensure that the progressive aspects of its program do not evaporate under conservative pressure but are actually implemented.
On May 25, less than 12 hours after Aragonès had been sworn in as premier and before his cabinet had been formed, the first conflict of his time in charge of the Generalitat took place. Sent in by the judges (probably deliberately) to carry out an eviction of one of Barcelona’s symbolic squats, the riot squad expelled those resisting inside with extreme violence. Outside a protest, complete with CUP MPs, denounced their action.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.