Catalonia: Half-won independence battle guarantees harsher war with Spanish state

More than 1.4 million people marched to support Catalan independence on September 11. The September 27 elections were seen as a de facto referendum on independence, in which pro-independence parties won a majority of seats but not the popular vote.

By Dick Nichols

Who won the September 27 elections for the Catalan parliament, called as a substitute for the Scottish-style independence referendum that the People's Party (PP) government of the Spanish state has always refused to allow? It depends whom you ask.

On the night most of the commentators on Madrid-based TV and radio called the result as a defeat for the pro-independence camp: its two tickets—the mainstream nationalist Together for Yes and the anti-capitalist People's Unity Candidacies (CUP)--had won only 47.74% of the vote against 52.26% for "the rest".

Yet in Barcelona the atmosphere at the election night rallies of both forces were jubilant. They had won 72 seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament, a 53.33% majority that would allow the incoming government to start building the institutions of a sovereign Catalan republic.

The difference between the outcomes in votes and seats was due to the gerrymander in the four-constituency Catalan electoral system, with a vote in Lleida constituency worth more than twice one in Barcelona.

The result was very close to the average of 18 opinion polls taken since September 5. These predicted that the total vote for independence would be 47.2%, but that pro-independence forces would win 73-seats.

As a plebiscite on Catalan independence the vote should be read like this: For 47.74% (Together for Yes plus CUP); Against 39.12% (PP, Party of Socialists of Catalonia, and Citizens); Undecided 11.45% (the left coalition Catalonia Yes We Can plus the Democratic Union of Catalonia); and Others 1.12%.

This result allowed outgoing premier Artur Mas to roar "we have won!" in Catalan, Spanish, English and French, just to make sure the numerous international media present got the point.

"These elections mark the end of Catalonia as a province of Spain, and the beginning of its life as a sovereign state", said Antonio Baños, the CUP lead candidate.

The following day Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy predictably read the result as a defeat for those who had broken the law—a reference to the November 9, 2014 "popular consultation" carried out by the Catalan government in defiance of Spanish court rulings—and a win for the silent majority.

In so doing, Rajoy implicitly accepted what he had always denied: that this was indeed the plebiscitary election envisaged when the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural (promoting Catalan language and literature) and the two main Catalan nationalist parties settled on a joint road map to independence in February.i

Rajoy, Pedro Sánchez, leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), and Podemos leaders Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón dropped nearly all other engagements to be in Catalonia for the campaign, proof that something more was at stake than whether a regional government would be changing hands.

The result makes complex Catalan politics even more complex. The mainstream pro-independence forces have won government for the first time, but without the majority vote that would legitimise an immediate march towards independence. As a result, the CUP has already announced that its position in favour of a unilateral declaration of independence does not yet apply, because it was based on winning a majority of votes.

The shape of the incoming government will depend on the vote of the CUP, which will not have the luxury of abstaining because that would hand the other parties in parliament a relative majority (63 to 62) that could be used to block the inauguration of a Together For Yes government.

The opponents of independence remain in the minority, but with an increase in their vote that has already emboldened Citizens, the big winner in the unionist camp, to call for Mas's resignation and for new elections that would hopefully see the pro-independence majority overturned.

The parties that backed Catalonia, Yes We Can, which tried to convince voters to make their decision on the grounds of social interest and in the name of holding a genuine referendum, now face the challenge of how to repeat this not-to-successful experiment at the December 20 Spanish elections.

As for the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), the former partner in government of the CDC, its very existence is in doubt. Campaigning by itself for the first time, it lost all seats in parliament when it failed to reach the 3% threshold for representation. The result means that Catalan big capital, which is opposed to independence and wants a negotiated solution with the Spanish state, is now left with no reliable party of its own and will have to rely on directly pressuring Together for Yes.

Main trends

The 77.44% participation rate on September 27 was unprecedented, the highest ever for a Catalan regional poll and 9.68% higher than in the last regional election (2012). Over 4.11million voted, as against 3.67 million in 2012.

The election also featured a decline in the number of tickets running, from 18 to 11, and in the percentage of blank and informal votes, from 2.34% to 0.92%.

In an election that was about whether voters wanted Catalonia in or out of Spain, the surge in participation, the decline in minor parties bothering to stand and the sharp drop in informal voting showed that few were in doubt about what was at stake. The massive mobilisation of all the contending forces and the unprecedented levels of intimidation and dirty tricks from the Spanish state and the ruling PP guaranteed that.

Just under 450,000 new voters took part in this election as compared to 2012. When to these are added the reduction in the vote for minor parties (143,800), the PP (123,000) and the UDP (imputed at around 55,000, see Appendix), Catalonia-wide some 772,000 votes shifted to other parties.

Total numbers voting for the PSC (down 2500) and Catalonia Yes We Can as against ICV-EUiA (up 6800) barely changed.

The big winners were: 460,000 for the “modern, clean and pragmatic” Citizens, 210,000 for the CUP and an estimated 100,000 for Together for Yes (see Appendix). The unionist camp gained a greater share than the pro-independence forces (about 3:2) but did not enjoy the massive swing it was hoping for.

The main features of the result were:

  • The pro-independence vote was 60,000 higher than at the November 9 consultation. The increase would have been even greater if the voting age had been 16 and not 18, if foreign residents of Catalonia had been eligible to vote and if the 195,000 Catalans living abroad had been able to vote via electronic voting.

As it was, the 14,781 Catalans abroad who did manage to return a ballot paper (of the 21,771 who requested one from the Spanish electoral commission) voted 57.32% for Together for Yes, followed by 10.39% for the CUP.

(The Catalan government has opened a web site through which Catalans abroad can lodge official complaints about the performance at this election of Spanish diplomatic missions, the electoral commission and the postal service.)

Together For Yes came first in Catalonia 42 counties, and in 910 of its 945 municipalities.

  • Within the pro-independence camp the weight of the left and progressive forces increased and that of the ruling right-nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) decreased, although CDC remains the primary force within the Catalan independence movement. Of the 72 pro-independence deputies, 62 come from Together for Yes (bringing together the CDC and the ERC) and 10 from the CUP. Compared to 2012, the weight of left nationalism has increased from around 8% to 17% of the pro-independence vote.

In addition, the creation of Together for Yes as a broad pro-independence force has taken place via a dilution of the weight of Catalonia's traditional nationalist parties. Its deputies are made up of 29 CDC, 17 ERC, 1 Left Movement (originating in a pro-independence split from the PSC), 1 Democrats of Catalonia (the pro-independence split from the UDC) and 14 unaffiliated.ii

In the past probably most of these unaffiliated MPs would have supported positions on social issues to the left of CDC. These changes reflect the fact that the underlying expansion of Catalan national sentiment is taking it beyond its original bases in the inland counties and the better-off suburbs of Barcelona into more working-class and popular strata of Catalan society.

Within the independence camp we can expect that the CUP MPs will seek to push Together for Yes towards more progressive positions, although Together for Yes will operate as a single parliamentary group.

  • Support for anti-independence forces rose from 34.98% to 39.17%, the sum of the vote for the PP, Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) and Citizens. Within this camp the weight of the right-wing parties grew at the expense of the PSC, with Citizens jumped over the PP to become unionism's lead party.

This swing to the right took place because of Citizens' success in winning support in the mainly Spanish-speaking working class "red belts" around Barcelona and Tarragona.

  • The combined vote for the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) and Catalonia Yes We Can--parties supporting a Catalan right to decide but not necessarily independence--fell to 11.45%. Catalonia, Yes We Can, which was set up with the hope of emulating the success of Barcelona Together in the May 24 municipal elections, ended up winning two seats less than Initiative for Catalonia-Greens-United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) in 2012 (11 as against 13), while the UDC, previously a governing partner of CDC, crashed out of the parliament altogether.

At the May 24 local elections, Barcelona Together won the support of 176,337 (25,21%) in Barcelona city's ten voting districts: on September 27, the vote for Catalonia Yes We Can in the same districts was 85,853 (9.79%).

  • Nonetheless, because of the rise in the CUP vote, the overall vote to the left of the PSC (Catalonia Yes We Can plus CUP) increased from 13.38% to 17.14%, (486,000 to 700,000). These forces had 16 seats: now they have 21.


The main outcome of the election is increased polarisation for and against Catalan independence, shown in the advance of Citizens and the CUP on opposite sides of the independence divide: both received more than two-and-half times as many votes as in 2012.

An example of the depth of the polarisation comes in the results for the towns of Vila-Seca and Salou, in the greater Tarragona region. Even though they elected CiU councils in May, these largely Spanish-speaking areas voted, respectively, 62% to 25% and 58% to 31% in favour of unionist candidates at this election.

Citizens's surge, from 7.57% to 17.93%, making it the leading opposition party, is the big negative of the poll. It represented 460,000 extra voters, largely working class, coming out to vote for the first time or switching away from their traditional parties to seek refuge in the Spanish-centralist Citizens in the face of a Catalan independence movement felt as alien or a threat.

Unlike the CUP, support for which has been growing steadily since 2012 and which won 7.12% in the May municipal elections, the growth in the vote for Citizens mainly took place at this election. In the May municipal elections Citizens won only 7.43%.

According to estimates published in the October 3 Ara, only 14.6% of Citizens' vote came from those who voted for it in 2012. Its biggest pools of votes were ex-PP voters (29.3%), then ex-PSC voters (21.1%), then non-voters (20.3%).

The average score for Citizens in the 18 polls taken since September 5 was 20 seats (14.64%), but as the campaign heated up unionist voters began to switch to it from other parties, with the result that its final score was higher than any prediction—25 seats (17.93%).

Citizens went from being between fourth and sixth party in most constituencies in 2012 to lead party in 29 mainly suburban working-class "red belt" municipalities. In the greater Barcelona region, it was leading party in 11 municipalities and second party—often by a very narrow margin-- in 25 of the other 26 (behind Together for Yes in 22 and the PSC in three).

Citizens was also the lead party in an important number of industrial cities and towns in the "second belt" around Barcelona, as well as second in Catalonia's other three provincial capitals—Tarragona, Lleida and Girona. In Barcelona and Tarragona provinces, with their higher proportion of Castilian-speakers, Citizen's vote was 18.87% and 19.41%. and in more rural Lleida and Girona, 11.55% and 12.61%.

Across Barcelona's ten districts, Citizens jumped from sixth place in 2012 (8.23%) to second (17.7%), behind Together for Yes (37.23%). Its greatest gains were in the poorest of Barcelona's ten districts, precisely those where Barcelona Together scored its highest vote in the May council poll. In Nou Barris, where the Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH) and other social movements are most active, Citizens was leading force with 22.71%, while Catalunya Yes We Can came fourth with only 13.81%.

Citizens' wins in a neighbourhood like Nou Barris says a lot about Spanish and Catalan politics, especially in the poorest areas with highest unemployment. With very little or no local implantation (and polling station representatives brought in from outside Catalonia), but with a swag of money from big business, this virtual party successfully projected itself as the new, clean, people-friendly antidote to Catalan independentism.

At the Nou Barris meet-the-candidates' debate there was no local representative of Citizens'--they don't have one in the area. Yet when Citizens' leader Alberto Rivera later closed the party's campaign in a square in the neighbourhood, people came out onto the surrounding balconies to shout "Yes, We Can!" (Si, Se Puede! in Spanish) in support. The chant of resistance to austerity popularised by the PAH was being turned into a big hurrah for the Spanish state's newest and smoothest political conman.

According to veteran Nou Barris neighbourhood activist Albert Recio, interviewed in the Catalan supplement of the September 28 El País, "[Citizens] won the national identity bet. The people who don't feel Catalan voted for them, because the income factor, the social class factor, also has to do with national origin, the waves of migration being what they are."

Also a polling booth captain for Catalunya Yes We Can, Recio said that the idea of September 27 being a plebiscite on Catalan independence had sunk in so deeply that many voters were confused that there were no "Yes" or "No" how-to-votes at the voting centre. Voting Citizens became the best way to vote for unity with Spain and against all things Catalan—especially premier Artur Mas.

Citizens' propaganda combined 100% opposition to Catalan independence—supporting the recentralisation of the Spanish state (Citizens often attacks the PP from the right on the national question)--with promises of a €1000 baby bonus, free child care and school text books, reopening of closed hospital wards and surgeries, support to the self-employed and zero tolerance of corruption.

Citizens' role as spare wheel for Spanish centralism therefore worked to perfection at this poll—it fed anti-independence working class voters who could never vote for the PP and distrusted PSOE talk of a federal Spanish state the political dish they were looking for.

Its campaign was made-to-measure. It combined a Podemos-like "new politics" sheen with gut opposition to Catalan independence and a Catalan right to self-determination. Its lead candidate (Inés Arrimadas) spouted the three-point Citizens' message with robotic perfection: We are Catalans, Spaniards and Europeans; we are neither right nor left; unlike everyone else we are not corrupt.

This message sucked support away from all the other non-independentist parties. According to the Ara analysis already mentioned Citizens picked up 29.8% of PP voters from 2012, 22.4% of PSC voters and 22% of ICV-EUiA voters. It also picked up the greatest percentage of abstainers in 2012 (13.7%).

At the same time, however, only 38.6% of its own 2012 vote stuck with it. This shows that that the Citizens' vote is so far not "rusted on" and that its support this time may yet turn out to be a vote "lent" to it in this extraordinary plebiscitary poll. The December 20 Spanish elections will be the first test of that theory.

Polarisation—the CUP

As for Citizens, so for the CUP. The average of pre-election polls gave the anti-capitalist pro-independence force 6.72% of the vote and eight seats, but CUP’s final score was higher than nearly every forecast-- 8.2% and ten seats.

However, the process underlying the near-tripling of the CUP vote was not a mirror image of the rise of Citizens. The surge in the CUP vote reflects most of all a leftward shift in pro-independence politics, especially among the sons and daughters of CiU and ERC-voting parents.

According to the Ara analysis, the CUP vote came overwhelmingly from within the pro-independence camp--28% from those who had voted CiU in 2012, 20% from those who had voted ERC and 33.5% from 2012 CUP voters. This consolidated the 7.12% the CUP won in the May municipal election.

That vote already reflected the respect that the left-nationalist force has won for its work in the municipalities and in the Catalan parliament. It was the work of the CUP-influenced municipality Arenys de Munt that in September 2009 began the process of municipal referenda on independence, a dynamic that in 2011 produced the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI), to which 767 of Catalonia's 945 municipalities are now affiliated.

In addition, alone of the two pro-independence tickets, the CUP picked up votes from the non-independence camp--a significant 8.9% from 2012 ICV-EUiA voters (around 30,000 votes). This shift partially reflected the pro-independence minority component of ICV-EUiA's support base and partially alienation from the way the Catalonia Yes We Can campaign was run (see section on Catalunya Yes We Can for more analysis).

In Barcelona city, the CUP boosted the 7.42% it won in the May council elections to 10.01%, an increase of 35,860 votes. Since 2012, its vote in Barcelona city has gone from 31,635 (3.65%) to 87,749 (10.01%). At this poll it beat Catalonia Yes We Can into fifth position (9.79%).

The CUP surpassed Catalonia Yes We Can in six of Barcelona city's ten districts (including two of the six won by Barcelona Together in the May 24 municipal poll, when the CUP ran its own campaign). The four districts where Catalonia Yes We Can still beat the CUP covered Barcelona's most working-class and popular suburbs, with a higher presence of Spanish-speakers.

Disaster for the PP

The biggest loser on September 27 was the PP, which the voters demoted from third to fifth party in the Catalan parliament. Always a minority party in Catalonia, it had its worst result since 1992 (11 seats, 8.5%), beating the CUP by only a whisker (12,000 votes). In Girona and Lleida provinces, Catalonia's most pro-independence regions, Spain's governing party came in behind the anti-capitalists.

On average the polls had forecast a disaster for the PP (13 seats, 9.94%), but the final result was worse than nearly every prediction (11 seats, 8.5%). In the last days of the campaign the swing to Citizens told even more against it.

Over 120,000 voters deserted the party of prime minister Mariano Rajoy. Only 22.1% of those who had voted PP in 2012 stuck with the party, 29.8% went to Citizens, 18.9% to abstention and 6.9% to "others", which would mainly be the UDP.

The desertion of the PP by conservative voters is worrying news for the Rajoy government as it faces the Spanish elections. Immediately after September 27, José María Aznar, former prime minister and self-appointed conscience of the party, sounded the alarm in his role as president of the Foundation of Analysis and Social Studies (FAES), the PP think tank:

For the PP it's the worst possible scenario. Your rival on the left [the PSOE] is strengthened, your political space is reduced...

The result for Citizens, added to that of the PP, consolidates the process of fragmentation of the centre-right political space on a national scale...

We constitutionalists must admit that the regional elections in Catalonia were won by the secessionists, even if they failed in their plebiscitary intentions. The secessionist process will continue and be more radicalised because the radicals have greater strength...

It's up to somebody to think seriously about why the party of government has been incapable of representing the majority of constitutionalist forces in Catalonia.

PSC retreat slows

Aznar's description of the PSOE as "strengthened" by the result of the election was an exaggeration. The PSOE’s Catalan branch, emerged weakened from September 27, but by considerably less than the PP and by not so much as its leaders feared. To have lost only four seats and not the nine lost in both 2010 and 2012 counted as victory for the battered Catalan social democracy.

The average poll forecast for the PSC was 11.34% and 14 seats and its final result was 12.74% and 16 seats. Despite this loss, the PSC had the important comfort of coming in ahead of Catalonia Yes We Can, whose major aim in the campaign was to win the undecided working-class vote away for the social democracy.

The most notable feature of the PSC vote was its origin. Reflecting the volatility and low level of fidelity of vote on the unionist side, most of the PSC's support came from people who had abstained in 2012 (34.4%) while only 32.2% came from PSC voters that year. The rest was made up of former ICV-EUiA voters (11.1%), PP voters (10.3%) and Citizens' voters (8.0%).

On the basis of this result, PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez is now telling Spain that "the resistance phase is over, the offensive phase is beginning". In a dig at Catalonia Yes We Can, PSC leader Miquel Iceta crowed that the PSC is now "the leading left group in the parliament of Catalonia and at the same time the leading Catalanist non-independentist group in the chamber".

Setback for Catalonia Yes We Can

Whether its Catalan election result will mark a turning point in the fortunes of the PSC will depend a lot on what lessons the forces that supported Catalonia Yes We Can draw from its failure to repeat the successes of the people's unity tickets at the May council elections. How much was its poor result due to the plebiscitary nature of this election, and how much to its own failings?

Here was a campaign that well far short of hopes. It began with a June 25 GESOP poll that showed that a "Catalonia Together" ticket that repeated the left and progressive alliance behind Barcelona Together would challenge a "ticket of the premier" for first place.

If that poll had come true on September 27, pro-independence forces would have missed out on a majority of seats (67 out of 135 at best) while anti-independence forces would have been reduced to at most 36. The balance of power would lie with forces supporting a Catalan right to decide, but not necessarily independence (between 36 and 38).

It was at this moment that the strategic challenge for the pro-independence forces became clearer than ever—to achieve the broadest possible unity. It was this imperative, already pushed strongly by the Catalan mass organisations concerned about endless CDC-ERC bickering, that led to the dropping of the “ticket of the premier” and to the adoption of the broad pro-independence platform Together For Yes.

The launch of Together For Yes on July 15 immediately saw it jump to the lead in the polls (with around 40%), but with Catalonia Yes We Can still second (in the low 20s), ahead of Citizens and the PSC. However, the more its campaign developed, the worse the Catalonia Yes We Can score became, first losing second position to Citizens and then third position to the PSC. In the end it ended up with the same number of seats as the PP, with only 18,000 more votes.

The average of 18 polls taken since September 5 gave Catalonia Yes We Can 11.83% of the vote and 15 seats. Its final result (8.94% and 11 seats) showed the biggest negative gap between forecast and outcome and was a rough mirror image of the positive gap enjoyed by Citizens.

Why such a poor result after such great promise? The various forces supporting Catalonia Yes We Can have all stressed that in this heated fight between Spanish nationalism and Catalan independentism—Real Madrid versus Barcelona as an election campaign—the political struggle against austerity faded well into the background.

In an October 3 letter to Podemos members Pablo Iglesias and Iñigo Errejón wrote:

We lived through an election campaign of irresponsibility in Catalonia, of a head-on collision between Mas's independentism and the refusal of all change by the PP, PSOE and Citizens. Despite their denials, Rajoy, Sánchez and Rivera presented Mas with the gift of making these elections plebiscitary, and were OK with setting Catalonia on fire politically while aspiring to pick up the gains outside Catalonia.

In a campaign without nuances we defended a message that wasn't simple, a responsible message and the only one, we believe, with any viability in the long term: Spain is a plurinational country, where peoples with different identities live together. We want to build a future of popular sovereignty with everyone together, but we know that the best glue is democracy, understanding and the effort to attract others.

We understand that in the middle of this war of flag-waving and irresponsible overacting by the Barcelona and Madrid elites, this message had difficulty in being heard above the noise. They preferred the noise to cover over their cuts, their corruption and their shared incompetence. But after the noise comes the hangover.

In his report to the October 3 meeting of the Federal Political Committee of the United Left (IU), coordinator Cayo Lara said:

The polarisation concealed the social and class message, the neoliberal policies applied by the PP and Convergence and the corruption scandals besetting the main actors in the polarisation, who have continued to cover up the misery of their policies with flag-waving.

The left-versus-right axis moved little in Catalonia despite such an important increase in the participation rate. The decline of the two-party system was offset by the growth of Citizens, which will doubtless serve the same economic interests that the two-party system and conservative nationalism have been representing.

Beyond the difficulty of the battlefield, other factors cited as contributing to the poor performance of Catalonia Yes We Can were: the choice of name (according to Errejón and Iglesias "many people who are waiting for the general elections to vote Podemos couldn't find us in the voting centres"); the choice of Lluis Rabell, former president of the Federation of Neighbourhood Associations as lead candidate ("unknown" if a good candidate); the campaign's narrower base of support than Barcelona Together (Constituent Process, which supports a "Catalan Republic of the 99%" did not participate); and the decision of Barcelona mayoress Ada Colau not to get involved in the election.

The United Left also criticised the domination of the campaign by Podemos. Alberto Garzón, IU lead candidate for the coming general election, was in Catalonia for eight days of the campaign, but was never invited to share the stage with Podemos leaders Iglesias and Errejón, who were as much the public face of Catalonia Yes We Can as Lluis Rabell himself.

In short, Catalonia Yes We Can ended up as a pale imitation of a Catalonia-wide extension of Barcelona Together. Part of this was due to the lack of time available to really build the campaign at the community level (it took Barcelona Together nine months), and part was the felt dominance of the existing parties of the left, including Podemos, in its decision-making.

This last feature was avoided in the case of Barcelona Together by the recognised authority of Ada Colau. As it happened, various members of the Barcelona Together team ended up associating themselves with different options on September 27, some with Catalonia Yes We Can, some with the CUP and some, including Colau herself, by refusing to take sides.

What orientation to Catalan nationalism?

Maybe, however, there was another source for the failure of Catalonia Yes We Can. Was its campaign message right--not just for winning votes on September 27, but also to help advance support for the right of self-determination of the nations that make up the Spanish state (primarily the Catalans, Basques, and Galicians)?

So long as this right does not enjoy the support of the majority of working people in the Spanish state as a whole, bashing the "nationalities" remains a very powerful weapon in the hands of its ruling elites. It is thus a permanent challenge for the left to convince people across the whole of Spain that, in supporting the democratic right of national self-determination they are supporting their own democratic rights because they are weakening the main enemy of all working people—the ruling economic and political establishment and its two parties, hard cop PP and soft cop PSOE.

Catalonia Yes We Can aimed to appeal to all those (around 30%) who support a Catalan right to decide but are not necessarily pro-independence—overwhelmingly working-class families originating from migration from other regions in the Spanish state, as well as from Latin America and the Maghreb.

To maximise its support in the polarised climate of these elections Catalonia Yes We Can certainly had to make clear that the election would not be a substitute for a proper referendum)--as the actual result subsequently confirmed. However, it also had to spell out how such an act of self-determination could take place, and what a Catalan government should be doing in the meantime.

In the absence of such a vision of a pathway of advance there was a danger that Catalonia Yes We Can’s position would be taken to be some immediate negatives (No to Mas's independentist adventure, No to Rajoy's refusal to budge), but with no accompanying positive beyond a distant and uncertain chance of a referendum following a victory of left and nationalist forces at the level of the Spanish state.

To the inattentive voter the difference between this position and that of the PSC-PSOE's promised pie-in-the-sky federal reform of the Spanish state would have been hard to detect.

It was at this point that a gap opened up between Catalonia Yes We Can's program and its actual campaign message.

Its program supported a Catalan constituent process and the creation of a Catalan republic which, whatever its final relation to the Spanish state (to be decided by proper referendum), would embody social, democratic and environmental advances that would be attractive to the other peoples of Spain.

However, the message as delivered, especially by Podemos leaders Iglesias and Errejón, focussed not on this vision but on calling down plagues on both Rajoy and Mas, painted as equally rotten members of the "caste". A lot of time in the Podemos leaders' speeches was given over to reminding listeners of the past record of the CiU in the national Spanish parliament—its support to labour market "reform", its refusal to support a cut in the opulent pensions of ex-prime ministers, its backing in 1996 for the formation of the Aznar government.

There was a serious problem with this message—it had nothing much to say about the massive movement for Catalan national rights (the biggest, most sustained, movement in Europe), implying that at bottom it was just helping Mas distract attention from his pro-austerity policies.

It tended to put an equal sign between Spanish nationalism ("Rajoy") and Catalan nationalism ("Mas"), glossing over the reality that it is the Spanish establishment that has thrown against the Catalan national struggle every weapon and dirty trick available to it, short of military intervention.

This was the case even though Podemos doesn't actually believe this (for example, Iglesias recently joined other Spanish MPs in the European parliament in condemning the prosecution of Mas by the Spanish courts).

However, no matter how many truthful criticisms can be made of Mas's and CDC's record, there is one issue on which the Catalan premier has acted with consistency and determination—in his effort to advance the right of the Catalan people to decide their future.

It is that which makes Mas the obsessively hated target of all wings of the Spanish establishment and its media: it is also what makes a transition to Catalan independence without the present premier still pretty unimaginable to the majority of pro-independence voters.

The fact that Convergence used the same dirty tricks to block the rise of Catalan communism (the United Socialist Party of Catalonia, PSUC) in the 1970s and early 1980s and the fact that Mas's personal motivation may be to become premier of an independent Catalonia, doesn't change this reality. Nor does it remove the need for the left to have a proactive and not defensive orientation to the Catalan national movement.

There was an early sign of the problems with the orientation of Catalonia Yes We Can when lead candidate Lluis Rabell announced that he would not, for the first time ever, be attending this year's Catalan national day (Diada) demonstration because it was supposedly a thinly disguised election rally for Together For Yes.

This was despite repeated assurances by ANC president Jordi Sánchez that this was not the case and that, as Sánchez put it in an interview with web site CatalunyaPlural, "what is at stake is giving a mandate to the political representatives so that they can concretise the decision to build a state of our own. The right to decide was last year's demand, and now it's a question of exercising that right and making it effective, in our opinion in sovereign mode."

Catalonia Yes We Can could have attended the Diada demonstration and spelled out the sort of Catalan republic it wanted to see, even while insisting that a proper referendum on Catalan independence would still be necessary after September 27. However, by its decision and by its unrelenting criticism of Mas Catalonia Yes We Can sounded as if it had very little sympathy for the Catalan national cause itself.

It struck a low point when Pablo Iglesias told a rally in the industrial town of Rubí:

Those people from the barrio who don't vote have to show their teeth! Those people from the barrio who are not ashamed of having Andalusian grandparents or Extremaduran parents have to show their teeth! We cannot allow that you make yourselves invisible in Catalonia! Everyone out to vote on the 27th! Those popular classes have to show their barrio pride! Those popular classes are the ones that can send Mr Mas and Mr Rajoy to the coffee shop! (in English in the original).

Iglesias's words provoked a furore on the Catalan social networks, with outgoing CUP MP David Fernández tweeting: "Just what was needed. What's this mania for trying to divide Catalans by their origin? I come from Zamora [in Castilla and León]. I am an independence supporter."

Lluis Rabell tried to defend Iglesias by pointing to the racist nature of some old CiU attitudes ("Catalans work hard so that Andalusians can get subsidised to lie around in bars"), but this was “you too” politics—it didn´t absolve the Podemos leader of reinforcing the ethnic divide.

In the end it was all to no avail. The campaign that Catalonia Yes We Can ran—in dissonance with its own program and with no convincing answer as to how the Spanish state might ever agree to a Scottish-style referendum—certainly helped persuade tens of thousands of traditional ICV-EUiA voters to prefer the CUP. And this was notwithstanding their ongoing differences with CUP positions like leaving the euro and the European Union.

At the same time, it failed to win over many PSC or unaligned voters. Indeed, if the task of September 27 was to send both Rajoy and Mas "to the coffee shop", most voters convinced of that goal reached it by voting for Citizens. In Rubí, after the people of the people of the barrios "showed their teeth", the "party of the Ibex 35" (Madrid stock exchange index) came in first with 25.88%, followed by Together for Yes with 25.31%, the PSC with 16.76% and Catalonia Yes We Can with 12.46% (less than ICV-EUiA in 2012).

It is not possible to say whether a more supportive approach to the Catalan national movement combined with a presentation of "our kind of Catalan republic" would have won Catalonia Yes We Can many more votes. However, it would have allowed a continuing dialogue with those Catalans who are still not convinced of the benefits of a sovereign Catalan republic.

In an October 4 interview in Ara, Manuel Puerto, leader of the Súmate, the pro-independence association for Castilian-speakers, said that the Castilian-speaking parts of Catalan society divide into two broad groups, "people who despite having spent years living here, or even having been born here, have a gut rejection of anything that sounds remotely Catalan, and those who have a more progressive political outlook, the majority PSC voters or ex-voters."

He added that the battle for hearts and mind in the Castilian-speaking areas was becoming increasingly crucial for any project of Catalan sovereignty because it "will only achieve undeniable degrees of influence when it really penetrates into the Castilian-speaking sectors, because with the Catalan speakers we are very close to the ceiling, while in the other sector a lot remains to be done, many people remain to be convinced."

For Puerto, there is nothing that can be done about gut anti-Catalanism but with those still open to discussion "little by little we are convincing them, because the attacks of the Spanish state on Catalonia affects everybody, and it easy to explain that to reasonable people."

Puerto concluded that "we have to overcome the division in the population by place of origin or by the language they prefer to speak, a division that is still very entrenched."

In one of his visits to Barcelona for the election campaign, Pablo Iglesias told a radio interviewer that "Catalonia is as difficult to understand as Italy". Hopefully, after reflection on its first failed campaign since foundation, Podemos will be better able to orient to the Catalan and other national causes in the Spanish state, indispensable if the caste is ever to be removed from power in Madrid.


On September 29, with the elections over, the Catalan Supreme Court charged Mas and two other ministers from the outgoing government with perverting the course of justice, failing to obey lawful instructions and misuse of government resources in organising the November 9 consultation.

As if to underline the intensity of the ongoing conflict between Catalonia and the Spanish state, the outgoing Catalan premier was summoned to appear in court on October 15, 75th anniversary of the execution of his predecessor Lluis Companys by the Francoist winners of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War.

This struggle will only get more intense in the ten weeks to the Spanish elections. One important reason is that the PP and PSOE have yet to convince a big section of the voting public that they have any believable answer to Spanish society’s now chronic problems of unemployment, poverty and corruption.

That state of affairs practically guarantees a Catalonia-bashing election in which the PP will be able to pose as the only reliable defender of Spain “one and indivisible” while the PSOE will pretend to have a magical federal solution to the demands of the “nationalities”.

The political temperature will only get hotter if, as is not excluded, the Catalan parliament reaffirms its sovereign status and its intention to disregard the rulings of the Spanish Constitutional Court.

In Catalonia itself, there are various obstacles to the inauguration of a Together For Yes government supported by the CUP, not the least the CUP’s insistence to date that Artur Mas not be its president.

On October 8, the CUP presented its three basic preconditions for supporting a Together for Yes government. These are disobedience towards unjust Spanish legislation, the introduction of an emergency social rescue program, and the declaration by the Catalan parliament that it is no longer a regional parliament in the Spanish state but the constituent assembly of a new Catalan state. The role of Artur Mas and other personnel was put to one side for the time being.

Both sides in the negotiations presently under way are very conscious that a failure to form the first pro-independence government in modern Catalan history would be a potentially fatal blow to the national movement--especially when it is not clear if a social majority for independence yet exists and when the undecided have still to be convinced of its benefits.

For their part, the 11 Catalonia Yes We Can MPs will have to decide whether they are going to participate in the building of Catalan state structures or oppose them on the grounds that the process is taking place under the hegemony of CDC and Artur Mas.

All this happening, too, while Citizens is being pumped up by the establishment media as the responsible, non-populist answer to the rightful anger of the citizenry, in the perspective of December 20 producing either a PP-Citizens or PSOE-Citizens coalition that marginalises political expression of the social and national struggles.

In this context, the development of genuine popular unity of the type that won Barcelona and Madrid becomes more urgent than ever. The lesson of the setback for Catalonia Yes We Can is not that this unity is somehow optional, but that it has to be done properly or can easily become a shoddy imitation of the real thing.

As this article is being finished the signs are mixed. The definitely good news is that in Galicia the left-nationalist ANOVA and the Galician organisations of Podemos and the United Left have signed a “pre-agreement” for a united ticket for December 20 that is open to all social movements and activists—along the lines of the popular unity campaigns that won the Galician cities of A Coruña, Santiago de Compostela and Ferrol on May 24.

In Valencia, the component organisations in the Valencian nationalist coalition Compromís (Commitment) are presently deciding whether to go to the December 20 elections in alliance with Podemos.

The potentially good news is that Barcelona Together, doubtless shocked by the success of Citizens in its strongholds on September 27, is going to consider participating with Podemos, ICV and EUiA in a popular unity candidacy for Catalonia. ICV and Podemos have already decided that they will participate in such a ticket.

The bad news is that for the rest of the Spanish state, Podemos, having failed to convince IU lead candidate and MP Alberto Garzón to stand on its ticket as an independent, has ended all negotiations with IU, making it more likely that in most of the Spanish state Podemos and IU will be standing against each other. For its part, IU continues to push for a popular unity ticket along Galician lines.

The ongoing insistence from the Podemos leadership that the propaganda of these different alliances should unmistakably feature the Podemos “look” (because that will supposedly attract more votes) could still prove a stumbling block in negotiations.

Given what is at stake on December 20, we can only hope that good sense will prevail in time.

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent. A shorter version of this article has appeared on its web site. The Excel file containing the data used in this article is available from the author at


Those with an interest in minimising the rise in Catalan pro-independence sentiment over the last five years compare the total votes for Convergence and Union (CiU), ERC and CUP in 2012 with the Together for Yes and CUP votes in 2015. That produces a 216,530 increase in the pro-independence vote, but, because of the big rise in participation, a fall of 0.0015% in vote share and of two in seats held (from 74 to 72).

This approach ignores the presence of independence and confederalist positions within CiU, the former governing federation of CDC and UDC, overstating the level of support for independence in 2012 and understating the increase in independence sentiment since then. But by how much?

CiU had been held together for the 2012 elections by the formula of supporting "our own Catalan state", a phrase CDC and UDC could each interpret as they wished. In fact, the only unambiguously pro-independence candidates in 2012 were those of the ERC and the CUP (who won 24 seats out of 135).

Under the pressure of the movement for Catalan independence, in March 2012 the CDC adopted a pro-independence stance, becoming increasingly at odds with the UDC. CiU finally dissolved in June this year after a UDC membership plebiscite voted by narrow majority to break with the independence road map set out in February between CiU, ERC and the mass nationalist organisations.

The three UDC ministers then left the government and ten of the UDCHYPERLINK ""'HYPERLINK ""s 1HYPERLINK ""4HYPERLINK "" deputies also left the 50-member CiU parliamentary group, leaving 40 (36 CDC plus 4 UDC dissidents) in favour of independence--80% of those elected in 2012.

One procedure for estimating 2012 support for independence would therefore be to add the vote for the ERC and the CUP to 80% of that for CiU. This method assumes that those remaining 40 MPs proportionately represented the independence option within CiU's 2012 voting base. When combined with the 24 ERC and CUP MPs, pro-independence deputies in the parliament would have come to 64 (47.4% of the total).

There is some support for that conclusion in the 2012 (third quadrimester) Public Opinion Barometer of the Catalan government's Centre of Opinion Studies (CEO). It says (Question 39) that 69% of CiU voters would have voted yes to independence in a referendum at that time. At the same time (Question 28) the Barometer puts support among CiU voters for Catalonia as a state within a federal Spain at 24.6%.

In terms of votes, adding 80% of the CiU vote to the ERC and CUP vote in 2012 gives a pro-independence vote of 41.75%. The CEO Barometer already mentioned put support at that time for an independent Catalonia at 44.3% (Question 28).

The problem with this method is that while CiU stood as a single ticket its voters did not have to choose between independentists and confederalists. That only became a choice within conservative Catalan nationalist politics at this election.

At the other extreme, our method could be to deduct the 2.51% won by the UDC at this poll from the CiU score in 2012. With this approach, the pro-independence vote in 2012 would have been 45.38%, corresponding to a 69 seats for CiU, ERC and the CUP (a majority).

This would overstate the support for independence at that time. It was in the subsequent three years of struggle between Catalonia and the Spanish state support for independence rose consistently above 40% (see CEO graphic at

We can cautiously conclude, therefore, that the pro-independence vote at the time of the 2012 election (November 25) was running somewhere between 42% and 45%, and has increased by a minimum of around 2.75% at this poll (to 47.74%).

In estimating the most probable vote loss to the UDP in this article, I have assumed that in 2012 it scored 4.33% (half-way between the 6.14% represented by its 10 deputies and the 2.51% it won on September 27).

i These parties are the conservative Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), of which Mas is leader, and the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), led by Oriel Junqueras. In July they came together with the outgoing leaders of the mass organisations and other non-party personalities in the Together for Yes ticket.

ii The unaffiliated include lead candidate Raul Romeva (formerly of ICV), Carme Forcadell and Muriel Casals (the former spokepeople of the ANC and Omnium Cultural), famous singer-songwriter Lluis Llach and Eduardo Reyes (spokeperson of Súmate, organisation of Spanish speakers who support independence), economists Oriol Amat and Germà Bel (also an ex-PSC MP), former PSC deputy and Christian socialist Toni Comín, former General Union of Workers leaders Dolors Bassa and Chakir El Homrani, basketball coach Anna Caula, and professor of Catalan literature Montserrat Palau.


Once again, a truly outstanding analysis by Dick Nichols of the Catalan fight for freedom. More comprehensive and balanced than anything I have seen on any international media (including Spanish), be it mainstream or not. Priceless.

The CUP does have the "luxury" of being able to abstain, as they repeatedly claimed in their campaign that they wouldn't vote for Artur Mas nor his right-wing policies. The ball is clearly in Junts pel Sí, which must now select another candidate and adapt the government policies towards the left, so the CUP can do the right thing and support a transitional government, something they obviously want to do.

Another thing is how Spain reacts, quite probably occupying Catalonia and revoking its semi-autonomy, creating an scenario of stagnated conflict Kosovo style but implying a much larger population and economy.

Anyhow, I believe that the most correct translations of party and coalition names are as follows:
→ Junts pel Sí: Together for the Yes (and not 'Together for Yes', "pel" = "for the")
→ Catalunya sí que es Pot: Catalonia Can indeed (and clearly not 'Catalonia Yes We Can')
→ Candidatura d'Unitat Popular (CUP): Popular Unity List (candidacy or candidature is literally more approximate but in Spanish and Catalan the concept normally equals "list", a more common English word; in any case it is singular and not plural).