Catalonia: Unstoppable showdown with Madrid looming

Click for more on political developments in Catalonia and the Spanish state.

By Dick Nichols

July 26, 2015 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- If a Catalan Rip Van Winkle were to wake up today after a sleep of only six years, his disorientation with present-day Catalonia would be as great as that of the original Rip Van Winkle after he dozed right through the American War of Independence.

“Am I hallucinating?”, he might ask, struggling to find the right answer to questions like:

What is Raul Romeva, former Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) member of the European Parliament (MEP) doing on a ticket for the September 27 Catalan elections with Catalan premier Artur Mas, from the ruling conservative nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC)?

Is this the same Romeva who said in 2009 that “if it were up to Convergence, Catalonia would be a huge highway with nuclear power stations, buildings and factories everywhere, without even a tree to provide shade”?

Why is Josep Duran I Lleida, historical leader of the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), attacking his former political buddy Mas for involving Catalonia in “a journey to nowhere”?

Why has the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), which along with ICV and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), ruled Catalonia from 2003 to 2010, shrunk by 70%? Why has their leader Miquel Iceta been saying that he agrees 95% with the electoral program of a new ticket called “Catalonia—Yes We Can”, centred on Podemos, ICV and the United and Alternative Left (EUiA, the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left)?

For this modern Rip Van Winkle, the only familiar feature of today’s scene would be the good ol' virulent anti-Catalanism of the People’s Party (PP) government of Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, still reassuring the citizens of the Spanish state that “national sovereignty will not be broken and there will be no independence for Catalonia”.

But here, too, he might be thrown by the collapse of the PP’s Catalan arm (the PPC), and its replacement as lead weapon of Spanish patriotism in Catalonia by “Citizens”, the hipster “anti-Podemos” that is popularly known as “the party of the Ibex 35” (the Madrid stock exchange index).

September 27

The immediate focus of today’s agitated and volatile Catalan politics is the September 27 Catalan elections. All pro-independence forces—CDC, ERC, the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP) and others—agree that this is a “plebiscitary” poll. For independence supporters the election will be a key point on the “road map” towards independence agreed on March 30 between the CDC, the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Catalan nationalism's mass organisationsthe Catalan National Assembly (ANC), Omnium Cultural and Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI).

That is, it is a substitute for a Scottish-style referendum made necessary by the refusal of the Spanish government to grant Catalonia a vote on its future.

For those opposed to a Catalan right to decide (PSC, PPC, Citizens) September 27 is just a normal regional election and the attempt to turn it into an independence referendum a violation of the 1978 Spanish constitution.

The parties of “Catalonia—Yes We Can” say September 27 is no substitute for a properly constituted plebiscite, but should begin the process of constituting a Catalan republic, whose future relation to the Spanish state would then be decided by legal referendum.

The founding document of “Catalonia—Yes We Can” says:

The opening of of a Catalan constituent process is the contribution that we can make from Catalonia towards the breaking of the regime of 1978 in the whole Spanish state, from a desire for fraternal collaboration among the peoples and under the impulse of constituent processes that can flow together and help each other, each from their own identity. Beginning a constituent process does not prefigure the final result as regards the relation that Catalonia should have with the rest of the Spanish state: a Catalan republic is as compatible with an independence goal as with a federal or confederal one.

The political dynamic in the run-up to September 27 is the product of a three-way clash between two “irresistible forces” and one “immovable object”.

The immovable object is the Spanish centralism embodied in the PP, Rajoy and Citizens. The irresistible forces are the stormy rise of Catalan independence sentiment (creating the biggest mass movement in Europe) and the emergence of Podemos as the political expression of the indignado movement against austerity and for “real democracy”.

A high point in this last process was the inspiring success of the “popular unity” ticket “Barcelona Together” in the May 24 municipal elections. This citizens’ electoral list, led by now-mayor Ada Colau and backed by ICV, EUiA, Podemos, the all-Spanish Green party Equo and Constituent Process (a movement for a “Catalan Republic of the 99%”), immediately inspired the creation of “Catalonia—Yes We Can”.

The latest polls show “Catalonia—Yes We Can”, which as yet is primarily an alliance between Podemos, ICV and EUiA, winning between 17% and 22.4% of the vote.

Its lead candidate is Lluis Rabell, the spokesperson of the Federation of Neighbourhood Associations of Catalonia (FAVC), very influential in the struggle against the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship. The FAVC—and Rabell personally—have been responsible for bringing together that “old” generation of struggle with the “new” generation of the indignados, the white and green “tides” against cuts to public health and education, and the anti-eviction Mortgage Victims Platform (PAH), of which Ada Colau was once spokesperson.

The Podemos impact in Catalonia

The victory of Barcelona Together also shook up Catalonia’s pro-independence camp. Would its commitment to a Catalan right to decide—but not necessarily to Catalan independence—erode support for the independence cause? A June 21 GESOP poll showed that a “Catalonia Together” list could win as many votes as a ticket led by Mas.

The independence movement was right to be concerned by the emergence of Podemos and the “popular unity” movement, which at its high points brought together Podemos, the United Left (IU) and other progressive forces in various cities across the Spanish state.

In 2012-2014 in Catalonia, one component of popular support for the independence movement were people who saw no other immediate escape route from the austerity, corruption and authoritarianism of the Spanish state.

This was despite the fact that the most important political expression of the movement was the CDC, which was (and is) strong in the more conservative regions of Catalonia, where it became the incumbent political patronage machine upon the collapse of the old structures of Francoism.

A symbolic moment in this rise of Catalan independence sentiment as channel for rejection of all things coming from “Madrid” was the 2013 Via Catalana, celebrating Catalonia's National Day (September 11). The Via Catalana was a human chain organised to reach from the French border in the north to the border with the Valencian Country in the south.

The organisers were worried that they would find insufficient volunteers for the chain in the largely Spanish-speaking industrial and working-class “belts” around Barcelona. On the day, however, in working-class cities and traditional PSC strongholds like Hospitalet the chain was up to eight persons deep, as the local communities came out in force.

However, the emergence of Podemos and the popular unity victories in the May 24 local election have, to some degree or another, slowed or halted that trend. Now a win by progressive forces at the level of the Spanish state—and the chance of creating a Spanish state structure embodying the right to self-determination of the Catalans, Basques and Galicians—no longer seems such a distant dream.

The arrival of “Catalonia—Yes We Can”, therefore created a political option for all those working people who loathe the PP and “Madrid”, but don't in the least like the ruling Catalan political elite of CiU, which everyone remembers backing the PP’s anti-worker austerity in the Spanish parliament in the period immediately before the pro-independence upsurge.

The independence movement could only fight the perception of the Catalan independence movement as anti-worker—an impression that Podemos and Pablo Iglesias personally have sought to reinforce at every turn—by strengthening its own left credentials and boosting the message that, in the words of CDC leader Josep Rull, an independent Catalonia will be “a home for everyone”.

For its part Podemos answers this vision with the idea of Spain as a plurinational state, a “country of countries”, to be refounded through democratic constituent processes and negotiation among its nationalities.

The independence camp

The independence movement reached its high point on November 9, 2014, when the Catalan government conducted its very successful “illegal” consultation of Catalan attitudes towards independence, as a substitute for a referendum that had been declared illegal by the Spanish courts.

The result was 81% in favour of independence, with 37% of a potential electorate of 6.2 million taking part. It confirmed that independence sentiment runs at around or just under 50%.

After that the movement lost some momentum, partly because of the rise of Podemos but also because of ongoing tussles over what form of ticket would give the independence cause its best chance of winning on September 27.

Among the formulae proposed and rejected within the movement were premier Artur Mas's idea of a non-party ticket “with the president” (rejected by the ERC), and a “civil society” list excluding all politicians. This idea was suggested by the Catalan mass organisations. Both ERC and the CUP were prepared to accept this formula, but it was anathema to the CDC and premier Mas himself.

In the end, the mass organisations backed away for their “no politicians” formula and along with the ERC agreed to Mas's proposal of a mixed ticket of independence movement leaders and political figures, called “Together For Yes” (that is, yes to independence).

The politicians include Raul Romeva, Mas and ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, while the “non politicians” include Carme Forcadell and Muriel Casals, former leaders of the ANC and Omnium Cultural respectively, and Eduardo Reyes, head of Súmate, the pro-independence association for Catalans whose first language is Castilian (Spanish).

Other forces involved include a series of Catalanist splits from the PSC, most importantly the Socialist Left Movement (MES).

Latest polls show “Together for Yes” with between 32% and 39% of the vote.

For its part, Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP), committed to a list decided from below via primaries, rejected this compromise formula. It will now run its own campaign called CUP-Constituent Call. Its lead candidate will probably be well-known journalist Antonio Baños, also a leading figure in Súmate.

The pressures operating in the various parts of the complex Catalan left galaxy were dramatised at the August 25 mass meeting of Constituent Process, called to decide on which ticket for September 27 this movement for a Catalan republic of the 99% would participate.

Many Constituent Process members had expressed suspicion of the supposed domination of “Catalonia—Yes We Can” by the established left parties ICV and EUiA, as well as concern about Podemos’s history of vague positions on the right of Catalonia to self-determination. In addition, the ticket had no obvious authoritative lead candidate (such as Ada Colau for Barcelona Together).

The Constituent Process assembly voted first not to participate in “Catalonia—Yes We Can”, and then not to participate in the election at all, neither with the CUP-Constituent Call nor in its own name. A minority current within Constituent Process is likely to break ranks and participate in the left-nationalist ticket regardless.

The latest polls show the CUP-Constituent Call ticket winning between 7% and 10% of the vote.

The total pro-independence vote is therefore polling at between 39% and 49%. The July 21 JM&A poll gives the total pro-independence vote a one-seat majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament, reigniting the debate as to whether the result of this “plebiscitary” election should be based on seats won or votes won.

Divergence and disunion

To get to this stage within the independence camp, some very old convergences had to be undone, most notably within Convergence and Union (CiU). In early June, the confederalist UDC, a majority of whose leaders were opposed to the ERC-CDC “road map”, asked its membership to support that position in an internal UDC poll.

After winning a very narrow victory (50.9% to 46.2%), the UDC majority then split from CiU and its members left the Mas cabinet. At the same time a sizeable chunk of the minority, including the parliamentary speaker Nuria Gispert, left to form a new association, which will participate in “Together for Yes”.

The UDC majority, led by former interior minister Ramon Espalader, will go to the September 27 election on a program of opposition both to independence and to Rajoy’s rejection of any change to Catalonia’s status within the Spanish state. This stance takes them close to the PSC and its all-Spanish parent, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

The latest polls show UDC winning between 3% and 4.7% of the vote, meaning it may dip out of the next Catalan parliament.

In this phase of realignments the most spectacular has been that of Raul Romeva, convinced to abandon ICV in order to become the number one candidate for “Together For Yes”. Having Romeva in this position was an important coup for the ticket, which has laboured under the perception of being, in the words of ICV co-spokeperson Dolors Camats, “of, by and for the premier”.

Romeva's presence at the head of “Together For Yes” will be useful in conveying the message that the ticket is one for all Catalans, irrespective of their political position.

His shift of allegiance may not be the last from within ICV, which on the Catalan national issue has long been a common home for federalists, confederalists and supporters of independence. The time for choices is rapidly arriving for ICV members, just as it has for the UDC.

On July 17, Romeva received an open letter of support from independence supporter Toni Morral, the former ICV mayor of Cerdanyola del Vallès. “I know enough of your character, political capacity and ideological principles to know that your participation in this candidacy, alongside he premier, represents no capitulation.”

For Joan Coscubiela, ICV MP in the Spanish parliament and the party’s lead candidate on the “Catalonia—Yes We Can” ticket, the inclusion of Romeva at the top of “Together For Yes” makes it “clear that for Mas the adversary to be beaten in these elections is ‘Catalonia—Yes We Can’ … Not only do we defend the right to decide with as much conviction as him, but we do it without forgetting the emergency social situation of our country’s citizens, for which he is responsible.”

Lines of debate

The coming election campaign will take the basic form of “Together For Yes” accusing “Catalonia—Yes We Can” of standing in the way of independence, and of “Catalonia—Yes We Can” accusing “Together For Yes” of wanting to use the national question to liquidate real action against the social crisis. The CUP-Constituent Call will agree that both are right about each other.

The vulnerable point of “Catalonia--Yes We Can” is that it sees the September 27 election as opening an autonomous constituent process that may or may not lead to independence. Its perspective is that this will be decided at a future referendum.

But will such a referendum ever be able to take place, given the present balance of power within the Spanish state?

The only condition under which that could conceivably happen is if Podemos wins the Spanish general election due in November, a long shot if present polls, which have it running third behind the PP and PSOE, are reliable.

The position of “Together For Yes” also goes against a broad mood in Catalan society that it's “now or never”, that opportunities to go for independence come around very rarely and that delay will only help “Madrid”.

The vulnerable point of “Together For Yes” is its domination by the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), plagued with a history of corruption and favouritism, and premier Artur Mas. This is a permanent invitation to the question, “Would you want to live in an independent Catalonia run by these people?” At the same time, “Together For Yes” brings together a very broad range of respected figures from Catalan science and culture, including singer Lluis Llach, who will be its lead candidate for the province of Girona.

“Citizens” and the PPC will fight it out for the Spanish-centralist vote, with the polls showing Citizens winning that struggle easily. The polls give the Spanish-centralist newcomer up to 17% of the vote, and the PPC less than 7%

Along with the UDC, the PSC, which has lost so many voters to “Catalonia—Yes We Can” that it has to praise its program, will wander around the election battlefield looking for any left-over “moderate” voters. The polls suggest that the PSC will win around 7% of the vote, a far cry from the 30%-plus scores it won in its prime.

Suspension of Catalan government?

There is one certainty in this very complex scenario: whether “Together For Yes” or “Catalonia—Yes We Can” wins on September 27, the result will be anathema to the central Rajoy government.

Catalonia is already the most left-wing region in the Spanish state, such that the Mas government has had to adopt progressive legislation on LGBTI rights (probably the most progressive in the world), fracking (totally banned) and programs against the social crisis that no other conservative government in Europe would want to countenance. (This enforced left shift gave the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) an additional reason to break up its federation with the CDC).

A victory for “Together For Yes” would immediately detonate a massive political crisis at the level of the Spanish state and Europe, while a win for “Catalonia—Yes We Can” would give heart to progressive and left forces within Spain and beyond—the “Barcelona Together” effect multiplied by a hundred.

In this context, the Rajoy government, still smarting from Mas' mutinous holding of the November 9 consultation, could move early to suspend the Catalan government under Section 155 of the constitution. It has already begun its intervention against Catalonia by passing legislation putting the Catalan police force under its direct control in case of emergency.

Section 155 says that “if an autonomous community (state) does not abide by the Constitution and other laws” or “acts in such a way as to seriously damage Spain's general interest”, then the Spanish government can, provided it has majority Senate backing, force that autonomous community to act as required by the central government.

Of course, such a violation of Catalan rights would carry huge political costs within Catalonia and other parts of Spain, as well as in Europe, and Rajoy would probably not act without PSOE complicity.

Nonetheless, the Spanish prime minister will be judging from day to day whether the cost of blocking democracy in Catalonia isn’t exceeded by the gains he can win from “standing up to Mas” in the rest of the Spanish state. Indeed, heroic defence of Spain's unity and indivisibility against the Catalan secessionist “evil” may be the PP's best bet for holding out at the forthcoming Spanish elections.

Rajoy would also be certain of winning the gratitude of a European establishment that would be delighted to have the rising struggle of Europe's peoples without a state receive a big setback in Catalonia.

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