New Catalan political space: one hurdle cleared on the road to left unity
By Dick NicholsMay 7, 2017 –– Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal –– The struggle to build a Catalan political force inspiring the level of support and activism needed to implement radical social change took a step forward in Barcelona on April 8, when the new “political subject” provisionally called Un País en Comú (“A Country Together”) held its founding congress. Un País en Comú, whose final name will be decided by membership referendum, is the third Catalan progressive unity project with en comú (“together” or “in common”) in its title. The first, in June 2014, was the broad activist coalition that under the name of Barcelona En Comú won the May 2015 Barcelona city council election. In defeating the ruling conservative nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) the new formation made former housing rights activist Ada Colau the city’s mayoress and a reference point for radical politics across the Spanish state. Next came the success in the December 2015 and June 2016 Spanish elections of En Comú Podem (“Together We Can”): this alliance of left forces headed by university lecturer and author Xavier Domènech established itself as the lead Catalan force in the Spanish parliament, with around 25% of the vote. In between these striking successes for the new political space that was soon being called “the commons” came the disappointing result of the left alliance Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP) in the September 2015 Catalan election, which came in fourth after briefly leading the polls. Barcelona En Comú did not participate in the formation of CSQEP, which was an electoral coalition between the old parties of the Catalan left and Podem, the Catalan sister organisation of the new Spanish radical anti-austerity party Podemos. These parties were Initiative For Catalonia-Greens (ICV); the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left; and the green party Equo. The absence of Barcelona En Comú in CSQEP showed in its 9.9% vote and in the alarming success of the right-wing, anti-Catalanist but supposedly “fresh” force Citizens. In the light of these mixed experiences Ada Colau and Xavier Domènech announced in January 2016 that they would be launching a new Catalan political project. Its goal would not just be to create a confluence of existing left forces but most of all to draw together the thousands of non-aligned people who are active in Catalonia’s social movements but often wary of its existing left parties. The creation of Barcelona en Comú had shown how this might be done. The potential activist base of Un País en Comú includes the radical municipalism that not only took Barcelona en Comú to victory but also saw similar platforms succeed in other cities and towns; people from the indignado (15M) movement and the various “tides” against health and education cuts; left supporters of a Catalan right to self-determination but not necessarily of Catalan independence; environmental activists in campaigns such as for river and wetland preservation; and campaigners for women’s rights, refugees and the recovery of the historical truth concerning the oppression suffered in Catalonia under the Franco dictatorship. Colau and Domènech, both of whom enjoy respect across nearly all parts of the Catalan left, were essential to the project’s getting off the ground: they were a guarantee both that the interests and contributions of the existing parties would be properly incorporated, but also that the new project would be qualitatively different from any conceivable all-party coalition and that no-one can reasonably claim that Un País en Comú is just a rehash of the old left. This remains the case despite the disappointment caused by the last minute absence of Podem from the new formation, as explained later in this article.
What process?The 1500 of Un País en Comu’s 9300 members who attended the April 8 congress had the job of successfully concluding the specific process needed to create the new political and social space. This process was partly shaped by the project’s ambition: to create an instrument that can win government in Catalonia by becoming the voice of the majority that has been suffering falling living standards since the 2008 financial and economic crisis – workers and the unemployed, pensioners and young people, migrants and refugees, the self-employed and small business. It was also shaped by the need to bring into one organisation forces that have different political roots and cultures and have also experienced bitter conflicts in the past. For example, ICV is distrusted by many social movement activists for having taken part in the 2003-2010 “tripartite” Catalan government, headed by the Socialist Party of Catalonia and also including the centre-left nationalist Republic Left of Catalonia (ERC). For Podem general secretary Albano Dante Fachin, speaking in November last year: “We haven’t come here to do a remake of any tripartite government. We want to have the people participate in and lead the creation of the new political space.” The process of founding Un País en Comú was driven by a 120-member animation group representative of nearly all trends in the Catalan left. It drafted a set of guiding ideas focused not on the traditional ideologies of the left – hardly any “isms” except “feminism” and “Catalanism” appear in the founding text – but on the sort of society the majority aspires to. That is, the text was not the result of discussions and compromises among the parties but of discussion in the animation group as to what aspirations, principles and general orientation was needed to meet the needs of the social majority (the “99%”) in Catalonia. University of Barcelona geographer Marc Parés, the group’s convenor, described the approach – in which 375 activists and academics participated in creating the original draft – in an interview in the April 5 online journal L’Hora:
First draft positionEcological consciousness pervaded the first draft of the document that would be the basis of Un País en Comú. It stated at the outset that, “on a finite planet victim of a global environmental crisis the capitalist economic model puts at risk the life and well-being of many people at present and of all future generations”. It underlined that:
Initial amendmentsThis initial text was discussed at 74 face-to-face meetings organised by 700 volunteers as well as on an online platform. In total, over 3500 participated in this process of feedback, producing over 2000 contributions. A majority of the amendments were incorporated into a revised text: those rejected were judged as either too concrete for a document that outlines general orientations and priorities or as proposing an orientation different to that of the draft. How did the amended text change as a result of discussions at times quite critical of the original text (the summaries of the face-to-face discussions are available here while the online discussion took place here)? Some important amendments related to the analysis of context and overall goals, with the global capitalist nature of the economic and ecological crisis made explicit, along with an anti-capitalist perspective to overcome it. The role of the Franco dictatorship as it repressed Catalan society, culture and language was also given sharper emphasis. Many concerns coming from the feedback from Un País en Comú’s activist base were reflected in clearer projections in education, health, culture, technology, communications, public administration and the legal system. Two years of work by the “councils for change” such as Barcelona and Badalona yielded practical examples of producing elements of the alternative “from below” (such as the generalised use of council property for photovoltaic panels and the setting up of a network of rebel councils committed to disobeying the debt reduction requirements of the Spanish government). The revised text was still more explicit and concrete in its support for collective and cooperative production (without saying “nationalisation”), as well as for policies favouring small, medium and neighbourhood business as against the big corporates. New themes included commitment to sustainable cities (with greater density being based on the revival of often decaying historical centres); ecological taxation replacing taxes on labour; restructuring of the electricity market to tame the power of the private energy oligopoly and favour alternative sustainable sources; application of the principle of solving problems at the level of government closest to the problem (“subsidiarity”); and support for animal rights. Easily the most debated issue was the relation Catalonia should have to the Spanish state, with pro-independence, confederal and federal positions all expressed. This debate dominated the online discussion web site – both its “open forum” section of general discussion and the sections given over to specific debate of the draft text. This discussion, to which there were 592 contributions, would inevitably be the most important at the April 8 congress. Probably the two other issues that raised most comment were the original text’s commitment to reforming the European Union and the absence of a specific section on the rights, struggles and needs of young people, especially when the younger generation was the active core of the indignado revolt. On Europe, the amended text reflected greater scepticism about the reformability of the EU:
Congress: amendments and interim leadership electionsOn April 8, sixteen amendments were put before congress on the grounds that they embodied a different approach to that proposed in the draft. The most important of these concerned the attitude of Un País En Comú towards the Catalan national struggle. The text from the animation group proposed the goal of a “democratic and environmentally just Catalan social republic” as maximum expression of Catalan national sovereignty. Such a republic would look to share sovereign powers with a Spanish state of a “fully plurinational” character. Gerardo Pisarello, deputy-mayor of Barcelona, had defended this orientation in his opening address to the congress: “We are here to build a sovereign Catalanist space that defends the referendum [on Catalan independence, denied by the Spanish government] and which wants to exercise the right to decide without asking for permission.” Against the vision of a sovereign Catalonia in a confederal Spain made up of nations likewise exercising their right to self-determination, one amendment proposed an essentially federal relation with the Spanish state while another indicated a preference for an independent Catalonia while not ruling out some relation with Spain. Both amendments lost after a debate in which leaders from the main organisations involved in the confluence spoke in support of the animation group’s text. Other amendments adopted committed Un País En Comú to: a strategy of degrowth; adopting a Guaranteed Citizen’s Income as the first step on the road to a Universal Basic Income; free pre-primary education (0 to 6 years); a European foreign policy based on peace, human rights and the emancipation of peoples; a Catalonia free of transgenics; the incompatibility of real democracy with membership of NATO; the right to euthanasia; and a specific reform of the structure of Catalan administration. The interim leadership elections produced no surprises: Xavier Domènech and his team won 25 seats on the 33-member interim executive, with a “dissident” team of Podem leaders who had been defeated in the July 2016 elections for that party’s leadership winning seven and one going to a team from the Ebro River delta region. Ada Colau’s supporting team won a 96-seat majority on the 120-member interim coordinating committee.
Podem goes, then stays...With its founding congress, an important hurdle for the popular unity project that is Un País En Comú was cleared. This was despite the last minute withdrawal of Podem, whose leadership in Catalonia claimed that the conditions for its ongoing participation had not been met. Podem members had signed the initial call for the new project, participated actively in the development of its draft founding text, the organisation of debates and in the amendment process. However, they had voted in a March 18-20 referendum that three “indispensable” conditions for Podem’s participation in the new formation had not been met. The first condition was that Un País en Comú have a code of ethics from its founding (and that it not be formulated in the one-year transition phase after foundation). Podem organisational secretary Ruth Moreta said on calling the referendum: “As far as transparency and ethics are concerned, there can be no period of transition.” The second was that the election system for the interim leadership bodies be proportional on the basis of individual candidates or open lists (not slates). The third was that the entire Podem membership in Catalonia (up to 52,000) be able to vote as in a Podem election (that is, without going through separate enrolment in the membership list of Un País en Comú). Podem’s preconditions had emerged out of a membership consultation process launched by its leading bodies in November, called the “Purple Tide” (purple is the party’s colour) and involving over 1500 members from 90-plus local and district circles (branches). The document launching the Purple Tide – whose purpose was to establish what sort of organisation Podem members thought Un País en Comú should be – had said: “We believe that formulas of coalitions between parties and deals done by tops are to be avoided in favour of participation by citizens and the social movements, going beyond the frameworks set out by the different political actors.” The approach of Podem thus differed from that of the other party participants in the new political space. ICV had committed to the project at its Eleventh National Assembly (April 2016) and EUiA at its Seventh National Assembly (October 2016), leaving negotiations over the shaping of the new project in the hands of their respective incoming leaderships. The Purple Tide approach was a de facto criticism of this traditional method, with Podem general-secretary Albano Dante Fachin stating at the time: “We want to ensure that people participate in and lead the process of building the political space. Guarantee the control of the people. If we don’t do that well, it could happen again that the people come out into the streets to say ‘they don’t represent us!’ [a popular slogan of the indignado movement].” On March 10, the Podem leadership announced that it would be holding a membership referendum to decide if the conditions existed for its continuing participation in Un País en Comú. It gave the membership its account of the state of negotiations with ICV, EUiA and Barcelona en Comú in a document called “For a transparent, democratic and participatory New Political Subject”. It said that “at this point the necessary conditions have not been met for guaranteeing that the building of the new space embodies the values of participation, transparency and radical democracy and that it is a citizen-based project committed to winning overwhelming support – as set out for us by activist members participating in the Purple Tide.” Specific sticking points were;
* The insistence of the three other parties participating that voting be at a physical congress (and not on line, as in Podemos). The documents says: “Various members of the other parties informed us of the ‘danger’ that participation opened to Podem members would see representatives of the smaller formations ‘wiped’ from the leadership bodies of the New Political Subject and that all political sensibilities had to be taken into account. We are resolute defenders of plurality and participation, and we understand that this is a very big change in political culture and that it could generate insecurity in other formations. However Podem cannot give up its way of understanding political participation.”
* The proposal that the interim executive be composed of four members per party (16 in all) and 14 independents. After rejecting any idea of a “party list”, Podem suggested that the parties put forward individual candidates and that Xavier Domènech put forward a list to round out the interim executive team.
* The refusal of the other parties to adopt a code of ethics right from the founding congress. Podem presented a draft code of ethics covering issues such as party financing by banks and private enterprise; a 60% participation by women in elected bodies; limitations on holding elected positions and on terms in elected positions. The document said: “The proposal that the rest of the parties made us was that this code of ethics be set back until after the founding of the new space. This puts Podem in a difficult situation, given that we are being asked to take part in a political space where we still don’t know the ethical and democratic rules.”Despite a number of concessions from the other parties (acceptance of on-line voting for the interim leadership bodies, presentation of a draft code of ethics) the referendum went ahead. When the result was announced on March 20, 3900 members had taken part with 60.5% supporting the position of the leadership. The participation rate was only 7.46% of the total membership and only 11.45% of the active membership (Podem members are “active” if they have taken part in one on-line activity in the past year). By contrast, 15,000 Podem members took part in the vote on documents and leadership in the second Podemos citizens’ assembly (congress) for the Spanish state (in February). The day after this result was announced, intensive negotiations between Domènech and the Podem leadership took place, leading to an agreement for the radical anti-austerity party to continue in the process of Un País en Comú. The agreement met two of Podem’s demands – that the code of ethics be put to the vote at the founding congress of Un País En Comú and applied immediately and that candidate lists be open and restricted to 25 positions for the interim executive and 96 for the interim coordinating committee. A compromise was reached on the third demand that Podem members automatically be able to vote without having to personally join the new formation. It was agreed that they would have to enrol in Un País En Comú, but that a link be put on the Podem web site to facilitate this. Membership identity checks—necessary to ensure one vote per member when many belong to both to Podem and Barcelona en Comú—could be done over the internet. At the same time, an earlier suggestion by Fachin – that Podem maintain its own structure and participate in an electoral alliance with Un País En Comú – was personally rejected by Ada Colau, for whom the whole point of the exercise was to create something going beyond the existing left formations. This compromise was endorsed by Pablo Iglesias, the general secretary of Podemos in the Spanish state, as “magnificent news for Spain and for Catalonia”. Fachin commented that, “the rest of the protagonists have understood that those three points enrich the whole space” and thanked Domènech as “author of the fact that we different formations understand each other”.
...then goes againOn March 27, Podem announced its own tickets for the two interim leadership bodies: Fachin declined to take part in the list headed by Domènech, which he dubbed as “the list of the parties” (although independents made up one third of the positions). The Podem leadership put forward a list called Democratic Radicality Now!, composed mainly of members close to the internal current Global Revolt (the Catalan sister organisation of the Anticapitalist current in the Spanish state). Former Podem leaders Jessica Albiach and Marc Bartolomeu – with political sympathies closer to those of Iñigo Errejón, former “number two” in the Spanish state whose motions were defeated in Podemos’s February congress – presented a “dissident” Podem list at the same time. Podem then stated on March 30 that it would be withdrawing its candidate lists and not taking part in the founding congress at all. Its stated reasons were that:
* The right of Podem members to vote on an equal footing with others was not guaranteed for various technical and legal reasons;
* The founding congress of Un País en Comú would be open only to those registered on the Un País en Comú membership list;
* There was no guarantee of the neutrality of the voting system;
* The agreed code of ethics had not been ratified.The Podem leadership added that “the premature insistence on the goal of unity without taking into account the guarantees, rhythms and needs of the political organisations that are taking part puts us on the road to errors committed by other confluences.” For their part, “sources close to the Domènech list” quoted in the March 30 El Diario said that “the only reason for Fachin’s change of opinion is the existence of another Podem list [led by Albiach] that is competing against him.” The atmosphere that had by then developed between the Podem leadership and the other organisations was revealed in a leaked tweet to concerned members by EUiA leader Joan Josep Nuet: “Don’t worry. It will end OK, with Podem shredded.” Podem’s last minute withdrawal from the Un País en Comú process left Global Revolt supporters on both sides of the divide, with CQSEP MP Joan Giner and other Podem executive members from Global Revolt backing the walkout while a March 30 Global Revolt communiqué stated that its activists would “actively participate in the April 8 congress in the desire to make constructive proposals that are anti-capitalist, mould-breaking and in favour of internal democracy and participation from below.” Whatever the rights and wrongs of its decision, the withdrawal of the Podem leadership from building Un País En Comú to date looks to be hurting it more than the process of confluence. The ticket of dissident Podem members got seven of its candidates elected to the new force’s interim executive and the Spainsh state Podemos leadership through Pablo Iglesias made it clear that it would continue to regard Un País En Comú as its partner in Catalonia. At the same time, the Podemos leadership is also remaining true to its commitment not to interfere in the affairs of Podem Catalonia and to maintain neutrality between its various currents. Speaking on April 3, Podemos organisational secretary Pablo Echenique, said: “At this moment, Podem does not form an organic part of the new political subject beyond the participation of people in an individual capacity in the primaries.” Nonetheless, Iglesias’s video greeting to the April 8 congress said “I have no doubt that we shall continue to walk together”, while Echenique told the congress crowd—which kept chanting “unity, unity, unity”— that “there are some people who have been struggling for 30 years and some who have been struggling for just a while. We have to understand that we in different traditions that share the same goals just have to live together in the same space.”