Rebellious Catalan vote rocks Spanish establishment

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By Dick Nichols

November 12, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On November 9, 2.305 million residents of Catalonia defied a November 4 Spanish Constitutional Court ban and voted on what future political status they wanted for their country, which is presently one of the 17 “autonomous communities” (regional governments) within the Spanish state.

This “participatory process” presented voters with the same ballot paper as the original non-binding consultation that had been adopted by the Catalan parliament on September 26. That too had been suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court on appeal by the national government of People’s Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

After this first legal veto the Catalan minority government of right-nationalist party Convergence and Union (CiU) adopted a substitute ballot for November 9, one that had more the status of a mass survey of public opinion than a formal plebiscite.

Yet the double-barreled question asked was still the same:

(1) Do you want Catalonia to become a state?

(2) If yes, do you want that state to be independent?

The near-final results of the poll were 1.86 million (80.76% of voters) for independence, 232,000 (10.07%) for Catalan statehood but not independence, 105,000 (4.54%) for no change in Catalonia’s status and 107,000 (4.62%) either offering other suggestions or spoiling the voting paper.

Participation exceeded the most optimistic expectations of the organisers, who had informally set 1.5 million as a respectable target. Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) co-coordinator Joan Herrera called it “the biggest demonstration in the history of this country”. The unprecedented turnout was one more powerful act of Catalan mass protest, defying not only the Constitutional Court’s ban but Spanish state intimidation.

This included the refusal of the national Post Office to deliver material related to November 9, requests from the national prosecutor’s office for the names and addresses of school principals and others charged with opening their workplaces as voting centres, heavy hints that the national prosecutor might require the Catalan regional police to close the centres down and intimidatory letters to national civil servants warning them not to act as volunteers in any “illegal activity”.

At the time of writing the furious aggression of the Spanish government continues, not only in ministerial declarations against the “unconstitutional farce” but in rumours that Catalan government ministers, including premier Artur Mas, will be charged with violating court orders and perverting the course of justice.

The decision of the Catalan government to call the bluff of the Rajoy government was key to the success of the “participatory process”. When forced to choose between the Spanish court prohibition and Catalans’ enormous desire to vote on November 9, the CiU government really had no choice but to come down on the side of the latter.

In so doing, premier Mas did what he said he would never do—violate Spanish state legality. This was the first time since the 1978 adoption of the present Spanish constitution that a regional government has defied a Constitutional Court ruling.

At one point in the cat-and-mouse game with “Madrid”, it looked as if the Catalan government might comply with the court prohibition by surrendering formal responsibility for the vote to a non-governmental organisation—as it was being begged to do by the social-democratic Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC). An obvious candidate would have been the National Pact for the Right to Decide, an umbrella grouping of 3000 organisations supporting Catalonia’s right to self-determination.

However, the government knew that such a move would be seen as weakness and was in any event confident that the Rajoy government would not act to stop the vote by having the national prosecutor’s office order the Catalan state police to block access to voting centres.

The repercussions of such an action—with television from around the world broadcasting scenes of police stopping millions from voting—would have been devastating, especially for a national government shaken to the core in recent weeks by corruption scandals and the stunning rise of the new radical political force Podemos (now over 25% in the polls).

On November 5, Mas urged all residents in Catalonia to “keep calm and participate”. On November 6, CiU coordinator-general and MP Josep Rull stated: “The ballot boxes will be there and the government will be putting them there.”

On the day

Voting on the day opened at 9 am, but from 8 am massive queues were already forming outside polling stations. The mood was calm, but euphoric, as it sank in that Catalonia really was going to vote on its future after a difficult and tortuous journey through a legal and political obstacle course that also tested the unity of the parliamentary parties committed to a Catalan right to decide (see section below, “The road to defiance”).

Here, at long last, the Catalan people were having their moment. After the Constitutional Court found key sections of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy unconstitutional, after the multitudinous Catalan national day demonstrations of 2012, 2013 and 2014, after the Constitutional Court struck down a Catalan parliament declaration of Catalonia as a sovereign entity, after the Spanish parliament rejected an appeal from the Catalan parliament to allow a Scottish-style referendum, after the suspension of the non-binding consultation and the “participatory process” itself … after all that and more, they were finally going to vote.

In the end, the fear and intimidation campaign from Madrid in all likelihood helped build November 9. Indeed, one reason crowds gathered outside polling stations from such an early hour was to stop any last-minute national government attempt to prevent the vote.

The Spanish state’s fear campaign also helped convince many Catalan residents—especially working-class migrants from other parts of the Spanish state who are not supporters of independence—that they should seize the chance to vote against PP bullying from Madrid. This was reflected in a contradictory “division of labour” within the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), the Catalan sister of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE): while its leadership condemned the consultation as illegal and told PSC supporters not to participate, its mayors and councillors often helped organise the day in their towns and villages.

In the end, November 9 went off without a hitch. This was a tribute to the dedication and seriousness of the volunteers, the contributions of the local councils and professionalism of the government’s own planning, including the saturation media coverage calling on everyone to vote and explaining how they they could.

Tears and smiles

It was a day of tears and smiles, and of huge collective satisfaction. There were the heaps of excited young people (the voting age was 16) taking “selfies” of themselves voting alongside the volunteers running the ballot. There were the families, from great grandparents down to the latest arrivals in their prams, who—complete with pet dogs—made a point of voting together. There were Catalonia’s migrants—from north and sub-Saharan Africa, from eastern Europe, Pakistan, India and China—who lined up patiently, often with estaladas (the Catalan independence flag) in hand.

Most moving of all were the older generation, often the very old, who could remember the Catalan republic of the 1930s and who had lived through the murderous repression of the 1939-1975 Franco dictatorship and the compromised post-Franco “transition” that produced the present Spanish constitution. They often voted tearfully, remembering loves ones who had fallen victim to Francoism or who had gone into exile never to return to Catalonia.

One hundred-year-old woman said with a smile after voting: “Now I can die in peace.” A very old man commented: “This is better than 1931” [the municipal election that produced the abdication of King Alphonse XIII], as if that had happened a few weeks ago.

The day after the vote TV and radio were jammed with calls and tweets from the volunteers who had run the ballot and who just had to share their experiences of the day. One common story was of people voting while saying “this is for you”, followed by the name of a departed loved one. Another was of people crying when they were told that they couldn’t vote because they had come to a wrong voting centre (that did not correspond to their address as shown on their national Spanish identity card -- those who still want to register a vote will have another two weeks to do so at a Catalan government office in Barcelona).

Striking, too, was the turnout by the Catalan diaspora, both those who voted in the 17 Catalan government offices abroad, and those who made the often long trip home to vote. In Sydney, for example, where there was no Catalan community before the present economic crisis forced many younger Catalans into exile, more than 200 turned up to vote. In New York, queues were so long that people had to wait up to six hours.

The road to defiance

The Catalan government’s path to defiance started after the September 29 suspension of the original non-binding consultation. After a week of vain attempts to convince the other parliamentary forces supporting that consultation that it was now impossible to conduct it in its original form, Mas announced the new “participatory process” as his government’s response.

In this new process there would be no pre-existing electoral roll (all residents of Catalonia over 16 years of age were able to vote on presentation of their identity card and in this way the roll was created on the day) and no informal votes (all suggestions written on the printed ballot were recorded).

The practical arrangements for organising the new November 9 “lite” continued while the Rajoy government—initially triumphant and scornful, but soon increasingly worried—decided whether or not to again appeal to the Constitutional Court. It finally did so on October 30.

However, Mas’s decision to drop the original non-binding consultation set off differences among the parties who supported it. The centre-left nationalist Republic Left of Catalunya (ERC), presently leading CiU in opinion polls, and the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP) were for defying the court ruling.

Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and its partner, the United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), the Catalan sister party to the all-Spanish United Left, favoured turning November 9 into a massive day of protest and signature collection, with the aim of dramatising Spain’s violation of Catalan national rights to international public opinion.

Joan Herrera, co-convener of ICV, denounced the new November 9 as a fraud and said he, for one, would not be voting. While not explicit, the ICV-EUiA line seemed to be that little else could be done until the balance of political forces was changed on an all-Spanish scale, at the 2015 general election.

The CUP, after failed attempts to get the government to agree to an 11-point plan to strengthen the new consultation, announced it was abandoning the party negotiations and “returning to the street”.

Most importantly for Mas and CiU, Oriel Jonqueras, leader of ERC, said that its support for the minority CiU government was at an end because it had been based on an agreement to have the consultation. That decision raised the possibility that the CiU government might fall if the ERC failed to support its 2015 budget (due for approval in coming weeks).

In that scenario, with the ERC leading in all opinion polls, its victory at an early election would be most likely.

The disarray among the pro-consultation parties stirred the mass organisations of the national movement into action. An October 19 rally in central Barcelona, called by the “Now is the Time” campaign of the Catalan National Congress (ANC) and Omnium Cultural, the mass organisation promoting Catalan language and culture, drew over 100,000.

The mood of rally participants pointed the way out of a growing mess that was only benefitting Madrid. Reflected in many “vox pop” interviews, it was that the new consultation had to be made a success, despite its improvised, second-best character. The parties should get their act together and help give the new process maximum political impact, otherwise the only winner would be the national PP government.

That sentiment also showed in the powerful response to the Catalan government’s call for volunteers to run the new November 9 process, necessary because exposure of public servants to legal sanction had to be avoided.

The target for volunteers was 20,000, a number reached in little over a day. In the end, 43,405 put their names down to help November 9 run smoothly, enabling voting at 1317 centres equipped with 6695 voting points. All of Catalonia’s 947 municipalities were covered, despite PP mayors refusing to cooperate in five towns and villages. There a shuttle service to neighbouring towns was put on for those who wanted to vote.

Next came a meeting of the National Pact for the Right to Decide, called on the initiative of the two main Catalan trade union confederations, the General Union of Workers (UGT) and the Workers Commissions (CCOO), with a view to ironing out differences.

As a result, a revised basis for unity emerged. It embraced support for the new November 9 poll but with explicit recognition that it didn’t represent a definitive test of Catalan opinion, let alone a referendum. At the same time the ICV-EUiA proposal for November 9 to also be a day for mass signing of a protest declaration was adopted by all other forces covered by the National Pact. On November 5, this declaration was formally adopted at a special ceremony in the Catalan parliament.

ICV co-coordinator Joan Herrera then announced that he would now be voting on November 9 as a protest action against the PP, indicating that his vote would be a “Yes-No” (yes to Catalan statehood, no to independence). Dolors Camats, the other ICV co-ordinator, declared that she would be a “Yes-Yes”, in this way telling the pluralist ICV membership that they—pro-independence, federalists and confederalists alike—should vote according to conviction.

The weeks before the vote saw a huge effort by the mass organisations supporting the day. On November 6, the “Now is the Hour” campaign distributed by hand 600,000 copies of a bilingual (Catalan and Spanish) leaflet explaining what was stake on November 9. The campaign also set itself the goal of telephoning every household in Catalonia.

Of particular importance was the stance of the main trade union confederations, with their base in greater Barcelona’s working-class “belts”. They called for everyone to participate in November 9, while making completely clear that this should in no way be interpreted as support for the austerity policies of the Mas government.

The influential Barcelona Neighbourhood Association wrote: “The deeper the government of Spanish state sinks in its quagmire of scandal, corruption and abuse of power—bringing to mind a scenario of end of regime—the more authoritarian, narrow and inflexible becomes its reading of the constitution, used as a criminal code against the aspirations of the people… Sooner or later the citizens of Catalonia will freely decide their future. Let’s start to make that possible by speaking out decisively on November 9.”

Lefts for Yes-Yes

Parallel to these developments, left forces (parliamentary and extra-parliamentary) in favour of a “Yes-Yes” vote were projecting a united presence through their platform “Lefts for Yes-Yes”.

The platform’s 16 points cover all the basic social, economic, environmental and democratic rights issues essential to a genuinely progressive politics in an independent Catalonia. They reflect the demands of the social movements in areas such as housing, health, education and environment, as well as around workers’, pensioners’, immigrants’ and women’s rights.

An October 2 Barcelona public meeting of “Lefts for Yes-Yes” featured speakers from ICV, ERC, EUiA, the CUP, Let’s Win Barcelona (the citizens´ ticket for the May 2015 municipal elections), the Constituent Process (dedicated to remaking Catalan institutional structures from the bottom up), the Socialism, Catalonia and Freedom Association of former members of the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), as well as health, housing, education and trade union activists.

The 600-strong turn-up of the event, from which hundreds had to be turned away, showed how strong the desire to build a united left pole inside the broader independence movement is becoming.

Madrid strikes again

It was against this background that the Constitutional Court brought down its November 4 decision suspending the “participatory process”. An immediate barrage of statements from Catalan institutions, including by Joan Rigol, the president of the National Pact, urged that November 9 proceed regardless.

In that atmosphere the PSC had no choice but to condemn the Rajoy government’s latest intervention, effectively also criticising the support given to Rajoy by its national big brother, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party.

These events set the scene for a November 5 appearance by Mas, at which he poured scorn on the “mediaeval” Spanish state and demanded that it learn “twenty-first century democracy”. Here, he stressed, was a Spanish government that was actually violating fundamental human rights, like the right to expression of opinion. Mas announced his government would be taking the Rajoy administration to court for “abuse of the Constitutional Court”. He also expressed his confidence that democratic-minded people across the rest of Spain would understand why Catalonia was carrying on with the November 9 process.

The popular response was also not long in coming. After the Constitutional Court announced its prohibition of the participatory process, someone suggested via social media that at 10 pm every night until November 9 people bang pots and pans from their balconies in protest. Those caceroladas became noisier with every night that passed, reaching a climax on the night of November 8 when all Catalonia announced its determination to vote on the following day.

The road ahead

It is difficult to exaggerate the size of the problem that the Rajoy government now has in Catalonia. This is shown in the reactions coming from different parts of the PP universe. On the one hand is the classic visceral Spanish centralist tic—rebellion in the provinces must be crushed. Otherwise Spain, “one and indivisible”, will add the loss of Catalonia to the humiliations of 1898 (loss of Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico to the US) and of the early 19th century (independence wars of its Latin American colonies). This reaction was epitomised in the notorious recommendation of one Francoist general that “Barcelona has to be bombed every five years”.

This reaction has been at its strongest in the ultra-centralist Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD) which, along with the xenophobic Platform for Catalonia, inundated magistrates with injunctions demanding they order the November 9 process to be closed down.

If this impulse predominates within the Rajoy government, which is already being accused from within the PP in Catalonia of being too weak in dealing with the “secessionist threat”, Mas and other ministers of the Catalan government will be charged.

Other voices within the PP, aware of the impact such a move would have across the Spanish state—in Catalonia itself, but also in Euskadi [Basque Country] and Galicia—have been quick to urge caution. This is most clearly the case with the premier of Galicia, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who stated that, whatever the “crimes” of Mas and company, 2.3 million Catalans voting peacefully should not be criminalised.

The Rajoy government was quick to denounce the “illegal farce” in Catalonia, leaving open what its legal response will eventually be. However, it is politically impossible for the PP in power to concede the principal demand of the Catalan government, for a referendum along Scottish lines.

This fact of life is what will most determine the next phase of debate and struggle between the parties supporting the Catalan right to self-determination. They fall into two broad groups: those (ERC and the CUP) who favour early Catalan elections followed sooner or later by a unilateral declaration of independence, and those (ICV-EUiA and Union—the Christian Democrat component of CiU) who insist on maintaining the pressure on the national government for a genuine referendum.

Both sides are appealing to the results of November 9 to justify their approach, and if we look at these results in a little detail, the strengths and weaknesses of each position can be seen (see Table 1).

Table 1 shows the results of November 9 compared to the November 2012 Catalan elections, called two years early by Mas with the aim of strengthening his and CiU’s position within Catalan nationalism (unsuccessfully, CiU lost seats to ERC).

First, on November 9, 80.76% of those voting voted Yes-Yes for independence. However, this figure was this high because hundreds of thousands of opponents of independence boycotted the “participatory process”, seen as a political operation of the independence movement in alliance with the Catalan government.

This emerges clearly from a comparison of the Yes-Yes vote with a measure of the degree of participation in this process compared to that in the 2012 Catalan regional elections. Overall 2.305 million voted on November 9 compared to the 3.658 million who voted in that poll (63.02%), and there is a very high degree of correlation between size of the Yes-Yes vote and the degree of participation on November 9 compared to the 2012 election.

At one extreme, in the pro-independence stronghold of the Pla d’Estany, the turnout was 91.8% compared to 2012, and the Yes-Yes vote 92.66% (the highest percentages on both counts). At the other, in industrial, working-class Baix Llobregat, the turnout was 49.66% compared to 2012, and support for Yes-Yes 72.12% (the second lowest percentages on both counts).

Clearly, if more had turned out in Barcelona’s working-class “belts” and other industrial cities like Tarragona, the percentage support for independence would have been lower.

It began to be seen that roughly 900,000 opponents of independence (largely supporters of the PP, the PSC and Citizens) boycotted November 9, as did around 100,000 supporters of some sort of restructuring of the relation of Catalonia to the Spanish state. For over half a million voters in the November 2012 poll it is not possible to say how they would be likely to vote in an independence referendum.

As a result, it is not at all certain that the independence case would actually win a Scottish-style referendum with full participation, although it still remains the most likely result. It also pays to remember that we have yet to see anything like the “shock and awe” final weeks of the Scottish campaign, although a recent Fitch ratings “report” that capital and savings would abandon an independent Catalonia shows what’s in the wings.

This state of affairs is shown in Table 2, the poll of the Catalan government’s Centre for Opinion Studies (CEO) before the original November 9 poll was abandoned, giving a 49.4% result for Yes-Yes.

In this tricky situation, the strategy of Artur Mas and CiU is to ask one last time for discussions with Rajoy on the possibility of an independence referendum for Catalonia, and, when this is not forthcoming, to propose early Catalan elections at which he would present a “ticket for the country”—a list above parties that would also incorporate Catalan personalities and nationalist movement leaders.

This tactic is aimed at preserving Mas as the presidential-style leader of the process in the face of competition from poll leader ERC. However, it is not clear that it would actually maximise the pro-independence vote because it would not get the support of left-independentists,

For its part, the ERC and the CUP see no point in dealing with Madrid, which gives no sign of changing its stance of the Catalan “threat”. Both are demanding an early poll.

ICV-EUiA continues to insist on the need for a proper referendum, but faces the problem that this is increasingly seen as pie-in-the-sky. If it persists with this line, the danger will be that it is seen as subordinating the struggle in Catalonia to possibly favourable developments in the Spanish state.

After November 9, the dynamic is more than ever the other way round. The further development of the Catalan national struggle will continue to have a powerfully disintegrating effect on the politics of the Spanish state, increasing the crisis of the PP and exposing the PSOE as Spanish centralism’s pseudo-democratic soft cop.

Artur Mas is right to write one last time to Rajoy, to demonstrate to “international public opinion” that he has tried everything and also to show wavering people, especially those with strong ties to the rest of the Spanish state, that there is no alternative to early elections with a clear plebiscitary character if Catalonia is ever to exercise its right to self-determination.

In this context, a very important role will be played by left supporters of independence, whose message will be that choosing independence doesn´t have to mean choosing Catalan over all-Spanish austerity. As against Mas’s “ticket for the country”, the left, building on the work begun with “Lefts for Yes-Yes”, is challenged to create a “ticket for a socially just country”.

Just as in Scotland, the more successfully that job is done—and old divisions on the Catalan left progressively overcome in the process— the greater will be the chance of Catalonia achieving independence and of beginning life as a new European state with a strongly progressive balance of social forces.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, based in Barcelona.