Spanish state: an early election about breaking the Catalan struggle

By Dick Nichols

February 25, 2019 Links International Journal of Socialist RenewalPedro Sánchez, prime minister of Spain’s minority Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government, announced on February 15 that the country would vote on April 28.  The election comes 15 months short of a full term and only nine months after the previous People’s Party (PP) government of Sánchez’s predecessor Mariano Rajoy fell to a PSOE censure motion in the Spanish Congress.

The censure motion was supported by the rest of the all-Spanish left (Podemos and the United Left), the alliances in which they participate in Galicia, Catalonia and the Valencian Country (respectively In Tide, Together We Can and A La Valenciana) and by nearly all nationalist forces, left and right.

These were the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and the left pro-independence Basque alliance EH Bildu, the conservative Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat) and the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the New Canary Islands group.

Once in government, Sánchez, with only 84 PSOE seats in the 350-seat Congress, had to negotiate support for his legislative program bill by bill. Nonetheless, he had been saying before the announcement that his government would run its full term. Why did he change his mind?

The main reason seemed to be ERC’s and PDECat’s February 13 vote against the PSOE’s 2019 budget bill. This budget, which had been negotiated with the more radical Unidos Podemos, was boosted by the PSOE—and especially by its Catalan sister party the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC)as  “the most social in Spanish history”. It certainly contained numerous positive measures—a 22% increase in the minimum wage (to €900 a month), hikes in pensions and disability payments and increased spending on public housing, paternity leave, education and research.

The package confronted Catalan independentism’s rival parties with a dilemma. Would they join with the PP and the “cool right” Citizens in voting it down, but on their own grounds, namely that they had won nothing in negotiations over a Scottish-style independence referendum? Or would they vote in favour to avoid early elections? 

Voting down the budget risked that the right, now including the neo-Francoist Vox, might repeat their win in the December regional elections in Andalusia and then move to permanently suspend Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the Spanish constitution. In that case, the Catalan parties would also have to wear relentless PSOE demagogy about “the nationalists” putting their “narrow” interests before the well-being of all Spaniards, especially workers and people on welfare.

The ERC and PDECat Congress caucuses were anxious to back the budget, but their vote depended on getting some offer that would be seen as a step forward by the independence movement. Enraged by the present show trial of its leaders in the Supreme Court, this movement can’t forget that the PSOE supported Rajoy’s article 155 operation against Catalan self-rule. It also retains an enormous power of mobilisation, seen once again in a massive protest in Barcelona on February 16 and a general strike with protests on December 21, including the biggest march ever in the provincial capital Girona (70,000 according to the municipal police).

Designed to fail?

The offer the Sánchez government made the pro-independence Catalan administration of president Quim Torra was for a party-to-party and government-to-government dialogue whose discussions would be registered by a “rapporteur”.

It fell between all stools. The two sides differed as to what it meant even as their negotiators strove to concretise it; it enfuriated Spanish unitarianism, including its wing within the PSOE (“Spain is not Yemen or Burkina Faso”, harrumped former deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra); and it increased suspicions within independentism that Torra might be getting sucked towards surrendering the right to self-determination.

Notwithstanding, authoritative figures such as former Catalan premier Artur Mas and former treasurer Andreu Mas-Colell, came out strongly in favour of Catalan support for Sánchez’s budget, on the grounds that Catalonia simply could not risk the arrival in Madrid of a right-wing coalition. After it was voted down, Mas-Colell wrote:

The PNV voted in favour. Its MP Aitor Esteban spelled out that he didn’t see what the advantage could be for Catalonia in voting against. He was right. The most plausible explanation of what we’ve done is, simply, that we don’t know how to stop and, what is worse, that we don’t know that we don’t know how to stop.

We set ourselves unrealistic goals and time-frames, we load up on emotions, we get ourselves twisted up in the rivalry and distrust among the pro-independence forces, and we end up taking decisions that are unwise and, every now and then, suicidal.

Did the Catalan Congress MPs shoot themselves in the foot for fear of being seen as traitors back home, or had they deliberately been made an offer they had to reject? Accounts differ as to what actually caused the Catalan MPs, especially the cautious PDECat, to vote the way they did.

On February 6, in negotiations between Spanish deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo and Catalan deputy president Pere Aragonès and minister of state Elena Arcadi it was agreed that the Spanish government would search for candidates for rapporteur while their Catalan counterparts would sketch how the negotiating forums should function. The next day, however, the Catalans were presented with a sign-it-or-leave-it document that bore little relation to this agenda: already weak references to a Catalan right to decide had vanished, as had the figure of the rapporteur.

One version of events is that Sánchez panicked at the reactions being provoked to his right by the negotiations with the Catalans (“the coup-mongers” in PP-Citizens-Vox parlance): a February 9 demonstration in Madrid led by this “triple-headed monster” could be huge. Moreover, PSOE regional leaders (“barons”) like Aragon’s Javier Lambán and Castilla-La Mancha’s Emiliano García-Page, organisers of Sanchez’s beheading as leader in 2016, were once again on the warpath over his “preferential treatment” of Catalonia.

The other version is that the decision to break the negotiations was already planned and in the pipeline. Concerned about a possible economic downturn and buoyed by internal polling predicting a PSOE victory if he ended negotiations with the pestilential Catalans (whose demand for a Scottish-style referendum he knew he could never satisfy), Sánchez had only been waiting for the right moment to provoke ERC-PDECat rejection.

Events surrounding Sánchez’s February 15 announcement certainly lend credibility to this second variant. In just over a week since announcing the election, Sánchez has launched into a series of campaign events, with meetings in Andalusia and Extremadura, wreath-laying ceremonies on the graves of Republicans exiled in France after the 1936-39 Civil War, and the launch of his book Manual of Resistance, the first ever published by a Spanish prime minister while still in office.

According to El Periódico political correspondent Iolanda Marmol, writing after the February 13 budget vote but before Sánchez’s announcement, “the electoral strategy was developed in [the northern] autumn, in expectation of the break with the ERC and PDECat”:

It was on Sunday [February 10], after the flop of the demonstration called by PP, Citizens and Vox, that Sánchez decided to go to the polls. This wasn’t a frightener aimed at getting the independentists to back off from their negotiating position, yet not all the independence leaders understood that: there were some who thought it was the PSOE government’s final manoeuvre to put on pressure. Minister Elsa Artadi maintained conversations with the PSOE late into the night of the Tuesday [February 12] and just before the vote in the Congress on the Wednesday she offered a text, drafted by Pablo Iglesias, with an alternative to including the term “referendum”. […] To no avail. The decision had been taken.

An opportunity grasped

The Sánchez government faces enemies on four fronts. By far the most important is the movement for Catalan sovereignty. If he can get it to “realise that independence is impossible” or have it lose the next Catalan elections, Sánchez will become the hero of the Spanish and European establishment. Its main figures, such Franz Timmermanns, European Commission deputy-president and the social democracy’s lead candidate in the May European elections, are all resolute enemies of Catalonia’s right of self-determination. Timmermanns, indeed, will live in infamy for supporting the Rajoy government’s “proportionate use of force” during the October 1 referendum.

The anti-Catalan obsession of Spanish unionism increasingly gets reproduced at the European level. For example, European Parliament speaker Antonio Tajani, acting under the combined pressure of the PP, Citizens and the PSOE, recently banned Quim Torra and former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont from holding a public forum within the parliament.

So burning is this issue that a victory would strengthen Sánchez against his other opponents: rival Podemos would see an important point of difference with the PSOE—the right to national self-determination—fade in importance; the right’s various “final solutions” to the Catalan rebellion would become irrelevant; and the PSOE barons and former leaders like Felipe González would be forever discredited. But the causality also runs the other way. To crack the 80% support for self-determination in Catalonia—getting a majority to accept that the best it can expect is a new statute of autonomy—Sánchez must first strengthen his position against Unidos Podemos, his barons and the right.

In this situation, an election campaign run as a demagogic crusade against the anti-social and centralist right wing in the name of an “inclusive” and “socially just” Spain seizes the initiative and is also a powerful weapon against Catalan independentism.

Besides the failure of the right’s feared mega-demonstration (only 45,000 attended), two tother factors would have convinced Sánchez to go early: polling showing that a majority in Spain want to see the Catalan issue solved by negotiation and the chance to push the Catalan leaders’ trial—at which the fictitious character of the prosecution’s narrative is being increasingly exposed—off the front page.

Sánchez’s appearance announcing the election was thus a campaign launch. He proclaimed:

It is obvious that the right wing, with its three parties, defends a sort of Spain in which not many fit, in which they alone fit. We defend a different sort of Spain, an inclusive Spain, a Spain where all men and women fit. […] Do we want a constitutional Spain, proud of its rights, its freedoms, that makes the transformations needed to conquer its future, or one that lives on longing for a past that will never return?

The operation that will project the PSOE as the useful and progressive people’s alternative (“we are the left”) against the right, the separatists and a divided Podemos, is now rolling. Sánchez’s visit to southern France to remember the exiles from the Second Republic will be followed by the exhumation of Franco’s corpse from the Valley of the Fallen and an International Womens Day that is bound to be huge and with which the PSOE will seek maximum identification. In addition the two-month election campaign will be marked by strategically timed governmental decrees implementing measures so as to give voters a foretaste of “The Spain You Want” (the PSOE campaign slogan).

Claiming to have the best plan for “Spain”—while either directly bashing the Catalans who uphold their right to decide or standing aloof while others bash them—will be the revolting central feature of a campaign in which Spanish nationalism in all its varieties will get  boosted to the limit.

Win for Sánchez...

The biggest losers from the move to hold the general election on April 28, coming before May 26 European, regional and council polls in the Spanish State, will be his PSOE rivals. The barons, led by former Andalusia premier Susana Díaz, will find their candidates replaced by Sánchez loyalists for the Spanish and European contests, in turn increasing the pressure on their local fiefdoms.

The next advantage for the PSOE will be over the forces to its left: in the 2015 and 2016 general elections the PSOE headed Unidos Podemos and its allies only narrowly (in the 20%-22.5% band); recent polls show the PSOE now leading on average by 24.4% to 15% (102 seats to 43, due to Spain’s rigged electoral system). Moreover, divisions within Podemos—most importantly the decision of Iñigo Errejón, its lead candidate for the Madrid region, to drop Podemos in favour of an alliance with Madrid mayoress Manuela Carmena—will make it harder to build the enthusiasm of past election campaigns.

If maintained, Unidos Podemos’s increasingly distant second place behind the PSOE means that its proposal for a referendum in Catalonia will never see the light of day, even more so because the Iglesias leadership shows growing signs of settling for a junior role in any PSOE administration.

The contours of the United Podemos campaign for April 28 are yet to become clear, but it will be a welcome surprise if, against the shit-storm of obscurantism that is now darkening the horizon, it unwaveringly and persistently asserts the right to decide of the Catalans and other nations in the Spanish state. Progressive voters and those thinking of taking refuge in the PSOE as their most useful vote against the right need to hear a message that denounces the present show trial of the Catalan leaders and clearly explains the link between the struggles for social justice and for democratic rights against the common enemy of both—the parasitic and reactionary Spanish establishment and its monarchy. This is also the message to which the PSOE is most vulnerable. Central is to it is the proposal for an all-Spanish constituent process that includes recognition of the national right to self-determination and a referendum on the monarchy.

...without victory?

With his left flank apparently secured, Sánchez now feels freer to carry out the fight against the right, chiefly Citizens. He has been helped by Citizens’ February 18 decision—taken as it fights the PP for hegemony over the right—to rule out coalitions with the PSOE. In this context, the photo of the leaders of the PP, Citizens and Vox together at the February 9 Madrid demonstration for Spanish unity is political gold for the PSOE. The election campaign dynamic will also help: as the PP, Vox and Citizens contend for the prize of best scourge of the Catalans, repelled voters will turn towards the PSOE. The PP’s tricky job of doublespeak—trying to seduce the centre and win back its Francoists lost to Vox—will also favour it.

None of these advantages, however, will guarantee a victory against the right: that will depend on the overall left and nationalist vote surpassing that of the triple-headed monster. A Vox-PP-Citizens victory would not just produce another Rajoy-style corrupt, anti-worker administration but one of black reaction—a disaster for working people, the poor, women, refugees and Spain’s oppressed nations.

It will only be stopped if enough of the younger generations are inspired to vote on April 28—as has always been the case when the left has won in Spain. The result will depend on those most revolted by the racism and anti-feminism of Vox, the corruption of the PP, and the social regressiveness and virulent centralism of the whole right. If high participation by younger people helps carry off a victory for the left, it will also weaken that part of it that Sánchez represents—anti-democratic “constitutionalism”—and strengthen the forces of democratic renewal.

Written with welcome help from Julian Coppens. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. And initial version of this article has already appeared on its web site