By Dick Nichols
January 17, 2017
2017 will be the year of showdown between Catalonia and the Spanish state over whether the Catalan people have a right to vote on how their country should relate to Spain.
As the year begins, the final battle lines have already been drawn in the contest between the conservative Spanish-centralist People’s Party (PP) government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the pro-independence Catalan government, headed by premier Carles Puigdemont.
The Rajoy government justifies its stance with the falsehood that the 1978 Spanish constitution prevents it from granting Catalonia a Scottish-style referendum. In fact, it could do so under Section 92, as happened when the region voted on the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy, previously adopted by both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments.
However, to bolster Spanish-patriotic sentiment in the rest of the Spanish state, the Rajoy government has no choice but to repeat its Big Lie. This is, in the words of a January 12 statement by the prime minister, that: “I cannot authorise the celebration of a referendum that affects the unity of Spain and the national sovereignty, and the equality of Spaniards. And I’m not going to do it for two reasons. The first, because I cannot—legally I am not authorised to do that. Secondly, because it is something I don’t believe in.”
Puigdemont asserts that the Catalan administration is simply acting on democratic grounds, given that over 80% of Catalans support their right to decide via referendum. This sentiment and the existence of the pro-independence government itself have arisen from the vast surge in mobilisation in Catalonia that began with a million-strong 2010 protest against the Spanish Constitutional Court’s overruling of key sections of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy.
Since then, Catalonia has seen five million-plus demonstrations on September 11, the Catalan national day, all organised by the pro-independence social organisations, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the Associations of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) and Omnium Cultural, the association for the promotion of Catalan language and culture.
On January 10, the first anniversary of his becoming premier, Puigdemont reaffirmed his commitment to holding a referendum on Catalonia’s future by September this year at the latest, tweeting: “By all means and right through to the finish!”
On January 11, the Spanish deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said after a Barcelona meeting with the Catalan treasurer Oriol Junqueras over his government’s 46-point list of complaints about Madrid’s treatment of the region: “I call them 45 points plus one, which is the referendum—we can’t negotiate about that.”
Junqueras, who is also the leader of the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), said that Saenz de Santamaria had told him “we will do everything possible to stop you holding a referendum”. He had replied: “Well, we’ll do everything possible to hold it.”
Previously, Xavier Garcia Albiol, PP leader in Catalonia, had stated on January 5 that no referendum would take place. That was because the Spanish government and other anti-independence forces had learned from their failure to block the “participatory process” on Catalan statehood that was carried out by 37,000 volunteers on November 9, 2014 (known as 9N).
García Albiol told Europa Press: “They fooled us once but they won’t get away with it again…What happened on 9N was an unprecedented case of improvisation. However, in 2017, the [Spanish] government and the constitutionalist parties have got things very clear… That’s why there won’t be any repeat of what we went through then. No-one will be setting up illegal ballot boxes in public buildings.”
On January 12, Carlos Carrizosa, the spokesperson in the Catalan parliament of the viscerally anti-independence party Citizens (the official opposition), demanded of the Spanish government that it make clear to its public servants that they are forbidden from taking part in any sort of referendum organisation.
He said: “Public servants have to be told that they cannot open polling stations, that they cannot hand over the keys of public buildings to allow an unlawful consultation… Public servants have to obey the law too.”
The heart of the approaching struggle will be over the validity of a unilateral referendum. How to ensure that it will not be a repeat of 9N, which was largely ignored by anti-independence Catalans with 2.3 million participating as against 4.1 million in the September 27, 2015 Catalan regional election? How, above all, to ensure that the referendum actually takes place in the face of a gamut of threats, up to and including placing the Catalan police force under the direct command of the Spanish government?
According to poll analysts Seda Hakobyan and Alexandre Solano the detailed data of the December GESOP poll indicated what a plausible result of a unilateral consultation would be: 64% of the electorate (around 3.4 million) would vote—more than in all previous referenda since the end of the Franco dictatorship—and the vote for independence would be 79%.
The percentages of supporters of parties opposed to a unilateral referendum who would still take part if it happened would be: PP 12%; Citizens 29% and the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) 33%. Seventy-five per cent of supporters of the left coalition Catalonia Yes We Can (CQSEP), which supports a Catalan right to decide but not necessarily independence, would also participate.
The legitimacy of such a result would be unquestionable, as it would fulfil the guidelines for referendum validity of the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. As a consequence, having rejected the negotiated referendum that would actually give it the best chance of winning a vote on Catalan independence, the Rajoy government must now use all politically feasible means to stop a unilateral consultation.
A foretaste of what is to come from Madrid is the Spanish judiciary’s prosecution of former Catalan premier Artur Mas who, along with three of his ministers, faces charges of ignoring a Spanish Constitutional Court order to stop 9N from going ahead and of actually helping organise it from behind the scenes.
Mas and his ministers, along with parliament speaker Carme Forcadell, are the most prominent figures in 400-plus investigations so far launched by Spanish courts and prosecutors against elected officials and local councils in Catalonia. Those charged also include the mayoress of Berga, Montserrat Venturós, and Joan Coma, town councillor of Vic, both members of the Popular Unity List (CUP), a bloc of radical nationalist and anti-capitalist forces.
Forcadell is charged with disobeying a Constitutional Court order forbidding any parliamentary discussion of Catalan disconnection from Spain by allowing the Catalan parliament on June 27 to debate and vote on the recommendations of a parliamentary commission on how to carry out a referendum.
The screws are also being tightened on the executive bodies of the Catalan police force. Having been informed by the National High Court in November 2015 of their duties in the face of any act of “sedition”, this court—a direct descendent of the Franco-era Court of Public Order—saw fit to formally remind the Catalan police of their duties in a further communication in late December. The immediate point of concern would seem to be foot-dragging by the Catalan police in the “case” of CUP MPs publicly ripping up photos of Spanish King Philip, an act of solidarity with various activists charged with burning photos of the king at a Catalan national day demonstration last year.
Another all-Spanish body that has been acting to suppress Catalan dissidence is the General Council of the Judiciary, which in February 2015 suspended Barcelona judge Santiago Vidal for three years for having helped draft a Catalan constitution. Last November, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal of Vidal, who is now an ERC senator in the Spanish parliament.
All of this is in addition to Spanish government use of the Constitutional Court to suspend laws passed by the Catalan parliament. Leaving aside those related to the independence process, Madrid has used the court to block Catalan legislation on: energy poverty (stopping energy companies from cutting off gas and electricity to households too poor to pay their power bills); fracking (banned by Catalonia); gender equality (apparently not a “regional issue”); a vacant property tax (to force banks and real estate companies to make housing available); shopping hours (more restrictive in Catalonia); and the powers of the Catalan ombudsman to investigate human rights violations.
Former Catalan finance minister Andreu Mas-Colell commented on this wave of judicial repression in a January 6 article in the daily Ara: “We see, regrettably, how the National High Court appears not to want us to forget that it is a descendant of Francoism’s Court of Public Order. But what is most serious is that the Constitutional Court…makes no fuss at all when called upon to act as the executive arm of the central government.”
At the same time as it intensifies its war on delinquent Catalan institutions, the Rajoy government, aware that the immediate political effect is to recruit more people to the independence cause, has launched what is being called “Operation Dialogue”––a pretence that all Catalan concerns except the right to a referendum are now being listened to very attentively in Madrid.
This manoeuvre takes the form of placing deputy prime minister Saenz de Santamaria in overall charge of operations in Catalonia, combined with a parade of Spanish ministerial visits to Barcelona. The concrete result to date has been a series of undertakings to look into Catalan concerns, but without precise commitments.
On January 4, Spanish development minister Iñigo de la Serna rejected a major Catalan government demand––that it be given charge of the decrepit, delay-plagued and underfunded regional rail network presently run by Spanish national rail operator RENFE––even as he promised boosted investment in the system in the future.
Operation Dialogue has a very long way to go before it even starts to “win hearts and minds” in Catalonia. But that may not even be its principal aim: as polarisation rises across the Spanish state around whether Catalonia (or any other nation) has a right to self-determination, rejection of the supposed benefits of Operation Dialogue will be presented as proof of the egoism, intransigence and ingratitude of one of Spain’s richer regions.
Shadings on the left
The Catalan conflict increasingly demands clarity from all political trends, but most importantly from two forces: the Catalan left that supports a Catalan right to decide but is not necessarily pro-independence and the all-Spanish left in Podemos and the United Left (IU). While supportive of the Catalan right to self-determination, various currents within these forces have recently been issuing mixed messages about the fight that is actually unfolding.
On December 14, the day the Constitutional Court prohibited Catalonia holding a unilateral referendum, Joan Coscubiela of Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) and also spokesperson for the parliamentary caucus of the left coalition Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP), stressed that the court had not suspended the part of the resolution advocating a consensus referendum. Coscubiela, who has always denied the legitimacy of the Puigdemont government’s road map (because the pro-independence vote in September 2015 was less than 50%) said: “Our proposal takes on political relevance and is key because it remains fully in force.” The Catalan government should realise that “the proposal generates the greatest consensus, and [in the parliament] won most votes and most political and legal guarantees.”
By contrast, on December 19 Podemos political secretary Iñigo Errejón told Catalan web journal Nació Digital that: “it is very hypocritical for the Spanish government to be demanding a stop to unilateralism when it is offering no alternative.” While pessimistic about the chance of international recognition of a unilateral consultation, Errejón said: “If you close the door on any sort of bilateral relation, you are leaving the door open to unilateralism. Catalonia cannot wait.”
However, Rafael Mayoral, Podemos’s secretary for relations with civil society, told Europa Press on January 8 that only a referendum negotiated with the Spanish state would have authority: “I believe if we really want to find an effective way to decide how our country fits together territorially, it has to be based on an agreement.”
Mayoral felt he was supporting a January 3 statement by Xavier Domènech, the leader in the Spanish parliament of the radical Catalan coalition Together We Can (ECP), which includes the Catalan affiliates of Podemos and the United Left. To the surprise of many Domènech had called for early elections in Catalonia, saying that “a unilateral referendum would be no different from 9N, which had no binding political or legal impact.”
The next day, Domènech, politically close to Barcelona mayoress Ada Colau, backed away from the call for an early poll and stated that the referendum, to be effective, would have to meet three conditions: participation by a majority of the population, international recognition and fulfilment of appropriate political and legal criteria.
On January 11, Colau, who had taken part in a December 23 government-convened summit of all forces supportive of a referendum, spelled out that “the question is not whether it is negotiated or not, but whether it is effective”. She added that a judgement could not be made until the Puigdemont government produced a specific proposal.
Within CSQEP, this position is supported by Podemos deputy Joan Giner, who on December 31 said: “To be a real referendum it has to have clear international recognition and an outcome in law, and engage the vast majority of Catalans…if that’s the line along which the government wants to go, they’ll have us working at the table. We believe that would be a good way to address the objective that Catalonia is seeking.”
As the aggression of the Rajoy government mounts and any remaining middle ground increasingly dissolves, the left––all-Spanish and Catalan––will have to chose between two scenarios: doing what it can to help make a unilateral referendum as legitimate as possible, or putting off any thought of a referendum until forces supportive of the right to self-determination win an election for the Spanish parliament––at present a very vague and distant prospect.
By the same token, any force that seriously wants to refound the Spanish state along genuinely federal or confederal lines has no choice but to support Catalonia’s right to hold a unilateral referendum. If the struggle for that right is defeated, it won’t represent a victory or opening for federalism or any other sort of progressive territorial reform but for a neo-Francoist centralism intent on erasing all alternatives to itself.
Within Catalonia, this vital issue haunts the process of forming a new party of the left, driven by Ada Colau and Xavier Domènech. The perspective for the new formation is that it go beyond the various electoral coalitions (CSQEP, ECP, Barcelona Together) that have brought together existing left forces for municipal, Catalan and Spanish elections. The manifesto, “A Country Together”, that calls for the new party, says: “We want to expand the meaning of sovereignty so as to embrace all spheres of life and politics. This demand already has majority support among the people of Catalonia, but cannot be reduced to a single theme: it must become anxiousness to decide our future on all questions.”
As matters stand, the ability of the people of Catalonia to exercise future sovereignty on “all spheres of life and politics” will depend critically on winning the present struggle for the right to decide how they want to relate to the Spanish state. A victory there—the holding of a binding referendum—would greatly embolden the struggle for all-round popular sovereignty. A defeat would be a big setback not just for Catalonia but for democratic struggles and aspirations across the Spanish state.
Within the independence camp
How is the Catalan government trying to strengthen its position as it moves to produce a definite referendum plan?The Puigdemont administration is based on a pro-independence majority of 72 seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament. However, this majority is not ironclad, institutionally or socially (its parliamentary majority corresponds to a social minority of 47.7%).
In the parliament, the government has the unconditional support of the 62 pro-independence MPs that belong to the Together For The Yes (JPS) bloc. The other ten pro-independence seats belong to the CUP, giving it the balance of power.
JPS is composed of the ERC, the conservative nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat)— formerly the ruling Convergence for Catalonia (CDC)—, smaller pro-independence organisations, and a range of non-aligned figures, most of whom have left positions on social issues and several of whom are Puigdemont government ministers. Puigdemont himself belongs to PDECat.
The emergence of the mass Catalan independence movement over the past six years has been accompanied by big shake-ups within Catalan nationalism, right, left and centre. These can be roughly summarised as follows:
• The CDC (refounded as PDECat in 2016) has lost influence, paying a high price for the corruption of its previous leader and former Catalan premier Jordi Pujol and for the “Pujolist” policy of deals with the PP that supported PP rule and policies in Madrid in exchange for the CDC being left in peace to enjoy the fruits of its Catalan “property”;
• The effective disappearance of conservative Catalan nationalist currents opposed to independence, most importantly the CDC’s former partner in government the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC). In 2015 the UDC split down the middle over its attitude to independence and has since disappeared from both the Catalan and Spanish parliaments;
• The looming rise to hegemony of the ERC. While the ERC is still the junior partner to PDECat in the JPS government, it already has more seats in the Spanish parliament than its more conservative partner/rival. The latest Catalan official Centre of Opinion Studies (CEO) poll gives the ERC 20.1% of the vote in a Spanish election as opposed to 6.7% for PDECat, while the latest GESOP poll has a separate ERC winning 48-50 seats (30.7%) in the Catalan parliament, with the PDECat reduced to 15-17 seats (11.5%).
• The CUP, after winning three seats in the 2012 Catalan elections, surged to 10 seats in 2015, partly because of the widely appreciated work of its MPs elected in 2012 and partly because of the poor campaign of CSQEP. However, all polls show it losing support and up to half its seats in a future Catalan election.
Taken together these trends show that Catalan society and politics has experienced a broad leftward shift at the same time as the independence movement has grown to be the biggest mass movement in Europe. This trend has coincided with radical left alliances supportive of a Catalan right to decide winning Barcelona and other councils and overtaking the Catalan social democracy (the PSC), in elections to the Spanish parliament.
An important consequence of this shift is that different left forces that have grown (ERC, CUP, CSQEP) have developed conflicting orientations towards CDC/PDECat as the still hegemonic, if weakened, ruling force in Catalan politics.
To date the greatest success has gone to the ERC—presenting itself as the loyal and intransigent builder of the movement for Catalan independence and the JPS government as its political expression. All recent polls show a shift of voter support toward the ERC, not only from PDECat and the CUP, but even from the PSC. Untainted by the CDC/PDECat’s past, staunch in its defence of the road map to a referendum and a Catalan Republic, broadly progressive in politics and open to giving ex-members of other parties and independents a prominent role on its lists, the ERC is being increasingly seen as the main agent of independence, the all-embracing patriotic force that puts the country’s interests before party advantage.
he ERC has proceeded on the understanding that Catalan independence cannot be won if the more conservative base of PDECat (amounting to some half a million votes) is alienated by excessively “leftist” policies from the JPS government––signs of PDECat voter discomfort have already appeared at various moments as the government has pursued CUP support. Most importantly, the ERC joins PDECat in joint determination to maintain as much small and medium business support for the independence process as possible, especially as the Catalan big bourgeoisie is anti-independence (as reflected in the editorial line of Catalonia’s two main daily papers, La Vanguardia and El Periodico).
As part of the JPS government the ERC also looks to project the Catalan independence process as supportive of “Europe”, understood to be the structures and rules of the present European Union. The line is that an independent Catalonia would be modern and responsibly European (unlike the semi-backward and anti-democratic Spanish state).
Tensions over budget
For its part, the CUP has swung between agreement with and opposition to the JPS government. In November 2015, the CUP signed agreements with JPS outlining the road map for the creation of a sovereign Catalan Republic and specifying its social goals. Yet in January last year the CUP forced the resignation of former premier Mas as a condition for supporting a JPS government and in July voted to reject the JPS government’s 2017 budget in its entirety. Next, after Puigdemont brought on a motion of confidence in his government in September, the CUP returned to voting support.
In December, the CUP joined JPS in rejecting the budget amendments of all other parties but submitted its own €760 million set of amendments. These would set up eleven special funds to finance a guaranteed minimum income, increased public housing, improved public education, stimulation of the cooperative economy, and the struggle against climate change and gender violence.
However, the CUP’s budget amendments—like those of CSQEP—clash with the debt reduction strategy of the JPS government, which aims to have an independent Catalonia as free of debt as possible and whose budget does not violate Spanish and European debt reduction targets (or the instincts of the more conservative parts of the PDECat voting base).
The budget contains no tax increases on the wealthier layers of Catalan society, nor the inheritance or wealth taxes demanded by the trade union and social movements as the way to fund a guaranteed minimum income. On the spending side it contains sizeable increases in health and education spending, but does not bring these back to the levels prevailing before the crisis. The education unions have already called strikes and protests demanding a further increase in education spending.
As it is unlikely that many of the CUP’s amendments will be acceptable to the government, the left-nationalist force will have to decide at the end of January whether to pass the budget or trigger an early election. MP Eulàlia Reguant explained the CUP’s attitude in a January 15 interview with an interviewer from the pro-independence web site VilaWeb who asked whether the CUP had any bottom lines.
“The concept of bottom lines doesn’t help. Obviously the CUP has proposals, not exclusively our own but also coming from the street, which improve the budget and would help win the referendum. That’s why we’ve done them. That said, it’s one thing not to have bottom lines and another to say, if they don’t take on board anything, that we’ll still let the budget through. That’s not the case––obviously we make proposals so that the building of the republic traces a different path from that followed by the Spanish state and its regions. We hope they accept our proposals, but we don’t want to get into horse-trading.”
This dilemma confronts the radical nationalist force as the aggression of the Spanish government increases daily and only a fortnight after it reached an agreement with JPS on legislation to cover Catalonia’s shift from Spanish to Catalan legality. It would aim to provide a legal framework for a unilateral referendum as well as shelter in law for the Catalan police and for any public servants that would be transferred from Spanish to Catalan jurisdiction. The bill, which is being kept secret to prevent it being ruled unconstitutional, will be brought before parliament when the pro-independence camp judges that the time is right to declare disconnection from the Spanish legal system.
At the same time the Catalan government is intensifying its appeals for international support for Catalonia’s right to decide. Its efforts to date have brought numerous international expressions of concern at Spanish intransigence and its use of judicial weapons to settle political issues—especially in the case of the charging of Catalan parliament speaker Forcadell. On January 24, premier Puigdemont, Jonqueras and foreign minister Raul Romeva will address the European Parliament about Catalonia’s referendum plans.
Within Catalonia, the government and the pro-independence mass organisations are launching their campaigns to convince doubters both of the need for the referendum and of the benefits of independence. One feature will be a TV series in which the Catalan premier fields questions from doubtful and hostile citizens: another is the ANC plan for a volunteer-driven doorknock of the predominately Castilian speaking working-class areas of outer Barcelona and Tarragona.
As 2017 progresses and the campaign and conflict with the Spanish state intensifies, political forces across Europe will increasingly have no choice but to say where they stand on Catalonia’s right to determine its future.
*Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A initial version of this article has appeared on its web site.