by Dick Nichols, in Barcelona • Everyone had been expecting a war of position: the Spanish state would behead the Catalan government, sack its senior executives, purge the Catalan police, public broadcasting and education systems, offer election bribes to parts of the population and then—and only then—risk regional elections.
What other strategy was possible in a country where unionism (“constitutionalism” to its supporters) won less than 40 per cent of the vote at the September 2015 “plebiscitary” Catalan elections that put pro-independence forces into government?
So it was a surprise for all sides when Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy moved with lightning speed—for the first time in his political life—to call Catalan elections for December 21 as part of his government’s takeover of Catalonia under article 155 of the Spanish constitution.
Three main factors determined Rajoy’s decision to go early: confidence that the considerable body of pro-Spanish voters who traditionally don’t vote in Catalan elections can this time be mobilised by a hysterical campaign against separatism; hope that the pro-independence camp will split between those favouring boycott and those supporting standing; and the pressing need to end once and for all international debate about the legitimacy of Spanish state actions (like having voters bashed and an elected government sacked).
The biggest risk Rajoy’s move runs is that of creating unity among the often fractious pro-independence and pro-sovereignty forces, either behind an election campaign to validate the Catalan Republic declared by parliament on October 27 or behind a broader campaign to oppose Madrid’s 155 coup and build support for a Catalan right to decide.
The gut response of many pro-independence activists on hearing about Rajoy’s election manoeuvre was to say that the movement should have nothing to do with it. This reaction didn’t just come from the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP), as in MP Mireia Boya’s tweet to the effect that it would be an ideal day to make a community paella.
Members of the conservative nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat) and the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) also condemned Rajoy’s elections as “illegitimate”, with David Font, the PDECat mayor of Gironella saying: “Let’s see if these elections Rajoy wants to have on December 21 he doesn’t have to have in the streets, because the councils aren’t going to provide halls.”
Joan Manuel Tresserras, close to ERC and a former culture minister in the 2003-2010 tripartite government between the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the ERC and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), told the daily Ara on October 30 that pro-independence forces should “certainly not” run on December 21.
He added: “Another thing would be it wouldn’t be right to call the constituent elections [envisaged in the Catalan Law of Jurisdictional Transition] and, if necessary, even have them on the same day as those called by the Spanish government.
“It is important that the government make a proposal and that this be discussed and agreed with the CUP and the other components of the pro-independence bloc. If the commons [Catalunya en Comú] are there too, all the better.”
However, these sorts of hopes have been shattered by the real balance of forces in Catalonia after Madrid’s October 27 coup.
The declaration of the independent Catalan Republic was an inspiring and proud moment for hundreds of thousands of Catalans, the culmination of a decade of struggle culminating in the extraordinary David-over-Goliath achievement of holding a referendum under assault from 10,000 police.
It was also something that the older generations of militants thought they would never live to see. Now the Catalan Republic lives in the hearts and minds of millions, and the Catalan struggle exists as never before as a factor in world politics. However, what else is it?
After four days of Madrid’s takeover in which all Catalan ministers were sacked, the institutional structures of the Catalan Republic effectively don’t exist:
- The Catalan police (the Mossos d’Esquadra) have been brought under the control of the Spanish interior ministry and their previous chief sacked;
- All Catalan diplomatic missions have been closed down, with the exception of Brussels, where the Catalan representative to the European Union has been sacked;
- The parliament has been suspended, a state of affairs accepted by speaker Carme Forcadell; and
- Premier Puigdemont and Forcadell have been charged with “rebellion” which carries a penalty of up to 30 years jail.
In this situation , calling for the Puigdemont government to implement the resolutions attached to the declaration of independence is not realistic—his cabinet is not in any condition to make them operative.
Individual ministers, including vice-premier and treasurer Oriol Junqueras, will continue to go to work and be allowed to speak on Catalan TV as long as Madrid doesn’t get around to closing down these avenues, but the practical ability of the Puigdemont government to implement parliamentary legislation is zero.
None of this in the least means that popular resistance has ended: if the managers imposed from Madrid move against Catalonia’s firefighters, railway workers, teachers, health workers and other public servants, they will more often than not run into a wall of non-cooperation, organised by the minority trade unions and the Committees to Defend the Referendum (or Republic).
At the same time, the country’s 750-plus pro-independence councils (out of a total of 947) will continue to project the symbols of the Catalan Republic and to organise what disobedience they can get away with. However, all this will be (very necessary) defensive disobedience, but in no way capable of producing a counterattack against Madrid in the short run.
This overall state of forces explains the October 30 decision of Puigdemont and five of his ministers to go to Belgium—where the Catalan cause enjoys lots of sympathy in Flanders—in order to speak to Catalonia and appeal to the world about the basic questions at stake in the Catalan struggle:
Do the Catalans have a right to self-determination? Is the Spanish constitution democratic? Was the October 1 referendum binding?
The goal will be to talk to the ordinary citizens of Europe over the heads of the European institutions which have lined up with the Rajoy government, increasing the pressure for negotiation and dialogue that a number of European leaders have asked for.
Before a record 200 journalists in Brussels International Press Club, Puigdemont said he would accept the result of the December 21 election and challenged Rajoy to do the same.
He also challenged the European Union and the international community to support Catalonia’s right to self-determination; denounced the legal action taken against his government for doing what it promised to do; and repeated the commitment of the government and pro-independence parties to non-violent methods, even while calling on Catalans to resist Madrid’s assault on Catalonia’s institutions.
Such is the reality on the ground that has led all pro-independence and pro-sovereignty forces in Catalonia—with the possible exception of the CUP which will decide on November 4—to accept the need to stand in Rajoy’s “illegitimate” December 21 election.
PDECat, the ERC and Catalunya en Comú have already decided to “meet Rajoy at the polls” so as to give anti-155 and pro-sovereignty sentiment a chance to vote. Whether this presence will be in the form of some reedition of the Together for the Yes (JxSí) coalition that won in 2015 is still to be decided.
The campaign of Catalunya en Comú, if endorsed by its coordinating committee, will be led by Xavier Domènech (presently leader of En Comó Podem in the Spanish parliament), and have at its central theme defence of Catalonia’s institutions against Madrid’s coup.
The impossibility of building and defending the institutions of the fledgling Catalan Republic after the Rajoy coup made these election campaigns inevitable: the thought of what the PP and Citizens would do with Catalonia’s institutions if they got their hands on them simply made boycott unthinkable. Now the discussion that is occupying the left—nationalist and non-nationalist—is what the exact content of the anti-Madrid campaign should be.
Podemos Catalonia, led by Albano Dante Fachin and not part of Catalunya en Comú, has raised the possibility of a united campaign by all those forces, pro-independence or not, that support a Catalan right to decide and oppose Rajoy’s planned destruction of Catalan autonomy.
This idea has been further developed by other activists, who have suggested that such a ticket could potentially be headed by the “two Jordis”—the jailed leaders of the Catalan National Assembly (Jordi Sànchez) and Catalan cultural and language association Omnium Cultural (Jordi Cuixart).
However, Pablo Iglesias, the general secretary of Podemos at the level of the Spanish state, is opposed to an alliance with pro-independence forces, basically because he judges that it would destroy any chance of Catalonia en Comú winning support from working-class unionist voters, whose vote would go to the PSC or even the new-right Citizens.
Iglesias has instructed Podemos Catalonia that it conduct a membership poll with this as the question: “Do you support Podemos standing in the December 21 elections in coalition with Catalunya en Comú and related political forces that do not approve either the declaration of independence or the application of article 155, with the word Podemos in the name of the coalition and on the voting paper?”
If Iglesias manages to win this fight in a Podemos Catalonia membership that is split roughly equally between pro-independence, pro-federal and status quo positions, the chances of the vote at the December 21 poll validating the Catalan Republic will be considerably reduced.
• Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He is presently running a live blog on the Catalan struggle for independence, here