by Dick Nichols, in Barcelona • The December 21 election in Catalonia, called by Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, will be a plebiscite on his government’s October 27 sacking of the pro-independence Catalan government of president Carles Puigdemont.
It will also be a de facto plebiscite on whether Catalonia has a right to decide its relation to the Spanish state.
As Marta Rovira, the general secretary of the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), said on November 16: “This is the referendum they didn’t dare negotiate with us.”
The campaign will unfold as an enormous struggle between indignation and fear. On the one hand, outrage at police bashings, the beheading of Catalan self-government and the jailing of ministers and mass movement leaders runs very deep.
Many will vote for pro-independence parties for the first time ever, if only “to stop Madrid”.
On the other, the Spanish government’s relentless intimidation—repeated by its allies in the European institutions and other governments—could persuade many that the independence process really is “going nowhere”.
This defeatism might be strengthened by an outbreak of self-criticism from some independence leaders as to the Puigdemont government’s performance in the face of the Spanish state’s assault on Catalan self-rule.
A number of protagonists, including ministers in the deposed government, have said the administration was simply not ready to implement its October 27 declaration of independence.
Inevitably, such comments are feeding into intense discussion as to what the independence parties can and should do if they win again on December 21. Where will they draw their new battle line after Madrid’s putsch? Will they even be able to agree on a united position?
At the time of writing (November 21) the three pro-independence tickets—Together For Catalonia (led by exiled president Puigdemont), the centre-left ERC and the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP)—are negotiating the points that a pro-independence majority would seek to implement.
They will probably be: rejection of the Rajoy government’s intervention (done under article 155 of the Spanish constitution), recovery of Catalan institutions, release of political prisoners, withdrawal from Catalonia of 12,000 Civil Guards and Spanish National Police, and launching of a constituent process for the Catalan Republic.
For weeks now PP spokespeople have been boasting that, even if the pro-independence forces win again, the intervention under article 155 will stay: the purse strings will be pulled from Madrid, the Catalan parliament will be a talk shop and the agenda of “reforming” Catalan education and media will proceed.
However, this wish list will become impossible if the pro-independence forces repeat the majority they won at the 2015 elections.
The illegitimacy of Rajoy’s operation will become undeniable and even the European powers that have so far backed him would find it very hard to maintain uncritical support: all the more so if pro-independence parties win a majority of votes as well as of seats.
By the same token, if December 21 returns a unionist majority it would represent a big win for authoritarian Spanish centralism. That’s because the “155 bloc”—Rajoy’s own People’s Party (PP), Citizens and the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC)—would have persuaded 200,000 to 300,000 extra people to line up against self-determination.
Getting to that point will require unionism to frighten a large part of the million-plus who hardly ever vote in Catalan elections into turning out, lifting the record participation rate reached at the last elections (74.95 per cent) to over 80 per cent.
Yet even that may not be enough: the latest GESOP opinion poll (November 20) predicts 89.3 per cent participation, but still has pro-independence forces winning or just falling short of an absolute majority.
This last scenario would leave the balance of power with the Catalunya en Comú-Podemos ticket (CECP, Catalonia Together We Can): while against Puigdemont’s declaration of independence CECP opposes the article 155 intervention and would not support the formation of a unionist government.
With so much at stake, it is inevitable that the main spokesperson for the unionist case is Rajoy himself, backed by scrum of ministers and a Spanish media that’s on a war footing. The Spanish prime minister has already made his first campaign visit to Catalonia, telling a November 12 PP meeting:
“We want to recover the Catalonia of everyone in democracy and freedom, and we’ll be able to achieve it if the silent majority turns its voice into vote. That silent and silenced majority has come out onto the street in recent weeks and shown the world its desire for harmony and social cohesion.”
However, if the hundreds of thousands of unionists who marched against Catalan independence in Barcelona on October 8 and 29 already largely vote for unionist parties, Rajoy’s problem is not solved. That’s because his “silent and silenced majority” is a minority.
In the September 2015 Catalan elections the unionist vote was 39.11 per cent as against the pro-independence vote of 47.8 per cent. The remaining 13.09 per cent was shared between Catalonia Of Course We Can (CSQEP, 8.94 per cent), parties that didn’t win seats and the informal vote.
The last two months of polling show only a slight swing in favour of unionism.
On average, support for pro-independence parties has fallen from the 72 seats they won in 2015 to 67 seats today (one seat short of a majority), while the unionist total has increased from 52 to 56. The balance is held by CECP, successor to CSQEP, with an increase from 11 seats to 12.
Compared to 2015, the position of the parties that recognise a Catalan right to decide worsens little compared to that of the unionist bloc—from 83-52 to 79-56.
The unionist parties will try to break this impasse with the mother of all fear campaigns. Catalans will be bombarded with the message that a vote for independence will bring economic disaster, job loss, destruction of the pension system and entrenched discrimination against those who identify as Spanish.
PP Catalonia leader Xavier Albiol García set the tone November 20: “The pensioners must come out to vote on December 21. With a strong PP, their pensions will be safe. If Catalonia were independent, pensioners would not be receiving their pension.”
The nastiest aspect of the unionist campaign will be the Big Lie that if it doesn’t win the fate awaiting Catalonia’s Spanish-speaking communities is one of second-class citizens cut off from their homeland.
The unionist campaign needs one big obstacle cleared out of its way: outrage at the jailing of the Catalan ministers and mass movement leaders runs so deep (opposed by 77.6 per cent according to the latest GESOP poll), that it could be the decisive factor for many voters.
The million-strong November 11 demonstration in Barcelona expressing this outrage will only have increased the pressure on Spain’s “independent judiciary” to find a way to neutralise the problem.
Legal manoeuvres are presently under way to have the case of the detainees (facing charges of “rebellion”, “sedition” and “misappropriation”) shifted from the National High Court to the Supreme Court, where they are more likely to be released on bail.
Despite a lot of pressure for a single broad pro-independence list for December 21, the pro-independence camp will be running three tickets. Two of these, those of the ERC and the CUP, will repeat their recipe of having a party list augmented by minor parties and sympathetic independents.
By contrast, Puigdemont’s ticket Together for Catalonia is not a list of his party, the conservative nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat). It is rather a “president’s ticket” made up of prominent pro-independence citizens, some from a left background.
Puigdemont’s biggest “catch” is the imprisoned Jordi Sànchez, who has resigned as president of the Catalan National Assembly to take up the number two position for Barcelona.
The underlying cause preventing a united list is the leftward shift in Catalan society during the rise of the independence movement, reflected in ERC displacing PDECat as leading pro-independence party and refusing to accept PDECat as senior partner any longer.
Yet ERC’s decision to run alone has left the door open to Puigdemont to launch Together for Catalonia as a broad “non-party” voice of Catalan independence.
The proposal of the CUP will be the “unfolding of the Republic and automatic break with the State; rejection of projects based on impossible premises like a negotiated referendum or a return to regionalism within Spain; and the elaboration of a political proposal based on the autonomy of the pro-independence left.”
On the unionist side, the fight between Citizens and the PP takes place over two irreconcilable goals: being simultaneously “toughest against independentism” and “a voice for all Catalans”. In the PSC v. Citizens fight, the PSC talks “left” and “social”, while Citizens blasts the PSC as not reliably unionist because of its local government deals with pro-independence forces.
As for CECP, despite having the additional support of Barcelona en Comú (BeC) and Barcelona mayoress Ada Colau, it faces a difficult task increasing the 9 per cent vote won by its predecessor CQSEP.
CECP’s core problem is that its line of “overcoming the dynamic of blocs” in the name of the social struggle nearly always exposes it to attack from one or other side in the all-consuming fight over national rights.
This dilemma recently showed when BeC had a membership ballot on whether it should continue its ruling alliance with the PSC in Barcelona Council. The membership voted 54-46 per cent to break with the PSC, leading to PSC claims that Colau was now siding with PDECat, ERC and the CUP.
Yet these at the same time criticised Colau for her refusal to recognise the October 27 declaration of independence and for insisting that the only a referendum negotiated with the Spanish state would be valid.
Such tussles, however, are sideshows compared to the clash between the pro-independence and unionist camps: on its outcome depends the immediate future for democracy and social justice in Catalonia and in Spain as a whole.
• Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He is running a live blog on the Catalan struggle