Are new Catalan elections coming despite pro-independence majority?


After the December 21 Catalan election reconfirmed a majority for independence, it seemed only a matter of time before a new administration would be sworn in. More than two months later however, the spectre of a repeat election troubles the political landscape.

The December 21 result effectively ratified the pro-independence result of the October 1 referendum and the October 27 proclamation of a Catalan Republic. It also showed an overwhelming rejection of the Spanish government’s squashing of Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the constitution. So why have matters reached this point?

First, because the entire Spanish establishment — led by the government of People’s Party (PP) prime minister Mariano Rajoy and the upper echelons of the judicial system doing its bidding — refused to accept the election result. They immediately set about subverting it with a legal offensive led by a January 28 Constitutional Court “provisional” judgment that ruled that outgoing Catalan president Carles Puigdemont could not be invested in absentia from his Brussels exile, disqualified the vote of the four MPs in exile with him and threatened the Catalan parliament’s speakership panel with severe sanctions if it disobeyed the ruling.

Second, because this judicial assault immediately sparked differences within the pro-independence bloc about how to respond.

 

Consolidate or keep up the offensive?

The reaction of some, mainly but not only from the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), was caution. Their absolute priority is to recover the Catalan institutions lost under article 155. If needed, they are prepared to sacrifice Puigdemont’s chance at resuming the presidency and accept that an incoming Catalan administration will essentially be a regional government within the Spanish state, regardless of the inevitable republican rhetoric with which it is window-dressed.

At the heart of this position lies the assessment that the independence movement needs to consolidate the gains made since 2012 and accumulate more social support. This is especially so because its December 21 victory took place in a context of deepening of the national identity divide within Catalonia itself.

This breach was — and continues to be — cynically forced by the Spanish establishment and the unionist parties without any regard to its social cost, in pursuance of the goal of saving the unity of Spain by dividing Catalans and then blaming any resultant social disharmony on the independence movement.

Joan Tardà, senior ERC MP in the Spanish parliament, expressed the argument for caution and consolidation in a March 4 article in El Periódico:

To broaden the social majority two ideas are indispensable without which nothing makes sense: that Catalonia is and must be one single people in the framework of freedoms, economic progress and social justice … and that we need to learn the best route to reach the summit [of an independent Catalan Republic] and with whom to make the journey.

In this sense, republicanism must converge with the other political forces that also defend a binding referendum, led by [Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP) leader] Xavier Domènech, and must open the road to a frank dialogue (local council work can be a good laboratory) with the Catalan socialism of the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) of Miquel Iceta, who has to decide whether to oppose or foster the decline in rights and freedoms.

A joint March 9 statement by jailed ERC president Oriol Junqueras and general secretary Marta Rovira put the position more bluntly:

The shortest road back to regional government is if the independence movement returns to being a noisy minority increasingly distant from political centrality. Every step, every gesture that makes the building of broad all-embracing majorities harder takes us further away from the future we want.

For the ERC, repeating elections is a folly to be avoided at all cost. It would offer the pro-unionist camp of Citizens and the People’s Party (PP) the chance to demolish what unionism regards as the main institutional supports of independence sentiment — the Catalan education system, police force and the public broadcaster. That would complete the work that the article 155 intervention has yet really to start.

The main practical impact of ERC caution was the January 30 decision of parliament speaker, the ERC’s Roger Torrent, to suspend Puigdemont’s planned investiture to avoid a Constitutional Court sanction. The second was Puigdemont’s March 1 decision to step aside as candidate — provisionally — and allow jailed former Catalan National Assembly (ANC) president Jordi Sanchez to take his place.

 

JxCat-ERC agreement

The ERC’s risk aversion is shared by leaders of the right-nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat), part of Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat). But it provoked sharp reactions from other pro-sovereignty forces.

In the negotiations over government formation, JxCat leaders closest to Puigdemont, such as spokespersons Eduard Pujol and Elsa Artadi, held out for more than a month in support of a “Puigdemont or elections” stance. They argued that December 21 had been about the legitimacy of the president’s sacking. Therefore, not having Puigdemont as candidate would be to accept the right of the Spanish authorities to overturn the will of Catalan voters.

It was only when ERC made it clear that it would not give unconditional support to this position if it threatened the speakership panel with legal sanction (probably jail, given the form of the Spanish Supreme Court) that JxCat backed down. This retreat opened the door to a February 27 agreement that marked a JxCat-ERC compromise between the need to affirm the Puigdemont government’s legitimacy and the need to make it impossible for Madrid to stop a new Catalan administration forming.

It envisaged that:

 

• The Catalan parliament would vote recognition of Puigdemont as Catalonia’s legitimate president, reconfirm the October 27 declaration of independence and demand the lifting of article 155;

 

• An Assembly of the Republic, made up of representatives of Catalan local government and civil society, would be set up in a “Free Space in Brussels”, along with an Executive Council of the Republic, headed by Puigdemont. Its main tasks would be to unfold the process of developing a Catalan constitution and build support for the Catalan independence case internationally;

 

• A government would be set up in Catalonia, with 14 ministries equally divided between JxCat and ERC. The candidate for president would be Jordi Sànchez. If Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, responsible for Sànchez’s detention, did not allow him to leave jail for the investiture session, this ruling would be appealed all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. JxCat leader Jordi Turull would be candidate for president in the meantime.

 

Unfolding the Republic?

On the basis of these negotiations and further discussions with the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP), the pro-independence bloc was able to present a joint resolution on the restitution of the Catalan institutions to a March 1 session of the Catalan parliament. This statement, the original wording of which the Spanish prosecutor’s office said would be grounds for charges against the speakership panel, dodged this possibility by only “noting“ the meaning of the December 21 vote as confirmation of support for an independent Catalan Republic.

It also denounced “the authoritarian and undemocratic evolution” of Spain, demanded the lifting of the article 155 intervention and asserted that the parliamentary majority and a government based on it would “support the social, civil and political rights of all Catalans without exception, building a new, just, inclusive and solidarity-based country”.

However, while agreement could be reached on this resolution, the CUP rejected the JxCat-ERC investiture agreement, characterised as “a recipe for regional government” and not the “unfolding of the Republic”. On March 3, the CUP’s Political Council voted to abstain on Sànchez’s investiture. This guaranteed its defeat 65-64 because CatECP, supportive of a Catalan right to self-determination but not of the unilateral course followed by the Puigdemont government, had already said it would vote against any proposal that included JxCat, always portrayed by CatECP as the continuation of the right-nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC).

The only way to achieve a majority for Sànchez’s investiture would then be for the speakership panel to defy the Constitutional Court provisional ruling by recognising the vote of the MPs in exile (Puigdemont and outgoing health minister Toni Comin) or by these resigning and being replaced by the next candidates on the JxCat and ERC tickets, a course both refused.

Among the reasons given by CUP spokesperson Vidal Aragonés were the agreement’s “total submission to Spanish legality” and its “failure to address the degree of suffering of the popular classes”. Particularly worrying for the CUP was the proposal to leave the constituent process to the “Free Space in Brussels” and not make it part of the program of government on the ground in Catalonia. Given this position, said Aragonés, “new elections would not be the worst alternative.”

Despite this failure, speaker Roger Torrent set March 13 as the date for Sànchez’s investiture as president, while JxCat and ERC negotiators developed an amended version of their agreement with the aim of meeting some of the CUP’s objections to the original.

This second draft committed to implementing: a plan to reduce waiting lists in the health system; an end to the financing of gender-based private schools; a 30% of income ceiling for private rent; projects against the gentrification of neighbourhoods funded by income from Catalonia’s tourism tax; the restructuring of the Catalan system of university scholarships to favour poorer families; the creation of a commission to study the proposal for a public bank; measures to strengthen the fight against corruption; strengthening services against sexual harassment; compulsory gender equality plans in Catalan government hiring with the obligation that private industry do the same; guaranteed income equality with the Catalan workplace inspectorate empowered to monitor for it; various measures to demilitarise Catalonia; and public ownership and control over strategic infrastructure, including the recovery of public ownership and control of this where it has been privatised.

The CUP is to send the amended document to its territorial assemblies and its Political Council will decide its orientation on March 17. Interviewed on Catalonia Radio on March 11, CUP parliamentary spokesperson Carles Riera said the new draft contained “some positive progress” but that the constituent process to be undertaken had to be binding on the Catalan parliament and not just consultative. At the same time, the Spanish government declared that it would be closely studying the new text with a view to appealing against it on the grounds of unconstitutionality.

On March 9, as expected, judge Pablo Llarena of the Spanish Supreme Court ruled against Jordi Sànchez being released to attend the March 12 investiture session. This action immediately triggered an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) by Catalan parliament speaker Torrent and a declaration by Catalan Ombudsman Rafael Ribó that he would take the issue to the human rights bodies of the European Commission, Council of Europe and the United Nations. At the same time, Torrent suspended the investiture session. (Torrent and Sànchez’s lawyers later decided to exhaust the appeal process possible within the Spanish courts before, if necessary, going to the ECHR.)

At the time of writing (March 13), the Catalan parliament is again in limbo, with no date set for the two-month countdown period that starts with the failure of the first investiture session to establish a majority for government. The PSC has said that it will approach the Constitutional Court for a ruling that this period start immediately, in this way increasing the pressure on the pro-independence camp to find a candidate that is neither in exile, nor in jail, nor subject to judicial investigation — in short a candidate that the Spanish state can live with.

 

New reality

The endless back-and-forth between the independence parties has increased disquiet and nervousness within the independence movement. Leaders of both the ANC and Catalan language and culture organisation Òmnium Cultural have attacked “the politicians” for letting it down.

On March 6, Òmnium Cultural vice-president Marcel Mauri tweeted: “The citizens who defended the October 1 vote, who mobilise for freedom of expression and for the prisoners and the exiles and who voted for independence on December 21 deserve more respect, a more transparent exchange of viewpoints and fewer shameful tactical squabbles among the parties.”

Criticism of “the parties” was also a feature of the ANC’s 2000-strong February 25 annual general convention. As well as calling a March 11 mobilisation in support of the restoration of Catalan self-rule, the convention adopted a road map of “preconditions for consolidating the Catalan Republic, the constituent process, the calling of constituent elections, the participatory elaboration of the Catalan constitution and the referendum to ratify it”.

This recipe for headlong conflict with the Spanish state caused outgoing secretariat member Jordi Peiró to tell the convention: “If those of us who are here don’t assume risks, we’ll be doing no favour at all to the prisoners and exiles … Those who’ll be at the head of the ANC have to be very clear that their path may also have to go through prison.”

For their part, the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) are pushing ahead with implementing the symbolism of the republic (like naming streets and squares after October 1) and preparing a program for “unfolding the republic” in more material ways. The CUP’s national municipal conference in March will also be devoted to the challenge of “growing the Republic from the roots”.

These differences are a symptom of a new reality for the movement for Catalan sovereignty and independence: the days of relatively easier advance based on an alliance between movement, parties and government ended with the Spanish state’s article 155 coup. The enormous mobilisation to win on December 21 also came at the price of a lack of broad discussion about strategy in this new phase.

Suggesting that a new election would not be the end of the world, Vilaweb editor Vicenç Partal wrote on March 4:

If with the present configuration of the pro-independence bloc the way to form government can’t be found, let the people decide on another configuration. Or let them repeat the current one, which would send a strong message to the parties that they have to negotiate seriously.

And in any case, let the people respond to the great background debate that is masked by the negotiations: do we need to move straight to building the Republic or is it necessary to first look to build whatever can be managed in the framework of regional government, accepting, therefore, the rules imposed by the coup d’etat?”

On March 9, Carles Puigdemont effectively backed this position, saying: “New elections would not be a drama even though it’s not a priority anyone wants.”

 

Conclusion

The basic reason why relations within the pro-independence bloc have reached their present state is not because “the parties” are mainly interested in securing their own interests, even though the tussles between JxCat and ERC over portfolios — and a fleeting fight over whether Oriol Junqueras and not Jordi Sànchez should be the presidential candidate to replace Puigdemont — certainly show that they are sensitive to getting their fair share of posts.

The dispute basically reflects broad differences in political attitude within the independence camp as a whole. For many people, especially public sector workers increasingly exposed to the impact of the article 155 intervention, the desire to recover self-rule is becoming more and more desperate. This impatience is only intensified by the revelations in the rapidly expanding stream of literature on the independence “process” about the Puigdemont government’s real lack of preparedness for independence before October 1.

In its most extreme form, the stance of “recover self-rule at any price” attributes the failure to form government to the supposed megalomania of Puigdemont himself. For example, writing in the March 11 Ara, philosopher Josep Ramoneda said:

Puigdemont knows that the day a new Catalan president is elected his own eclipse begins. International denunciation of the authoritarian behaviour of the Spanish government has a limited time span and nowadays the focuses of media attention get replaced very rapidly. And the idea of a parallel government is pure fantasy. However, fear of losing the spotlight doesn’t justify the strategy of dragging out the match, first resisting standing aside and then proposing impossible candidates. At the beginning the need for a grieving ritual could be understood. But now it’s become obscene.

This stance actually coincides with that of the Spanish government. The PP is anxious to resume normal government in Catalonia so that the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) in the Spanish parliament will lift its veto on approving the budget and free Rajoy to spend money to help ward off the rise of Citizens, presently leading the PP in Spanish polls.

However, the Rajoy government is certainly not so anxious for a government to form in Catalonia that it is prepared to accept Puigdemont or Sànchez as candidate for president. While the Catalan independence bloc keeps putting up “impossible” candidates Rajoy will continue to allow the Spanish legal system to disqualify them. It will be encouraged in this stance by any increase in effective acceptance in the independence camp of Madrid’s right to dictate who can be Catalonia’s president.

Clara Ponsatí, the outgoing Catalan minister for education who on March 10 returned to her former teaching post in Scotland’s University of St Andrews, stressed the impossibility of imagining any return to “normality” in Catalonia. She observed in a March 12 Vilaweb interview that, observing the negotiations over forming government, “it is not clear that they focussed on what’s most important: how to maintain the tension with the Spanish state so as to stop the repression and recover democracy”.

Ponsatí also regretted that the “sottogoverno [“under-government”, in Italian in original] that we left behind is not resisting as it should”, noting also that “the blackmail from the Supreme Court and the Spanish government is very effective in Barcelona, in the parliament, and with the behaviour of some senior officials of the Catalan government.”

The former education minister added that “this is a long distance race, one of resistance” against a Spanish state whose project is annihilation of Catalonia. In this context, “I wouldn’t get so nervous about the situation of impasse we’re in because that’s the way we have of continuing to act politically and to confront the Spanish state with its own monsters.”

In a March 12 interview on radio RAC1 Ponsatí also counselled against fear of new elections:

When there are elections it’s not because there’s been a mistake, but because things have arrived at a point where there’s no other way out. The Spanish state has placed the Catalan parliament in an ungovernable situation. If there are elections we’ll have to confront that and I’m confident the majority would be maintained. If the majority weren’t maintained, it would be a lesson that we would also have to learn from.

At bottom, without resistance and without a revolt against some decision of the Spanish courts and/or government against Catalan sovereignty there can be no Catalan government that is not simply a Spanish regional administration. This is even more so because such an administration would be worse off than other regional administrations; its finances would continue to be controlled from Madrid until the Rajoy government got watertight guarantees of obedience.

The debate, then, is really about how best — with what combination of government and movement action — to prepare for and carry out disobedience. This will be a very tricky process because the Spanish government will make sure that any cuts to services are foisted on an incoming Catalan government while any “goodies” are ostentatiously delivered straight from Madrid. The Spanish administration will also continue to enjoy the full, if increasingly nervous, backing of the European Commission and the European Union member states.

It is undeniable that the movement for Catalan sovereignty needs to broaden its base and neutralise the campaign to divide Catalans by language and place of origin in order to save the sacrosanct unity of Spain. This, however, cannot come at the cost of lowering the morale and commitment of the movement for sovereignty itself — the central guarantee that the struggle will continue and that the Catalan right to self-determination will remain a burning and unavoidable issue in the politics of the Spanish state.

Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. An earlier version of this article has appeared on its web site. His live blog on the Catalan struggle can be found here.

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