The Spanish People’s Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has decided to impose direct rule on Catalonia under article 155 of the Spanish constitution. This clause allows the central government to take over the powers of a regional government if it “does not carry out its constitutional and legal obligations or acts in a way that seriously damages Spain’s general interest”.
Rajoy announced the package enforcing the intervention on Saturday, October 21. The main measures are: sacking Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont, deputy premier and treasurer Oriol Junqueras and all other ministers and having their departments run from Madrid; prohibiting the Catalan parliament from appointing any replacement Catalan premier or adopting any legislation unacceptable to the Spanish government; and holding elections when the Catalan political and social situation has “normalised”, in six months at most.
“Normalisation” is to be achieved by establishing central control over the main institutions identified as sustaining the Catalan secessionist threat — the Catalan police force (Mossos d’Esquadra) and the country’s public broadcasting and education systems (for detail see the section subhead “the occupation plan” later in this article).
Rajoy had previously negotiated the full support of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the new-right party Citizens for his government’s unprecedented stripping of regional powers, the first such intervention since the present Spanish constitution was adopted in 1978. This was despite the fact that as little as one month ago the PSOE had opposed any such intervention.
The most immediate result of Rajoy’s announcement was to turn the October 21 Barcelona demonstration in support of detained Catalan mass movement leaders Jordi Sànchez (Catalan National Assembly) and Jordi Cuixart (Omnium Cultural) into a vast 450,000-strong protest against the Spanish establishment’s assault on Catalan self-rule.
The unionist alliance
Announcement of the in-principle decision to invoke article 155 had come two days earlier, on October 19, and only 30 minutes after the Spanish cabinet had received a reply from premier Puigdemont about whether the Catalan parliament had formally declared independence in its session of October 10. In this answer to the summons he had received under article 155, Puigdemont made clear that the Catalan parliament had not formally declared independence on that day. By then, however, it was too late: the Spanish government had already decided to “end the agony” (the prime minister’s words to the October 11 session of the Spanish parliament).
Under article 155, the premier of a targeted regional administration is given a chance to explain its behaviour and intentions: if the central government finds the answer unsatisfactory it puts together an intervention package for Spanish Senate approval. The Rajoy government will have no problem obtaining that: under Spain’s rigged electoral system the PP, with 30%-35% support, has an absolute majority.
In reality, short of a total surrender declaration the actual content of Puigdemont’s answer wouldn’t have mattered. The Rajoy government, with the backing of the entire Spanish establishment, has been on the war path against the Catalan movement and government since September 6. That was the day the Catalan government showed with the adoption of its referendum legislation that it was determined to give Catalans the chance to decide whether they wanted to remain in the Spanish state.
The defeat the Rajoy government experienced when mass citizen organisation and resistance made sure the October 1 Catalan referendum actually went ahead—despite the presence of 10,000 Spanish police and Civil Guard—only increased Madrid’s determination to act against the “separatist challenge”.
Crush the Catalan movement
The decision to invoke article 155 irrespective of Puigdemont’s reply was immediately denounced by En Comú Podem, the largest Catalan force in the Spanish parliament. Spokesperson Xavier Domènech said:
What is clear is that someone wants to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy by saying that something happened that didn’t happen, and that is absolutely incomprehensible for the majority of the population, to all citizens and is incomprehensible at the level of Europe.
Basque premier Iñigo Urkullu (of the conservative Basque Nationalist Party) had the same reaction:
A Unilateral Declaration of Independence never took place, so in no way at all should the application of article 155 of the constitution go ahead … Let the possibilities of a process of dialogue via a formula agreed by members of both governments be explored, unconditionally and without humiliations.
This will not happen: despite secondary differences the three main Spanish centralist parties are itching to get control of the government apparatus in Catalonia and to organise elections in conditions favouring a loss by the pro-independence forces (including the possibility of their parties being outlawed if they don’t conveniently fall out among themselves).
Thus Miquel Iceta, the secretary of the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), justified maintaining the article 155 operation even while noting that Puigdemont had said independence had not been declared. The “problem” for Iceta was Puigdemont’s threat to declare independence if article 155 were applied: that attitude, concluded Iceta, “makes it inevitable that the Spanish government will apply article 155.”
The PSC secretary was careful to avoid drawing too much attention to the 100% support that the PSC’s big brother party, the PSOE, was giving to Rajoy’s operation. Indeed, PSOE secretary Pedro Sánchez was in Brussels last week to clarify the minds of fellow European social democrats who might still have been feeling disoriented by the sight of police bashing grandmothers on October 1. He set them straight:
You may have thought that what is happening in Catalonia is due to a lack of democracy on the part of the Spanish political system. The opposite is the case. We are seeing the material expression of anti-politics, that which is being experienced in other parts of Europe, such as Hungary or Poland. What we are doing is defending European values in a part of our country.
That is, “populism” in Catalonia, where solidarity with refugees has mobilised most massively and where progressive sentiment is probably more widespread than in any other region of Europe, is the equivalent to Hungarian “populism”, which builds fences to keep refugees out. Sánchez’s effort in Brussels was simply another example of the Goebbelsian methods of Spanish nationalism, crusher of basic democratic rights in the name of “Democracy”, the Law” and “the Constitution”.
The occupation plan
After Rajoy had spoken, deputy prime minister Saenz de Santamaria announced more detail about the central takeover. The plan the Spanish government will put to the Senate on October 27 amounts to a comprehensive toolkit for repression of Catalan self-rule, to which further tools can always be added on request to the Senate. Here are the main aspects:
• Removal of premier Puigdemont. Once the Senate authorises the dismissal of Puigdemont all his powers, including the power to call early elections, are taken over by the central government. It is not yet clear how exactly the central government will try to exercise its powers—by remote control from Madrid or by imposing a provincial governor and/or cabinet.
• Sacking of the Catalan cabinet. In addition to the removal of all Catalan ministers, all senior departmental officials (“political appointees”) will also be sacked. In addition, Madrid reserves the right to remove or create any position within the Catalan government.
• Parliament stripped of its powers. While the Catalan parliament will continue to meet, it will become a shell, with the Senate empowered at bi-monthly control sessions to veto Catalan legislation. Parliament will not be able to propose a new government (because of its pro-independence majority) nor hear no-confidence motions. Parliamentary speaker Carme Forcadell will not need to be sacked because she is facing charges of disobedience in the Supreme Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC) and is sure to be found guilty.
• Early elections. Rajoy said that he would like to see “elections as soon as possible” and within six months at maximum. However, since the PP-dominated Senate can decide to extend the time-frame of the intervention, this amounts to saying to Catalonia: “You’ll get elections if you behave and if we are certain of getting a unionist majority.”
• Catalan police. The Mossos d’Esquadra will come under the control of the Spanish interior ministry, and its first decision will be to sack police chief Josep Lluís Trapero. If the Catalan police do not obey orders, they will be replaced by Spanish National Police or the Civil Guard.
• Public broadcasting media. The Spanish government will make changes at the executive level of the public Catalan Corporation of Audio-visual Media (CCMA), including sacking the head of public TV Channel 3. This is to be done in the name of “guaranteeing the transmission of truthful, objective and balanced information, respectful of political, social and cultural pluralism.” Anyone who has had experience of the public media of PP-run administrations (as in Madrid and Valencia) knows what that means.
• Economy. The goal is to guarantee that no public money is devoted to “activities or goals linked or related to the secessionist process”. This is a catch-all concept that will enable Madrid to cut funding to any business, social, cultural and sporting activity that it finds suspicious and to redirect funding to reliable unionist organisations.
• Internet. The intervention will seize control of all the Catalan government’s telecommunications and digital services.
• Loyalty of public servants. Any public servant that refuses to obey an instruction will be charged with “not fulfilling their duty to the Constitution and the Statute”. The consequences could include loss of income and assets.
All these measures—which give the lie to all the spin of a “155 lite” that was swirling through the media in the days before the decision—will be backed up by the most important measure of all, severe and persistent economic pressure. Spanish minister for finance Cristóbal Montoro will apply and cut funding so as to meet the central goal of the Madrid authorities and the Spanish establishment: the creation of unionist bloc that can win the next election (which won’t be held until a unionist victory can be practically guaranteed).
The central strategic problem the Madrid government faces is that the majority of the Catalan population (66.5% according to the latest GESOP poll) is opposed to an article 155 intervention against the country’s institutions, a percentage that will only increase as the draconian nature of the operation becomes clearer.
Madrid’s main weapons in the face of this resistance are economic: firstly a combination of organised sabotage of the Catalan economy via pressuring its major companies to shift headquarters out of the country and relentless doom-saying about the fate of an independent Catalan economy (it will shrink by 30% according to Spanish economy minister Luis de Guindos).
However, if the intervention is to gain real ground we can also expect to see a concentrated effort at building clientalist networks that make as many as possible, especially in the poorer areas, dependent on funding from the benefactor Spanish state. This effort to grow the material base of unionism in Catalonia will go with a heightening of the rhetoric against the “secessionist madness” that supposedly put the economy in peril in the first place.
However, the problem with this scenario, which would need time and some basic level of social order to have a chance of working, is its assumption of no or little impact on the Spanish economy once the intervention gets under way. This is a brave assumption given that the level of likely resistance within Catalonia will almost certainly translate into a crisis of Spanish politics and economy, especially given the level of indebtedness of the Spanish public sector (over 100% of GDP) and the economy’s vulnerability to slides in “investor confidence”.
Pedro Sánchez’s talk to his fellow social-democrats in the European parliament may have been responsible for its speakership panel deciding on October 19 not to have a plenary discussion on the worst action to date of the Spanish politico-judicial establishment: the arrest of the presidents of the Catalan National Assembly (Jordi Sànchez) and Catalan language and culture association Omnium Cultural (Jordi Cuixart).
“The Jordis” were detained on October 16 on the order of a judge of the National High Court. Sànchez and Cuixart face charges of ”sedition” for organising a “tumultuous riot” (in truth, peaceful protest) outside the Catalan government’s economics ministry building while the Civil Guard was raiding it on September 20. They could be held for up to four years before facing trial (see here for analysis of the flimsiness of the prosecution case).
Spanish government spokespeople reacted sharply against the description of the Jordis as “political prisoners”, a description that all parties to the left of are the PSOE and all nationalist parties in the Spanish state are already using. According to the PP, PSOE and Citizens, the two leaders are simply suspects awaiting trial, detained by an independent judiciary to prevent them reoffending. However, by October 12, Spain’s national day (and four days before their detention) the rumour heard at King Felipe’s traditional reception and then spread all over the social networks was that the detention of the two had already been decided by presiding magistrate Carmen Lamela.
The aim of the detentions is to disorganise the Spanish state’s most powerful enemy in Catalonia. This is not the Catalan government that, while remaining a critical instrument defending self-rule, has already been weakened by having its finances taken over by the Spanish treasury. Rather, it is the organised mass movement for Catalonia’s national rights whose greatest achievement to date was the organisation and defence of the October 1 referendum: it will be the core of resistance to the intervention under article 155.
If the arrest of the Jordis was supposed to demoralise the movement it had the opposite effect. On October 18, 200,000 filled Barcelona’s Diagonal to demand their release, with proportionately large demonstrations in all major Catalan towns. On October 21, 450,000 filled the Catalan capital’s Passeig de Gràcia to support Sànchez and Cuixart and to protest the article 155 intervention announced by Marian Rajoy earlier in the day.
The arrests of the Jordis temporarily moderated the sometimes sharp debate within the pro-independence camp over the October 10 decision of the Puigdemont government to suspend its declaration of independence and call for negotiations with the Spanish state. This move was made not in the hope that the Rajoy administration would change its authoritarian and arrogant ways with regard to Catalonia, but to further expose it to democratic-minded public opinion in the rest of the Spanish state and, in particular, in Europe. The arrests of the mass movement leaders made it clear that there was nothing to be gained from asking for talks from a Spanish government with no interest in having them and every interest in crushing the Catalan movement.
The question for the pro-independence camp and the Puigdemont government then became when and how to lift the October 10 suspension of the independence declaration. The majority opinion—not shared by the People’s Unity List (CUP) which has always favoured an immediate independence declaration—was that the timing and content of a declaration by the Catalan parliament would be determined by the October 21 meeting of the Spanish cabinet that decided the detail of the article 155 intervention.
When Rajoy and Saenz de Santamaria laid this out it immediately became clear that Catalonia was not facing a “155 lite” or a “surgical intervention”, but a frontal onslaught, no doubt reinforced by the support the Spanish government had received at the October 19-20 European Council meeting. (The Spanish establishment, headed by King Felipe, repaid this debt on the evening of October 20, when the presidents of the European Parliament, European Commission and European Council were awarded the Princess of Asturias prize—for advancing social harmony!—at a “glittering ceremony” in the Asturian capital Oviedo.)
What response to 155?
How then to respond to impending invasion from the State? Three broad currents exist within the movement defending Catalan sovereignty, basically differentiated according to the degree of trust they have in Catalan society’s capacity to offer organised resistance to the article 155 attack.
That determines their answer to the three options available to the Catalan government:
(1) Go for Catalan elections now–and maintain the suspension of the October 10 independence declaration—in order to avoid an article 155 intervention and hopefully demonstrate greater support for the pro-independence camp at the polls;
(2) Declare independence now and hopefully spark a trend to recognition by the country’s most sympathetic international allies (beginning, perhaps, with Slovenia);
(3) Hold off on both early elections and an independence declaration in order to constitute a more broadly based government so as to better defend Catalan sovereignty and institutions (possibly by including representatives from Catalunya en Comú and even PSCers opposed to the application of 155).
This discussion takes place when there are no simple majorities among Catalans for any of these three courses. For instance, the latest (October 22) GESOP poll shows a strong majority against the implementation of article 155 (66.5%), but also a majority against regarding the October 1 referendum as binding (60.4%). The only other majority was that in favour of “elections to try to resolve the conflict” (68.6%), but the question asked did not specify a critical point like who should call them.
When those questioned were asked to choose between more realistic options as to what premier Puigdemont should do, the results were: call early elections to avoid the suspension of self-rule (36.5%); declare independence immediately (29.3%); and abandon the independence declaration and negotiate with the State (24.8%).
Within the broad camp of pro-independence and pro-sovereignty forces, there is most agreement on avoiding an early election, especially as it is not at all clear that this would automatically lead to a suspension of Madrid’s article 155 intervention (on October 23, the PP’s Catalonia leader Xavier García Albiol said it wouldn’t, but deputy prime minister Saenz de Santamaria seemed to imply it would). On October 22, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau said:
Elections in the worst conditions, with an intervention into the Catalan government and institutions, would be elections in anomalous conditions for democracy, with a lot of tension and polarisation. I doubt whether elections held in such conditions would help solve anything.
The only tendency within the pro-independence camp that favours an early poll is that fraction of PDeCAT members most exposed to pressure from Catalan enterprise, most notably business minister Santi Vila. This trend is either convinced that Madrid’s assault will easily crush Catalan institutions (including those that support business) and/or is afraid that the more resistance lasts, the more it will come to be dominated by the radical wing of the pro-independence movement.
This is a realistic concern. The broad pattern of struggle since the September 20 police raids is that every weakening of the Catalan governmental and institutional sphere has been offset by strengthened mass movement organising. In the process the forces of resistance have given rise to the Committees to Defend the Referendum (or Republic, CDR) and the peaceful mass resistance platform En Peu de Pau (“On a Peaceful Footing”). At the same time the traditional pro-independence mass organisations ANC and Omnium Cultural have turned to more active organising since the days immediately before the October 1 referendum (when they helped organise the community occupations of polling centres).
In addition, the Democracy Roundtable—covering over 70 business, union, social, cultural and sporting organisations—now occupies the position of “lowest common denominator” of the movement and was important in drawing new layers of the Catalan population to the 450,000-strong Barcelona demonstration on October 21.
According to an October 23 report in the web-based daily el.diario, the PDeCAT forces getting cold feet about making an independence declaration made a last-ditch attempt on that day to persuade Puigdemont not to cross the Rubicon, sending a leadership delegation led by ex-premier Artur Mas to urge the premier to build a defence line including all anti-155 forces, if necessary by keeping independence on hold.
This stance has combined in recent hours with an exponential increase in the pressure on the government to commit to elections. From the Economy Circle [big-business thinktank] to the PSC, passing through the majority of dailies edited in Catalonia, all have called on Puigdemont to dissolve parliament and call elections. It is an option that is on the rise in order to avoid 155 and Rajoy’s taking control of the Catalan institutions.
However, the article also reported that internal PDeCAT polling had showed that only 38% thought early elections a good idea, with 49% against. This reality has produced splits in the conservative nationalist organisation that have reached as high as the Puigdemont cabinet itself, where the pro-elections position of Santi Vila is not only opposed by all non-aligned and Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) ministers but by other PDeCAT ministers, such as minister of state Jordi Turull and minister for territories Josep Rull.
Position of the CUP
At the opposite pole to the PDeCAT forces supporting an early poll stands the CUP. Convinced that Madrid is completely committed to a scorched-earth policy against Catalonia, the anti-capitalist pro-independence force produced this communiqué on October 23:
The CUP-CC [Constituent Call, organisations that participated alongside the CUP in the 2015 Catalan election] wants to make clear, in this crucial week for the future of Catalonia, that the decision of the Rajoy government—with the support of Citizens, the PSOE and the Borbon king—to eliminate self-government and intervene in the main Catalan institutions including Parliament, is the greatest aggression against the civil, individual and collective rights of the Catalan people since the Franco dictatorship. An aggression aimed against the pro-independence majority, but also against the rest of the citizens not supportive of independence.
An aggression that will find a response in the form of mass civil disobedience by the citizens.
In this sense, we understand that self-organisation, self-defense and resistance on the basis of municipalism and internationalism are the spearheads of this non-violent struggle to turn back the application of article 155 of the Spanish constitution and to achieve freedom for all…
On the other hand, we in the CUP-CC have insisted in every possible way that we do not share the strategy of tailing behind the decisions taken by the Spanish government. We believe that the declaration of the Republic is fully justified by the results of the October 1 referendum and, as we have said on many occasions, we are committed to making the proclamation in parliament as soon as possible.
On this basis, CUP members are presently throwing all their energies into strengthening the “front lines” of the resistance movement—in the unions, neighbourhoods and social organisations.
Position of ‘the commons’
For the Catalan left forces known as “the commons”—embodied in Catalunya en Comú (without Podemos Catalonia) and represented in the Catalan parliament by Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP, including Podemos but without Barcelona en Comú)— the priority is to build the broadest possible democratic front of resistance against the intervention. This entails rejecting an independence declaration, thought to narrow the base of resistance to attacks from the Spanish state.
According to an October 22 radio interview with Catalunya en Comú spokesperson Elisenda Alemany, “we have a great responsibility to express this citizen unity with a common front of Catalanist forces, because this intervention is against all democrats.” For Alemany, the basis of the front should be close to that of the Democracy Roundtable: amnesty for the political prisoners, an end to the intervention against Catalan self-government and the re-establishment of full Catalan government autonomy, the end of the financial strangulation being applied by the Spanish treasury and the withdrawal of the security forces brought in to stop the October 1 referendum.
At the same time, the Catalan parliament should open a constituent process: “A constituent process at the beginning and not the end of the way makes it possible for the pro-sovereignty sector, representing 80% of the population, to get involved.”
The position of “the commons” might seem to make sense when the bare numbers in favour of declaring independence are compared to those opposed to this course. However, the approach may well fail to properly weigh a key reality: the most active, committed and organised part of the Catalan population is that which is committed to independence, which suffered to make the referendum happen and has already had to wear the October 10 suspension of their most cherished aspiration).
Puigdemont already made it clear in his last reply to Rajoy that if article 155 is triggered, the Catalan parliament will confront the issue of lifting the suspension of the independence declaration: the ERC, CUP and a majority of PDeCAT support that course of action. How then to keep supporters of Catalan self-rule who are not for independence on side for the struggle against Spanish state attacks?
Journalist and commentator Esther Vivas suggested an orientation in this October 23 comment in the Catalan daily Ara:
The next step of the Catalan government must be to proclaim the Catalan Republic. [At the same time] a constituent process must be opened to maintain the unity of the pro-independence and pro-democracy front that mobilised on October 1. This is a broad political framework that goes beyond the basis of the usual pro-independence forces to include Podemos Catalonia, the social base of the commons and activists from anarchism.
It also gives us a perspective for confronting the application of 155 that isn’t just anti-repression but also strategic and political. When the government announced the referendum it committed to implementing the result. That’s why if we want to be recognised as a republic we have to proclaim ourselves as such.
That doesn’t mean implementing the republic tomorrow: it will imply a series of measures the possibility of whose implementation will have to be seen. Now more than ever the dynamic between the street and the institutions becomes fundamental. Also key will be a sustained mobilisation to confront the repression of the State.
Such are the pressures on Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont as he prepares to make the most fateful decision in Catalan history since his processor Lluís Companys declared “the Catalan state in the Spanish Republic” on October 6 83 years ago.
The Rajoy government will be hoping for a 21st century replay of that episode, which ended with the imprisonment of Companys and his cabinet after a brief skirmish between the Catalan police and the Spanish army. For its part the movement for Catalan sovereignty will be fighting to make the activation of article 155 the starting point of the Spanish establishment’s Vietnam.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site. For up-to-the-minute information on the Catalan struggle go to Green Left’s live blog.