After Catalan independence movement wins elections, Spanish state prepares new showdown

The opening session of the new Catalan parliament on January 17, with no-one of the government benches (first row) and yellow bows marking the seats of the jailed and exiled MPs.

The main war aim of the People’s Party (PP) government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for the December 21 Catalan elections was to stop the re-election of a pro-independence government.

During the election campaign, the Spanish political, economic and media establishment even dreamed of the election of a pro-unionist administration on the back of unprecedented participation from a «silent majority» supposedly in favour of continuing the tie with Spain.

Yet their latest siege of Catalonia ended badly for the Spanish powers-that-be. Despite the highest participation in any Catalan election since the end of the Franco dictatorship 40 years ago (79.04%), the unionist «silent majority» turned out to be only 43.46% of the valid vote, giving it 57 seats in the 135-seat parliament.

The pro-independence parties--the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), president Carles Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat) and the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP)--won 47.51% and kept their seat majority (70), while Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP), which supports a Catalan right to self-determination but not independence, won 7.46% and eight seats.

This outcome thus gave an unambiguous thumbs-down to Rajoy’s October 27 takeover of Catalan government under article 155 of the Spanish constitution, a coup supported by the PP, by its «modern» neoliberal rival Citizens and by the barely social-democratic Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

The bad result for the unionist bloc also left the Spanish establishment more reliant than ever on its legal system to block the formation of a new pro-independence Catalan government.

Formally, this might be done by maintaining the charges of «rebellion, sedition and misappropriation» against eight elected MPs (including Puigdemont) presently in detention or exile, and depriving them of the right to vote in new Catalan parliament.

These and similar charges would also need to be extended to other MPs as part of Civil Guard investigations into the preparation of the October 1 referendum on self-determination, such that they too could be put into preventive detention and prevented from voting.

Alliances under stress

The most recent proof of the judges’ willingness to help out Spanish government interests came on January 4, when a Spanish Supreme Court appeals panel ruled that vice-president Oriol Junqueras, the jailed ERC leader, should be kept in detention while charges against him are being prepared.

Puigdemont’s reaction to this decision was immediate: Junqueras and three other detained Catalan independence movement leaders were «hostages».

Nonetheless, while almost anything is possible in law, ongoing legal aggression of this sort comes at an increasingly high political cost, putting the pro-155 alliance between the PP, Citizens and the PSOE under strain.

An indication of this came in the January 17 election for the speaker and seven-person speakership panel of the Catalan parliament. At issue was whether the three imprisoned MPs—Junqueras and outgoing interior minister Joaquim Forn and former Catalan National Assembly (ANC) president Jordi Sanchez of JxCat—could vote via a substitute.

Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, who had earlier refused their requests to be released to vote in the January 17 session, left the decision on this issue to the “table of age”, the three-person presiding group made up of the oldest and two youngest MPs.

This “table of age” officiates at the beginning of a new parliamentary term, conducting the election of the incoming speaker and speakership panel.

The table, by coincidence all ERC members, ruled that the jailed MPs could register a vote (the five exiled members did not request one).

Citizens MPs, supported by the PP, protested against the decision but the PSC—not wanting to be always associated with Citizens’ relentless filibustering over procedure—supported accepting the vote of the jailed MPs.

Partly as a result, the new Catalan parliament speakership panel has a pro-independence majority of four to three. It will now have to decide whether to allow the investiture of Carles Puigdemont as president either via video link, or through having a substitute read his investiture address to the parliament.

This will be the issue that tests the solidity of the JxCat-ERC alliance. While the two parties agreed on January 9 to support investiture by video link or substitute, such a decision would go against the written advice of the parliamentary legal service.

It would also be immediately appealed to the Constitutional Court by the Rajoy government which has also said that it would also maintain its article 155 intervention in place. This would open the prospect of a Puigdemont government thus invested being found to be unconstitutional, leading to another Catalan election.

Role of Citizens

If the Rajoy government were remotely interested in relaxing tensions with Catalonia, it would have formally acknowledged the December 21 election result, instructed the Spanish state prosecutor’s office to shelve its cases against the Catalan political and social leaders and shown some preparedness to enter into negotiations.

So far its behaviour has been the exact opposite: the December 21 siege having failed, the Rajoy government is determined to create the conditions for a successful siege in the future, based on the gains made and lessons learned from its failure this time.

It also being forced to react to the pressure on its right flank from the massively boosted and financed Citizens, the clear election winner within the unionist camp.

All-Spanish opinion polls now show this «Podemos of the right» closing in on both the PP and the official opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

On the basis of its success on December 21 Citizens will conduct an unyieldingly aggressive operation in the Catalan parliament as a way of demonstrating that it is the most reliable opponent of “nationalism” in the Spanish state.

As a foretaste, leader Inés Arrimades in her first media appearance after the January 17 election of ERC MP Roger Torrent as speaker didn’t even bother with the formality of congratulations but stated that Torrent would be biased and untrustworthy.

Caught in its war with the upstart Citizens, PP aggression has been intensifying on all fronts. Its economic squeeze--which saw Spanish treasurer Cristóbal Montoro take over Catalan government finances and around 3000 companies persuaded to shift headquarters out of Catalonia--has tightened further with a €728 million cut to the Catalan budget.

On January 12, Montoro declared that the end of the article 155 intervention would not mean an end to the government’s control over Catalan finances, which began a month before the October 27 implementation of article 155.

On the military front, defence minister Dolores de Cospedal reminded Catalans on January 6 (Spanish armed forces day) that Spain’s men and women in uniform were alert and ready to defend the unity of their country.

On January 8, PP general coordinator Fernando Martínez-Maillo, urged Arrimades not to settle for just trying to take the Catalan parliamentary speakership from the independence bloc. She should «take the initiative» and go for government, exploit the fact that «there are eight persons [the MPs in jail and exile] whom we don’t know if they’ll be in parliament or not» and put CatECP on the spot by demanding its support for «constitutionalism».

The biggest threat, which the ultra-right within unionism is set on intensifying, is that of the divide between pro-union and pro-independence parts of Catalan society. This has been beginning to emerge since the events of October--the referendum, the big unionist demonstrations and the declaration of independence.

For example, immediately after December 21, Citizens put into circulation the idea that a fictitious region called «Tabarnia» (Tarragona plus Barcelona), where the unionist vote exceeded support for independence, might be constituted as a unionist homeland cut out of Catalonia.

Unionist groups have also taken to changing place names at night (e.g, to «Anti-Independence Square»), with the obvious implication that a pro-independence government will find itself facing mobilised and possibly violent street resistance if it «goes too far».

What pro-independence government?

This atmosphere of repression and threat has been weighing on the three pro-independence forces. They continue to negotiate over what sort of pro-independence government they should constitute or, in the CUP’s case, support. These negotiations will have to come up with a proposal within a fortnight.

At one pole, JxCat has remained committed to restoring the legitimate Puigdemont government and having Puigdemont himself sworn in as president by video link from his Brussels exile. He could then return to Catalonia and dare the Rajoy government to risk the scandal of arresting him. JxCat is opposed to any idea of accepting a substitute candidate to Puigdemont, interpreted as legitimising Rajoy’s article 155 coup.

JxCat says that the pro-independence camp should be prepared to force another Catalan election if it cannot achieve this goal because of legal oppression (starting with the Spanish Constitutional Court finding swearing-in by video link unconstitutional).

For ERC the overriding goal has been to recover Catalan self-government and end the rule of article 155. This is a precondition for «unfolding the Republic» voted for on October 1, but also for demonstrating the value of a pro-independence government to doubters while reducing social tension and narrowing support for increasingly aggressive unionism.

Before its January 9 agreement with JxCat, ERC was prepared to consider other formulae for government than restoration of the deposed Puigdemont government and exiled and jailed MPs. While supporting Puigdemont as president, it was not prepared (as it was in the past) to disregard the opinion of the Catalan parliament’s legal advisors as to the constitutionality of swearing-in by video-link.

ERC has also been more concerned than JxCat about whether the pro-independence bloc would win another election if again forced to the polls.

As for the CUP, reduced from 10 seats to four on December 21, the key issue is avoiding a return to regional government that accepts the rules of standard Spanish state administrative operations. A January 4 CUP communique said this would «mean a break with the popular will shown at the October 1 referendum and a return to a context of deprival by the Spanish state of political and social rights.»

CUP lead candidate Carles Riera told Catalonia Radio: «If 155 is not lifted and dialogue with the State doesn’t work, it will be necessary to disobey it.»

Given the ongoing determination of the Spanish powers-that-be to crush the movement for Catalan sovereignty, whatever arrangement is finally reached between the pro-independence parties a new wave of disobedience sooner or later seems inevitable.

Such is the message of the Catalan National Assembly’s draft resolution for it January annual congress: “Organised civil society will once again be obliged to become the spearhead of the process.”

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He produces a live blog on the Catalan crisis. An earlier version of this article has appeared in Scottish Socialist Voice.

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