Catalan independence forces face blackmail, dirty tricks ahead of crucial poll


More than 1 million people took part in a pro-independence march in Barcelona on September 11, Catalonia's national day.

A year has passed since the British establishment won the September referendum on Scottish independence with a final campaign week of blackmail, dirty tricks and multi-party sworn promises yet to be kept.

A year later, in the last week of campaigning for the September 27 Catalan parliamentary elections, no such carrot is on offer from the ruling People's Party (PP) and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). Ahead of a vote that Catalan nationalists say doubles as a referendum on independence, it is all blackmail, dirty tricks and terror tactics.

These have been unleashed with an intensity that makes the Scottish referendum campaign look like an amiable village cricket match. Examples include:

* Defence minister Pedro Morenes said there would be no need for armed forces involvement so long as the law is obeyed;
* The Civil Guard has requisitioned the headquarters of the ruling right-nationalist Catalan party Democratic Convergence for Catalonia (CDC), ostensibly in relation to possible corruption charges;
* International leaders like Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron have all made statements in favour of maintaining the unity of Spain;
* Nobel literature prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa has organised a Madrid meeting of literary illuminati for Spanish unity;
Javier Tebas, the president of the League of Professional Football, has said that if Catalonia declares independence, Barcelona would be expelled from the Spanish League; and
* The Bishop of Valencia has organised a day of prayer to keep Spain “indivisible and free”.

The September 27 elections are a substitute for the Scottish-style referendum that both PP and PSOE oppose. Both say the people of Catalonia have no right to decide their relationship to the Spanish state - even as opinion polls show 80% of Catalans support that right.

The average of 19 opinion polls taken since September 5 show pro-independence forces winning a majority of seats (73 out of 135), and thus forming government. However, it also shows that the total vote for independence will be 47.2%.

The divergence between votes and seats is due to the gerrymander in the four-constituency Catalan electoral system, with a vote in Lleida constituency worth more than twice one in Barcelona.

Polls

Since the start of September, the main independence ticket, Together For Yes, has averaged 40.3% in the polls (63-64 seats). In a few it has come close to winning a majority (68 seats).

Together for Yes unites representatives of the two main Catalan national organisations — the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural (which promotes Catalan language and literature) - plus the two main Catalan nationalist parties. These are the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) and the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC).

Its lead candidate is Raul Romeva, formally an MP for the left Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) in the European parliament.

The second pro-independence ticket is the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP)-Constituent Call. The CUP had three MPs in the outgoing parliament, who all gained popular respect for pushing the demands of Catalonia's strong social protest movements in parliament.

Under CUP rules, these deputies will not be standing again. The CUP-Constituent Call lead candidate this election is journalist Antonio Banos.

The CUP has scored an average of 6.9% in the opinion polls, which would give it eight or nine MPs. It says that if pro-independence forces win a majority of seats with a minority of the popular vote, pro-independence forces should start to develop Catalan institutions and a Catalan constitution, but that the precondition for independence should be convincing a clear majority of its benefits.

The CUP has also said it would not vote for the CDC's Artur Mas as premier due to the anti-social record of his two governments since 2010. The CUP would, however, support a pro-independence governing alliance without Mas in charge.

The war on Catalonia

“Is this the future?”, roared Joan Tarda, ERC MP in the Spanish parliament on September 16. He showed a photo from 1934 of jailed Catalan premier Lluis Companys and his cabinet after they declared a “Catalan State within the Federal Spanish Republic”.

Tarda was commenting on the latest move by the PP government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. This was to empower the Constitutional Court, whose job has been to rule on the constitutionality of laws, to jail or fine elected officials who ignore its rulings.

With this weapon, the Rajoy government hopes to carry out a “judicial” coup against any pro-independence Catalan government that puts a foot wrong after September 27.

The fury of the campaign confirms that this election has indeed become the “plebiscite” on Catalan self-determination envisaged when a road map to independence was agreed in February between the CDC, ERC and Catalan mass organisations. This claim was immediately dismissed by Rajoy, who called the poll a “normal regional election”.

It is not looking that normal. Rajoy and his ministers have laid siege to Catalonia over the past three weeks, backed by PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez and a bevy of PSOE regional leaders.

Hearts and minds

The chief target audience of the PP and PSOE has been the hundreds of thousands of working-class families in the suburban “belts” around Barcelona.

Often originating from other parts of Spain, many do not bother to vote in Catalan regional elections. These are seen, unlike municipal and national polls, as “for the Catalans”. Yet how those who usually abstain in regional elections finally vote this time will determine the result.

The PP's approach is to terrorise the undecided. Its message is that if “the secessionists” win, pensions will be at risk, investment and jobs will dry up, taxes will rise and Catalonia will be out of Europe and the euro.

PP-driven whisper campaigns among Castilian-speaking communities speak of enforced indoctrination in Catalan and having to learn Catalan to get a job or receive social security.

Another PP message, blatantly peddled by lead candidate Xavier Garcia Albiol, is that “the secessionists” favour immigration by “the Moors” while the PP prefers Spanish-speaking Latin Americans.

For its part, the PSOE promises a pie-in-the-sky “federal reform” of the Spanish Constitution. This would require left and progressive forces to win a next-to-impossible two-thirds majority in the Spanish parliament in the end-of-year national elections.

Former PSOE prime minister Felipe Gonzalez voiced some standard PSOE attitudes at a September 23 rally in working-class Hospitalet: “I know of only one constitutional text that recognises the right of self-determination of peoples, that of the USSR.

“Do you know who applied it? Stalin, who self-determined various millions of Soviet citizens to Siberia.”

For its part, Catalonia, Yes We Can - a ticket composed of ICV, Podemos, the United and Alternative Left (EUiA) and the all-Spanish green party Equo - has been trying to convince voters that September 27 should not be seen as a “Yes” versus “No” vote on Catalan independence. Rather, it should be a plebiscite on what kind of society would be best for both Catalonia and Spain.

In a September 24 interview with El Pais, Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said: “We don’t want Catalonia to break away from Spain, but we feel that Catalonia has the right to decide, and that the legal relationship between Catalonia and Spain should be decided by the Catalans ...

“We’re saying that it’s perfectly understandable for a majority of Catalans to want to ditch Rajoy, but we’re saying ‘stay with us and let’s all kick out Rajoy together’.”

However, a Catalonia, Yes We Can victory was unlikely on September 27, which increasingly shaped as a vote for or against independence. It has averaged 11.7% (16 seats) in opinion polls, just ahead of the PSC (11.1% and 15 seats) and behind Citizens (14.8% and 20 seats). Citizens is winning the fight for the pro-Spanish vote against the PP (9.7% and 13 seats).

Dirty tricks gone wrong

As the campaign entered its last week, signs of PP panic have emerged. First the major banks, then the leaders of the main trade union confederations - General Union of Workers (UGT) and Workers Commissions (CCOO) - warned of the dangers of Catalan independence.

The reactions were immediate. Such was the uproar against Bank of Spain governor Luis Maria Linde's comment that an independent Catalonia ran the risk of Greece-style capital controls that he had to concede on the next day that this was “probably impossible”.

Then the Catalan branches of the UGT and CCOO reaffirmed their long-standing support for a Catalan right to decide.

Then the PP campaign to prove that its position was supported by the European Commission (EC) blew up in its face. In a September 23 TV debate involving foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, the minister cited an EC declaration that stated that no regional government could organise secession from an EU member state.

The paragraph was a forgery. The correct statement merely repeated the EC position that the internal organisation of member states was for them to decide.

Before this failed dirty trick came the Great Rajoy Blooper. The prime minister said that, in accepting independence, Catalans would cease to be European citizens. He was reminded by the interviewer that under the Spanish constitution, anyone born in Spain could not be deprived of their Spanish, and hence European, citizenship unless they wanted to.

As the battle of ideas is proving a bit too taxing for Rajoy and his ministers, they will probably spend the last days of the campaign working on more direct sabotage. This includes getting the Spanish postal service to run slow in returning to the electoral commission the unprecedented hundreds of thousands of postal ballots already in the mail.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent. A longer version of this article, analysing the results of the Catalan election, will be published at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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