The issue must be serious to persuade Salvador Illa, Spain’s minister for health, to leave that critical job just as the COVID-19 pandemic is entering its third wave.
It is. For Illa’s party, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which runs the Spanish government with Unidas Podemos (UP) as junior partner, the Catalan independence movement is a graver concern than any virus — even one that has so far claimed 52,000 lives.
With reliable opinion polls last month showing that the February 14 Catalan election would return a larger pro-independence majority, PSOE anxiety would have deepened. According to the December survey of Catalonia’s official Centre for Opinion Studies, pro-independence parties would win up to 50.9% of the vote and 77-seats in the country’s 135-seat parliament.
That figure compares with their present majority of 70 seats, won with 47.5% support at the December 2017 Catalan election, following the country’s “illegal” October 1, 2017 independence referendum.
What was the PSOE to do, as much wedded as it is to Spanish state unity as the right-wing opposition People’s Party (PP)? The polls had the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC, the PSOE’s Catalan sister) replacing the neoliberal “Catalanophobic” Citizens as lead unionist force, but not becoming the parliament’s biggest party.
Until late December, polls showed the unionist bloc (PSC, Citizens, PP and the far-right Vox) as winning 55 seats at most, 13 less than an absolute majority. Even in the miraculous event of it overtaking the pro-independence enemy, a governing alliance between such disparate forces would be inconceivable.
If the PSC were to have any chance of returning to the position it enjoyed between 2003 and 2010 — of leading force in a three-party government broadly regarded as left and including the pro-independence Republican Left Of Catalonia (ERC) — it simply couldn’t run a business-as-usual campaign: a major counter-offensive against the Catalan revolt was called for, one that would break the pro-independence majority.
Enter health minister Illa, who announced on December 31 that he had been selected as the PSC lead candidate. Illa is Catalan and, despite virulent criticism from the parties of the right, has enjoyed the support incumbent politicians confronting the COVID-19 pandemic have generally attracted.
Illa’s steady performance and media profile made him the PSOE-PSC’s “dream candidate”: its strategy for deploying his political capital unfolded as follows.
First, Miquel Iceta, PSC first secretary, full-time party operative for 33 years and usual lead candidate, stood aside: after absorbing the message of internal PSC polling he came out in smiling support of Illa.
Taking Iceta out of the picture had one immediate advantage: it neutralised the pain of the notorious photos of him smiling alongside Citizens, PP and fascist figures at the October 2017 Barcelona demonstration for Spanish unity.
It would now be easier for the PSOE, which in 2017 voted with the PP government to strip Catalonia of its self-rule, to get across its campaign message: a Catalonia that “speaks and does not shout, without acts of revenge, the Catalonia of reunion”.
“Reunion” is the mantra to seduce voters most concerned with the pandemic and the economic crisis, instilling the feeling that a vote for Catalan self-determination is wasted and that “real solutions” can only come from Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s government in Madrid.
Illa’s line is that after ten years squandered in fights over identity in a “paralysed” and “disoriented” country, it’s time to heal the wounds, admit mistakes and look to a future focused on “the real problems of real people, like you and me”.
Sánchez will back this operetta of reconciliation with goodies or promises thereof. The PSOE-PSC campaign will probably feature more funding for infrastructure (sourced from European Union COVID-19 crisis funds) and transfer some responsibilities presently run from the Spanish capital to the Catalan government.
A nicely-timed pardon for the nine Catalan leaders in jail for their role in the independence referendum should not be ruled out. It would come late enough to prevent them taking part in the election campaign, but in time to provoke useful outrage from the Spanish-patriotic right — confirmation of the PSC’s humanitarian credentials.
But the PSOE-PSC will not move a millimetre away from its rejection of a Catalan right to self-determination, a “conviction” essential to maintaining the support of the Spanish establishment, but also a tactical necessity.
Seducing unionist voters away from Citizens requires iron-clad guarantees of anti-independentism, especially after Sánchez had to rely on Catalan and Basque support to pass Spain’s 2021 budget. Citizens, the PP and Vox will never stop reminding voters of this “dependence on the terrorists and the separatists”.
Of course, the PSOE-PSC brand of denial of Catalan rights will be cloaked as “constitutionalism” and nothing to do with the right’s crude strains of Spanish nationalism.
For example, after the announcement of Illa’s candidacy a graphic was posted by a PSC councillor in the town of Collbató presenting the health minister as a vaccine against the yellow ribbon (symbol of solidarity with the political prisoners): the PSC disowned the graphic and it vanished from the web.
The PSC’s other main hope is demoralisation among pro-independence voters. Illa will point to the permanent tension in the Catalan governing coalition of Together for Catalonia (JxCat) and the ERC, exaggerate its failures and repeat ad nauseam: “Do we want another decade like the last?”
The tirade will be unleashed in the hope of helping independence supporters stay at home on February 14 — whether from demoralisation with fights in the independence camp, doubt about whom to support, or fear of COVID-19.
A third, but smaller, potential vote source is the Catalonia Together-Podemos (CeCP) coalition including well-known Barcelona mayor Ada Colau. Its supporters most inclined to view the Catalan movement as simply right-nationalist may switch to the “anti-nationalist” PSC if they feel it has a chance of victory.
The choice for the pro-independence voter is basically between JxCat, ERC, the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat) and the left-independentist People’s Unity List (CUP) - Let’s Win Catalonia coalition.
JxCat, conceived as an umbrella representing Catalan republicans of all political tendencies, will have the advantage of running exiled ex-premier Carlos Puigdemont as lead candidate for Barcelona (but he will not take up his seat), as well as standing Catalonia’s first ever woman lead candidate, Laura Borràs.
Yet, it may suffer from not standing visible candidates from its left (such as jailed party president Jordi Sànchez) while centre and right figures, like Barcelona Chamber of Commerce head and tax minimisation champion Joan Canadell, occupy most electable positions.
In its fight for first place with the ERC (presently leading in the polls) JxCat will insistently question its rival’s commitment to independence, supposedly cast into doubt by the ERC’s past participation in government with the PSC, its support for the recent PSOE budget and its insistence on broadening the support base of the movement.
ERC speaker Roger Torrent’s avoidance during the last parliamentary term of any showdown with Spanish courts will also get a mention and be contrasted to sacked premier Quim Torra’s refusal to obey instructions from the Spanish electoral commission.
ERC will point to the benefits of its agreements with Sánchez, brand JxCat as right wing, feature its own clean record in local government as against JxCat pacts with the PSC, and repeat that “it’s time” to end the country’s revolving door of right-nationalist and PSC-led administrations.
JxCat will find it harder to repeat its last-minute overtaking of ERC in the 2017 election because of its recent split with the conservative PDECat, to which the Spanish electoral commission has mischievously assigned all JxCat’s official media time and which polls are showing as winning up to two seats.
PDECat may also win enough support from more conservative pro-independence voters to help ERC come in first. The other recent split from JxCat, the Nationalist Party of Catalonia (PCN), led by former PDECat secretary Marta Pascal, seems set for oblivion.
Amidst this fragmentation, the CUP - Let’s Win Catalonia campaign may become an attractive alternative for pro-independence voters. It proposes that all independence forces commit to a definitive referendum by 2025, one based on the lessons of 2017.
According to lead candidate Dolors Sabater, former mayor of industrial and working-class Badalona, the coming election is a plebiscite on the way forward for the independence movement.
Interviewed on January 9, she said its main task is to set in place the structures and institutions — public bank, own treasury and tax system, public services — that could underpin an independent Catalonia from day one: such preparation would be crowned by a referendum whose result could this time be implemented.
For Sabater, “people are dispirited after October 1 because of this legislature with so much pain and repression. They face these elections thinking that there’s no point in voting. But we’re here to say that it’s important that people vote to end this stalemate.”
As the campaign warms up, the PSOE-PSC is intent on creating an Illa bandwagon effect. El Periódico, his effective mouthpiece, published a poll on January 8 showing the PSC as lead party with 34-35 seats and the independence camp at 68 seats, one away from losing its majority: Illa was “shaking up the Catalan political scene”.
A day later came another poll in the conservative La Vanguardia: the PSC would come in third with 29-30 seats, behind ERC (37-39) and JxCat (31). The independence bloc majority was safe at 72-76 seats.
With 35% of voters yet to make up their mind, any result is possible. The key determinant will be the participation rate: will the Catalan movement, demobilised by COVID-19 and the recession and supposedly demoralised, rise as it always has, to its most serious challenge to date?
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]