Catalan National Day: Huge turnout by a movement that refuses to die

More than 400,000 people marched to celebrate the Catalan national day on September 11. Photo: @jordiborras/Twitter

Organisers said attendance on September 11 was more than 400,000 and the Barcelona municipal police said 108,000, but this time the usual debate over numbers did not matter: the political meaning of this year’s Catalan National Day (Diada) demonstration, thermometer of the state of the independence movement, was clear enough.

The river of independence supporters that flooded central Barcelona gave the lie to fears that the Catalan movement had been mortally wounded by ongoing Spanish state legal repression, 18 months of COVID-induced social misery and the morale-sapping differences over strategy among the independence parties.

These factors certainly helped reduce the turnout compared to the million-plus mobilisations leading up to the October 1, 2017, independence referendum, but attendance exceeded the expectations of its main organiser, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC).

ANC president Elisenda Paluzie had beforehand predicted a turnout of “six digits”, but said afterwards that this target had been “multiplied”.

Jordi Cuixart, president of the Catalan language and cultural association Òmnium Cultural, who was “pardoned” by the Spanish government along with the other Catalan political prisoners in June, commented: “We have shown that organised civil society continues to be well and truly alive: that is a collective success, not of any specific organisation.”

Former ANC president and political prisoner Jordi Sànchez said: “Despite everything, the people have kept the faith and maintained hope, and participation has been massive.”

The sentiment most frequently expressed in the media vox pops of participants was that they had attended, in the words of a woman cited by the daily Ara, “so they won’t think we’ve cooled off”.

Still powerful, but divided

This “they” included the Spanish coalition government of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos (UP), but for many it also referred to the Catalan government, suspected of entanglement in futile negotiations with the central government. (The first meeting of the “dialogue table” between the Spanish and Catalan governments took place in Barcelona on September 15.)

The ANC certainly thought so. Urging people to attend the demonstration, Paluzie told Catalonia Radio: “What worries me is not so much the negotiating table, but that while we’re discussing something with a very faint chance of success, we’re not doing what we should be doing and we’re demobilising the people.”

In another interview Paluzie said: “What is missing is determination on the part of the parties to find a road for together reaching independence as rapidly as possible.”

This “lack of determination” springs from strategic differences within the independence movement, of which polemic over the dialogue table is the latest symptom.

For the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), lead party in the Catalan government, the table is indispensable for pressuring the Spanish administration to allow a referendum and declare an amnesty for the 3000-plus independence activists sentenced or awaiting sentence in the Spanish legal system.

The fact that Madrid has conceded the table amounted to acknowledgment that a specific “Catalan problem” exists: it would be self-defeating not to exploit this opening.

It followed that the unilateral approach of the 2017 referendum should only be contemplated again if negotiations failed and the political context changed.

As political prisoner Carme Forcadell, former ANC president and later ERC speaker of the Catalan parliament, said in an August 23 radio interview: “The situation is the same as in October 2017. If we do the same, we’ll end up the same.”

Together for Catalonia (Junts), the ERC’s partner in the Catalan administration, accepted taking part in the dialogue table as part of its government agreement. However, because Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez has repeatedly ruled out both amnesty and a referendum, Junts has been more sceptical about gains to be made from negotiation.

In the words of Junts president Jordi Sànchez in an August 26 radio interview: “There’s a great risk that the PSOE will try to exploit the dialogue table to divide the independence movement, change the focus, and use it only as a photo opportunity. We have to be very cautious.”

The third party of independentism, the radical People’s Unity List (CUP), has dismissed the dialogue table as a waste of time. It called a demonstration to coincide with the September 15 meeting of the table, demanding “no deals, no desertions”.

Differences on show

These differences, reflecting conflicting sentiments in a movement frustrated by its retreat after the Catalan parliament’s October 27, 2017, Declaration of Independence, were more visible than ever at this Diada.

On September 11 itself and at the previous evening’s ceremony at Barcelona’s Mulberry Tree Graveyard (which honours those who died in defence of the city in 1714), ERC leaders like party president and former political prisoner Oriol Junqueras were booed by some opposed to the “fucking dialogue table”.

Junqueras replied: “If the jails didn't shut us up, insults and threats certainly won't.”

The traditional September 11 evening demonstration of the independentist left also saw photos of ERC premier Pere Aragonès being burned, along with the usual Spanish and European Union flags.

The ERC position was implicitly challenged by Elisenda Paluzie in her speech. Recalling the demand of Carme Forcadell on then-premier Artur Mas at the 2014 Diada (“Premier, put out the ballot boxes!”), Paluzie called on Pere Aragonès (who was present in the crowd): “Premier, bring us independence!”

This drew enthusiastic applause, especially from those wearing the ANC’s “Let’s Struggle and Let’s Win Independence” T-shirts, but not from everyone.

The speaker who struck the loudest chord was Cuixart. His message was for the movement to work to overcome its strategic divisions.

Cuixart said: “We have to keep pressuring the parties so that they, once and for all, forge a shared strategy. If they provide us with a shared strategy, we’ll be there because we’ve always been there. The people have never failed. Let them reach agreement, let them discuss, but they have to reach an agreement.”

At Òmnium Cultural’s own Diada event, Cuixart stated: “The best proposal for self-determination is that which we create among all of us. Only in this way will we prevail.”

A difference with deep roots

Cuixart’s repeated call for the parties to strive to overcome their differences is certainly popular with rank-and-file independentists, longing for an end to fights they sometimes don’t understand or from which they just tune out.

However, the differences in the movement, and especially between Junts and the ERC, have deep roots in contrasting assessments of the October 1 referendum.

For Junts, it was a genuine plebiscite that truly registered Catalan public opinion. For the ERC, it was flawed by the boycott of most unionist voters and the failure to win international recognition, irrespective of the heroic popular mobilisation that saw the referendum prevail against Spanish police violence.

Different strategic priorities result from these readings: for Junts the goal is to “do it again, but better”, while for the ERC the goal is to broaden support for independence while building up the pressure on the PSOE-UP government to the point that it is forced to countenance a Scottish-style plebiscite.

In the most active part of the movement — those who would probably have formed the majority on September 11 — the main motivation is to “complete the mandate of October 1”, making many allergic to ERC arguments about the need to broaden social support for independence before again confronting Madrid.

This reaction, which in its most extreme form sees ERC members dubbed as “traitors”, probably contributed to Oriol Junqueras’ words at the ERC’s own Diada event: “Our proposal is the best and we’re not in the least afraid to test it out” and “be proud of who you are, who we are, the most persecuted party in the country’s history.”

The dialogue table meets … without Junts

The euphoria of September 11 lasted only three days. On September 14, Junts announced that its part of the Catalan delegation to the dialogue table would include only one cabinet member, deputy premier Jordi Puigneró. The other three members would be a Junts MP in the Spanish Congress and former political prisoners Jordi Turull and Jordi Sànchez.

Premier Aragonès ruled immediately that he would not accept the three in a delegation for what everyone understood was a government-to-government meeting. Junts refused to change their delegation, so when the dialogue table met on September 15 the Catalan side was represented by three ERC ministers alone.

Prime Minister Sánchez said he was pleased with the result.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]