The normally torpid Spanish legal system had an attack of extreme speed on September 29.
Its highly abnormal Usain Bolt-like behaviour was caused by the Catalan regional government formally decreeing its long-awaited November 9 non-binding consultation of Catalan public opinion on the region's political status.
Just three days after the Catalan parliament adopted the consultation law and two days after the adoption of the decree ordering “November 9”, the Spanish Constitutional Court ordered their provisional suspension. The People’s Party (PP) government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy had immediately petitioned the court to declare both law and decree unconstitutional.
Nobody is expecting that this body, composed of appointees of the PP and the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and notorious for overturning key parts of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy, will do anything other than eventually overturn the decree.
The court’s ruling immediately put the minority Catalan Convergence and Union (CiU) government of premier Artur Mas on the spot: would it suspend November 9 or defy the court?
Its immediate response was to announce that it was “suspending” its campaign for the consultation. However, it continued with practical preparations, announcing the consultation would still go ahead if there were “sufficient democratic guarantees”.
On October 1, the Catalan parliament nominated an independent seven-person commission to oversee the consultation, provoking a further appeal to the Constitutional Court from the Rajoy administration.
There are four Catalan forces in favour of the consultation ― CiU, the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and its partner the United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) and the Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP).
On October 3, they agreed to keep working together to overcome the Madrid-imposed barriers to November 9.
As a result, preparations for the consultation resumed, with foreign residents eligible to vote and Catalans living abroad again able to register for the consultation.
These moves have been taking place against a background of ongoing popular mobilisation. On the day after the Constitutional Court decision, the squares of Catalonia’s towns were filled to the brim with protesters, all under umbrellas due to pouring rain.
On October 4, 800 mayors from Catalonia’s 947 local councils gathered in the Catalan government building in central Barcelona to express their support for November 9.
In the end, the motion of support for the consultation submitted to local council vote was passed by 920 (97.1%). This included councils run by the PP (like Badalona, Catalonia’s third largest city) and the PSOE's Catalan affiliate ― the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC).
On October 7 and 8, a 48-hour student strike in support of November 9 took place across the country, with marches in major cities.
The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the main organising force behind the last three years’ of huge demonstrations for the right to decide, is planning further mass mobilisations before November 9. It has already begun a doorknock of every household in Catalonia.
Such mobilisations will be needed, most of all to ensure that the CiU government ― unused to leading a mass popular revolt ― sticks to its guns in the face of intensifying fire from the Spanish establishment.
The PP attack
The PP is organising its counter-offensive on all fronts. On October 1, Catalonia awoke to learn that it had been blessed with 400-450 extra agents from the National Police riot squad ― unsolicited by the Catalan government.
A leading Rajoy government hawk, interior minister Jorge Fernandez Diaz, described this operation as “a normal rotation”.
However, in an October 6 interview with the conservative daily El Mundo, Fernandez Diaz claimed that Mas and ERC leader Oriel Jonqueras were bent on repeating “the events of this day 80 years ago”.
On October 6, 1934, then ERC premier Lluis Companys declared “the Catalan State within the Spanish Republic” in response to the incorporation of extreme right-wing ministers in the Spanish national government.
The declaration led to clashes between the national and Catalan police in Barcelona, and the jailing of Companys and his ministers.
The situation today, however, is radically different from 1934 ― not least because noone in Catalonia is thinking of anything like a unilateral declaration of independence without prior political preparation.
On November 9, Fernandez Diaz’s riot police will be confronted with a normal voting day. Is he really thinking of using them to stop voting at the 2700 voting stations planned for November 9? Or is he thinking of arresting the entire Catalan government if November 9 takes place?
Such a move might be popular with the Spanish extreme right, but it would finish the Rajoy government.
How would the army react to a call to invade Catalonia? According to Lieutenant Luis Gonzalo Segura, a whistleblower against corruption in Spain’s armed forces, “the greater part of the armed forces would understand” that an order to invade Catalonia would be illegal.
Despite its visceral Spanish centralism, the Rajoy government probably grasps that any use of physical force against the peaceful Catalan movement would come at a huge political cost, in Spain and across Europe. Editorials last week from the Financial Times and Bloomberg calling for meaningful negotiation from Madrid would have reinforced that point.
This is why, while trying to scare people with paddy wagons and references to past tragedies, the PP is concentrating most of its energy on splitting the alliance of pro-consultation parties. It is seeking to spook the more faint-hearted with the spectre of November 9 being a flop.
Elite takes fright
It is being helped in this by the forces within the Catalan ruling elites, who have become as frightened of the dynamic of the Catalan movement as Scottish big business was with the Scottish pro-independence movement.
For example, on October 7, the Catalan daily El Periodico finally declared its hand by calling for an end to the “farce” of the CiU government preparing a consultation that it “knew would not take place”.
To make sure the consultation is suspended or “illegitimate” if it goes ahead, the Rajoy government has been threatening national public servants in Catalonia with disciplinary action if they oversee the vote. The response from the pro-consultation forces has been to organise to run the consultation with Catalan government public servants and municipal employees.
As for the PSOE, it has given full backing to the Rajoy government’s case in the Constitutional Court. The PSC, after the experience of many of its local councillors voting in favour of November 9, has stated that any member who helps an “illegal” consultation will be expelled.
The cherry on the cake of all this attention to Catalonia was the recent launch of a Catalan language web edition of the pro-PSOE daily, El Pais. The launch was attended by a “glittering array” of PP and PSOE notables, including Pedro Sanchez, the PSOE leader, and Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, the deputy prime minister.
Now Catalan readers of El Pais will be able to read the paper’s slanders and pseudo-analyses of the Catalan national movement in their own tongue.
All this pressure produced a small win for the anti-consultation on October 4, when Quim Brugue, the ICV nomination for the consultation control commission, announced that he could not take part in a process that had been suspended by the Constitutional Court. However, despite this setback, the control commission has been meeting to guarantee the proper functioning of November 9.
Unity ‘a porcelain vase’
Has Mas and the CiU government really got the stomach for the looming confrontation with Madrid? Mas’s words are certainly brave, and his assertions of loyalty to the cause of the Catalan movement frequent.
However, occasional allusions to the possibility of an early “plebiscitary” election if November 9 does not go ahead makes CiU’s partners in the pro-consultation camp nervous.
To strengthen the willpower within CiU, the ERC has offered to join the government. In recent days, the CUP called on the ERC to do everything possible to join the government ― even if it would not be seen dead in the government itself.
These sorts of daily media statements show how fragile the “porcelain vase of unity” (Mas’s phrase) can at times be among the pro-consultation forces, stretching, as they do, from centre-right to far left.
Yet every time that Mas says the consultation is going ahead and every time he lashes the anti-democratic PP and PSC in parliament, he helps alleviate the doubts and concerns that PP and PSOE propaganda tries to instil in the minds of the millions.
Clearly, the experience of the past three years shows that the best way to keep Mas firm and CiU’s “nervous nellies” in line and concentrated on the job is to keep up the struggle of Europe’s biggest mass movement.
In the words of a statement by EUiA coordinator Joan Josep Nuet, made on the day the Constitutional Court decision was announced: “This court has no democratic legitimacy, and therefore we can’t accept in any way what it has decided.
“We will not comply. We have to stay in the streets, mobilisation cannot stop, the government has to remain firm in its commitment to the calling and rolling out of November 9. In no way should people relax the struggle.”
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona.]