Catalonia: Could an independence referendum actually happen?

June 16, 2017
Former FC Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola addresses rally on June 11 in support of Catalan independence referendum

Nothing alarms Spain’s establishment more than the prospect of the unity of the Spanish state being threatened by the desire for self-determination of the peoples that live within its borders.

“Spain: One, Great and Free” — the catchcry of the Francisco Franco dictatorship — is still the guiding principle and core emotion of this elite, even under the regionalised “state of autonomies” created by the 1978 post-dictatorship constitution.

This reality explains why President Mariano Rajoy, head of the Spanish state’s People’s Party (PP) government, said at its inauguration on August 30 last year that “Spain’s most serious challenge” is the possibility of secession by Catalonia.

Independence campaign

So the June 9 announcement by Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont of the date and question of his government’s promised referendum on Catalonia’s future relation with Spain inevitably had the establishment media in Madrid in a frenzy.

The pro-independence premier said that the referendum would be held on October 1 and that Catalans would be asked to respond to the question: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”

Puigdemont’s declaration was the farthest point yet reached by the millions-strong, seven-year-long mass movement for Catalan independence. This movement, the largest in Europe, gave birth to a pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament at the September 2015 regional elections.

The declaration came after the Rajoy government had turned down — for the eighteenth time in six years — any discussion of a negotiated referendum on Catalonia’s future.

In a May 25 letter to Puigdemont containing this refusal, Rajoy wrote: “I have had occasion, both publicly and privately, to reaffirm to you the constitutional obligations that both my position and yours entail. The foremost of these, for me unavoidable, is defence of the constitutional order.

“It escapes no one that the political proposal I am being offered consists in reaching an agreement with the government you head as to the way to violate the essential core of the Spanish constitution.”

That was blatantly untrue. As has been pointed out by countless jurists — including those opposed to any change to the present Spanish institutional set-up — a Scottish-style negotiated referendum that would allow the Catalan people to decide their future is possible under the present constitution.

The barrier to reaching a solution is not constitutional, but political: the Rajoy government has zero political interest in accommodating the 80% of Catalans who want to vote on their future.

Quite the reverse: behind all its solemn posturing the PP — cynical exploiter of Catalanophobia in the rest of Spain — sees great advantage in putting down its rebellious Mediterranean province — if it can be sure of success.

Spain’s conservative party would be commander-in-chief in that holy war for Spanish unity and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), its traditional opposition, would undoubtedly enlist in the crusade.

As if to confirm this sacred constant of Spanish politics, PSOE spokesperson Jose Luis Abalos said on June 14: “The law is indivisible and does not admit partial compliance ... break-up will not prevail.” Abalos also expressed his party’s support for any legal measures the Rajoy government might take against the Catalan government.

Path to showdown

In the coming showdown, the fairy tale of Spanish constitutionalism versus secessionist Catalan lawlessness will be essential to justify the measures that the Rajoy government must take if the October 1 referendum is to be stopped.

Building on three years of steadily rising legal repression — including the barring from public office of former Catalan premier Artur Mas and the charging of the Catalan parliament speaker Carme Forcadell for allowing “illegal” parliamentary debate — the Rajoy government must implement a chain of moves like:

  • Having the Constitutional Court find the Catalan government guilty of ignoring a court order (section 118 of the constitution);
  • Giving it one last chance to accept Spanish legality;
  • In case of refusal, suspending the Catalan government under section 155 of the constitution, and;
  • Putting the Catalan police force under central government control and using them, backed if necessary by the paramilitary Spanish Civil Guard, to prevent the referendum.

Is that politically possible? It certainly was in October 1934, when the army arrested the Catalan cabinet for proclaiming a “Catalan state within a Federal Spanish Republic” in the midst of a general strike against the right-wing Spanish government of the day.

But today? The movement for Catalan independence is very broad and completely peaceful.

On the other hand, the intransigence of the Rajoy government is such that, in the words of Galician writer Suso de Toro: “It leaves the Catalans no other option but to close ranks in support of the referendum rather than betray their status and dignity as citizens.”

In a June 10 speech, Puigdemont said: “The moment has arrived for the citizens to take the leading role. They can prosecute, suspend, disqualify and threaten the politicians, but they won’t be able to even tickle a mobilised people … How will they be able to persuade anyone that 12 judges of the Constitutional Court should override 7.5 million people?”

Puigdemont made it clear that the only body from which he would accept instructions is the Catalan parliament.

For Quim Arrufat, national co-spokesperson of the left-nationalist People’s Unity List (CUP), the technical challenge of the referendum preparations, including its meeting internationally recognised standards of fairness, is being “overcome with considerable imagination, thoroughness and success”.

However, the CUP — the most left-wing of the independence movement’s base — still worries about the political preparedness of the Puigdemont government.

According to Arrufat: “The Spanish state has all the mechanisms it needs to stop [the referendum] ... Depending on the level of repression the Spanish state is prepared to exercise, there is an extreme point where the referendum maybe can’t be organised, even though that would be ruinous for the prestige of the Spanish state.”

More likely for Arrufat is medium-intensity warfare involving the suspension of ministers and senior government officials.

“We need to be prepared for that because it’s a road already travelled. It would not be acceptable if, at the beginning of September, the [Catalan] government were to say: ‘Oh well, two ministers barred from holding office, court injunctions, we can’t guarantee it. It can’t go ahead’,” he said

Which side are you on?

The Catalan government’s June 9 declaration has acted as a rallying call to everyone supportive of a Catalan right to decide. It has also posed the question point blank to all forces across the Spanish state: which side are you on?

Most have had no trouble answering. In the Basque Country (Euskadi), the ruling Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) attacked the intransigence of the PP while stressing that Euskadi was different from Catalonia.

By contrast, the left-nationalist EH Bildu welcomed Puigdemont’s announcement, committed to building solidarity with the Catalan referendum campaign and asked, pointedly, when the PNV would start fighting for a similar referendum in Euskadi.

The forces most troubled by the announcement were Podemos and the various multi-party confluences with which it is allied in Galicia, Euskadi and, most importantly, Catalonia itself.

The announced referendum has effectively split these forces, which all support the right of self-determination but have different stances on what to do in the face of the PP-PSOE rejection of this democratic principle.

At the time of writing the Anticapitalista tendency within Podemos has come out in support of the referendum and called on all left forces in the Spanish state to get behind it, not the least because the successful holding of a referendum in Catalonia would be the beginning of the end of the corrupt and authoritarian Spanish state.

This position has also received the support of En Marea, the confluence of Galician parties that includes Podemos Galicia.

In Catalonia, the new force Catalonia Together, associated with Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, is still to make up its mind whether the Catalan government’s unilateral referendum offers sufficient guarantees or whether it would not be a rerun of the November 2014 mass consultation of Catalan opinion. Within Catalonia Together opinions differ as to what guarantees would be sufficient.

As for Podem (Podemos in Catalonia), it asked its branches to decide between three indicative positions: no to October 1, yes to October 1 or yes to October 1 but only as a mobilisation in support of a real referendum. After consultation, Podem’s branches voted 35% in favour of the third option. Podem’s final decision will be made when full details of the referendum organisation become available.

In a sign of the concern of the Catalan government to bring Catalonia Together on board, Puigdemont last week offered it a briefing on the referendum’s functioning, especially the “law of jurisdictional transition” under which it will be held. This is presently being kept secret so as to hold off the legal counterattack from Madrid for as long as possible.

In this context of ever sharper conflict, it will hopefully become clear to all supporters of the Catalan right to self-determination that the best guarantee of a viable referendum will not come from international agencies but from a high level of popular participation.

It would surely be the duty of any force calling itself left to help make that participation as great as possible.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent. A longer version of this article will appear on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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