Catalonia: Half-won independence battle points to still-harsher war

October 11, 2015
The election featured the highest ever participation rate for a Catalan regional contest - 77.44%.

Who won the September 27 elections for the Catalan parliament, called as a substitute for the Scottish-style independence referendum that the Spanish People's Party (PP) government refuses to allow? It depends who you ask.

On the night, most commentators on Madrid-based TV and radio called the result a defeat for the pro-independence camp: its two tickets — the mainstream nationalist Together for Yes and the anti-capitalist People's Unity Candidacies (CUP) - won only 47.74% of the vote against 52.26% for “the rest”.

Yet in Barcelona, the atmosphere at the election night rallies of the pro-independence tickets was jubilant. Together, they had won 72 seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament - a 53.33% majority that will allow the incoming government to start building the institutions of a sovereign Catalan republic.

As a plebiscite on Catalan independence, the vote should be read like this: 47.74% in favour (Together for Yes plus CUP); 39.12% against (PP, Party of Socialists of Catalonia and Citizens); 11.45% undecided (the left coalition Catalonia Yes We Can and the Democratic Union of Catalonia); and 1.12% for “others”.

This result allowed outgoing premier Artur Mas to roar “We have won!” in Catalan, Spanish, English and French - just to make sure the many international media present got the point.

The next day, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy predictably read the result as a defeat for those who had “broken the law”. This was in reference to last year's November 9 “popular consultation” carried out by the Catalan government in defiance of Spanish court rulings. He declared it a win for the silent majority.

The prospect is now for even more vicious warfare between Catalonia and the Spanish state. Unambiguously pro-independence forces have taken the Catalan government for the first time, but without the majority of the popular vote that would legitimise an immediate march towards independence.

On September 29, the Catalan Supreme Court charged Mas and two other ministers from the outgoing government with perverting the course of justice, failing to obey lawful instructions and misuse of government resources over November 9.

Main trends

The election featured the highest ever participation rate for a Catalan regional contest - 77.44% (4.11 million). There was also an unprecedented volatility in the vote within the anti-independence (unionist) camp.

Just under 450,000 new voters took part compared to the last Catalan election in 2012. When the fall in the vote for minor parties, the PP and the UPD is added, about 790,000 voters shifted their support to a new party.

The big winners were: 460,000 for the “new right” Citizens, 210,000 for the CUP and 117,000 for Together for Yes. The unionist camp gained more, but did not enjoy the huge swing it hoped for.

The main features of the result were:

• The pro-independence vote was 60,000 higher than on November 9. The rise would have been even greater if the voting age had been 16 and not 18, if foreign residents of Catalonia had been eligible to vote and if the 195,000 Catalans living abroad had been able to vote via electronic voting. The 15,000 who did manage to return a ballot paper voted 57.32% for Together for Yes and 10.39% for the CUP.

Within the pro-independence camp, the weight of the left and progressive forces rose and that of Mas's right-nationalist Democratic Covergence of Catalonia (CDC) fell, although CDC is still the primary force.

Of the 72 pro-independence deputies, 62 come from Together for Yes (bringing together the CDC and the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia, ERC) and 10 from the CUP. Compared to 2012, the weight of left nationalism rose from around 8% to 17% of the total pro-independence vote.

In addition, the creation of Together for Yes as a broad pro-independence force has taken place via a partial dilution of the weight of Catalonia's traditional nationalist parties.

• Support for anti-independence forces rose from 34.98% to 39.17%, the sum of the vote for the PP, Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) and Citizens. Within this camp the weight of the right-wing parties grew at the expense of the PSC. Citizens jumped over the PP to become unionism's lead party.

• The combined vote for the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) and Catalonia Yes We Can - parties supporting a Catalan right to decide but not necessarily independence - fell to 11.45%.

Catalonia, Yes We Can, which was set up with the hope of emulating the success of Barcelona Together in the May 24 municipal elections, ended up winning two seats less than Initiative for Catalonia-Greens-United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) in 2012 (11 as against 13). The UDC, previously a governing partner of CDC, crashed out of the parliament altogether.

• The overall vote to the left of the PSC (Catalonia Yes We Can plus CUP) rose from 13.38% to 17.14%, (486,000 to 700,000). These forces had 16 seats: now they have 21.


The main outcome of the election is increased polarisation for and against Catalan independence. This was shown in the advance of Citizens and the CUP on opposite sides of the independence divide: both received more than two-and-half times as many votes as in 2012.

Citizens's surge is the big negative of the poll. It represented 460,000 extra voters, largely working class, coming out to vote for the first time or switching away from their traditional parties to seek refuge in the Spanish-centralist Citizens in the face of a Catalan independence movement felt as alien or a threat.

Estimates published in the October 3 Ara showed only 14.6% of Citizens' vote came from those who voted for it in 2012. Its biggest pools of votes were ex-PP voters (29.3%), ex-PSC voters (21.1%) and non-voters (20.3%).

Citizens went from being between the fourth and sixth party in most constituencies to lead party in 29 mainly suburban working-class “red belt” municipalities.

Its campaign was made-to-measure. It combined a Podemos-like “new politics” sheen with gut opposition to Catalan independence and right to self-determination.

Its leader Ines Arrimadas spouted the three-point Citizens' message with robotic perfection: We are Catalans, Spaniards and Europeans; we are neither right nor left; unlike everyone else, we are not corrupt.

As for the CUP, the average of pre-election polls gave it 6.72% of the vote and eight seats. But the anti-capitalist left-nationalist force's final vote was higher than nearly every forecast - 8.2% and 10 seats.

Alone of the two pro-independence tickets, the CUP picked up votes from the non-independence camp - a significant 8.9% from 2012 ICV-EUiA voters. This partially reflected the pro-independence minority component of ICV-EUiA's support base and a partial alienation from the way the Catalonia Yes We Can campaign was run.

Rout for PP, retreat for PSOE

The biggest loser was the PP, which the voters demoted from third to fifth party in the Catalan parliament. Always a minority party in Catalonia, it had its worst result since 1992 (11 seats, 8.5%), beating the CUP by only a whisker (12,000 votes).

In Girona and Lleida provinces, Catalonia's most pro-independence regions, Spain's governing party came in behind the anti-capitalists.

The desertion of the PP by conservative voters is worrying news for the Rajoy government as it faces the December 20 Spanish elections. Immediately after September 27, Jose Maria Aznar, former prime minister and self-appointed PP conscience, sounded the alarm:
“For the PP it's the worst possible scenario. Your rival on the left [the PSOE] is strengthened, your political space is reduced...

“We constitutionalists must admit that the regional elections in Catalonia were won by the secessionists, even if they failed in their plebiscitary intentions. The secessionist process will continue and be more radicalised because the radicals have greater strength...”

Aznar's description of the PSOE as “strengthened” by the result of the election is an exaggeration. The PSOE's Catalan branch emerged weakened from September 27, but by considerably less than the PP and by not so much as its leaders feared.

To have lost only four seats and not the nine lost in 2010 and 2012 counted as victory for the battered Catalan social democracy.

On the basis of this result, PSOE leader Pedro Sanchez, who intervened heavily in the campaign, is now telling Spain that “the resistance has finished, the offensive is beginning”.

Catalonia Yes We Can setback

Whether its Catalan election result will mark a turning point in the fortunes of the PSC will depend a lot on the lessons that the forces that supported Catalonia Yes We Can draw from its failure to repeat the successes of the people's unity council tickets in May.

Its campaign fell far short of hopes. A June 25 GESOP poll showed that a “Catalonia Together” ticket that repeated the left and progressive alliance behind Barcelona Together would challenge a “ticket of the premier” for first place.

Yet it ended up falling behind Citizens and the PSC to only just beat the PP (with 11 seats apiece and only 18,000 more votes).

Why such a poor result after such great promise? The forces supporting Catalonia Yes We Can (ICV, Podemos, EuiA and the all-Spanish green party Equo) have all stressed that in this heated fight between Spanish nationalism and Catalan independentism, the struggle against austerity faded well into the background.

In an October 3 open letter to Podemos members, leaders Pablo Iglesias and Inigo Errejon wrote: “We lived through an election campaign of irresponsibility in Catalonia, of a head-on collision between Mas's independentism and the refusal of all change by the PP, PSOE and Citizens …

“In a campaign without nuances, we defended a message that wasn't simple, a responsible message and the only one, we believe, with any viability in the long term: Spain is a plurinational country, where peoples with different identities live together …

“We understand that in the middle of this war of flag-waving and irresponsible overacting by the Barcelona and Madrid elites, this message had difficulty in being heard above the noise. They preferred the noise to cover over their cuts, their corruption and their shared incompetence.”

Maybe, however, there was another source for the failure of Catalonia Yes We Can. Was its campaign message right — not just for winning votes on September 27, but also to help advance support for the right of self-determination of the nations that make up the Spanish state (primarily the Catalans, Basques, and Galicians)?

While this right does not enjoy the support of the majority of Spain's working people, bashing the “nationalities” will remain a powerful weapon in the hands of its ruling elites.

Catalonia Yes We Can aimed to appeal to all those (about 30%) who support a Catalan right to decide but are not necessarily pro-independence. These are overwhelmingly working-class families originating from other regions in the Spanish state, as well as from Latin America and the Maghreb.

It was here that a gap opened up between Catalonia Yes We Can's program and its actual campaign message.

Its program supported a Catalan constituent process and the creation of a Catalan republic. Whatever this republic's final relation to the Spanish state — to be decided by proper referendum — it would embody social, democratic and environmental advances that would be attractive to the other peoples of Spain.

However, the message as delivered, especially by Iglesias and Errejon, focussed not on this vision but on calling down plagues on both Rajoy and Mas as equally rotten members of the “caste”.

There was a serious problem with this message — it had nothing much to say about the huge movement for Catalan national rights (the biggest, most sustained movement in Europe). It implied that, at bottom, it just helps Mas distract attention from his pro-austerity policies.

It tended to put an equal sign between Spanish nationalism (Rajoy) and Catalan nationalism (Mas). This glosses over the reality that it is the Spanish establishment that has thrown against the Catalan national struggle every weapon and dirty trick available to it, short of military intervention.

In its criticism of Mas, Catalonia Yes We Can sounded as if it had little sympathy for the Catalan national cause itself. This hit a low point when Iglesias told a rally in the industrial town of Rubi: “Those people from the barrio who don't vote have got to show their teeth! Those people from the barrio who are not ashamed of having Andalucian grandparents or Extremaduran parents have got to show their teeth! …

“Those popular classes are the ones that can send Mr Mas and Mr Rajoy to the coffee shop!”

Iglesias's words provoked a furore on the Catalan social networks. Outgoing CUP MP David Fernández tweeted: “Just what was needed. What's this mania for trying to divide Catalans by their origin? I come from Zamora [in Castile and Leon]. I am an independentist.”

It is not possible to say whether a more supportive approach to the Catalan national movement combined with a presentation of “our kind of Catalan republic” would have won Catalonia Yes We Can many more votes.

However, it would have allowed a continuing dialogue with those Catalans who are still not convinced of the benefits of a sovereign Catalan republic.

In an October 4 interview in Ara, Manuel Puerto, leader of the Sumate, the pro-independence association for Castilian-speakers, said that the Castilian-speaking parts of Catalan society divide into two broad groups: “People who, despite having spent years living here, or even having been born here, have a gut rejection of anything that sounds remotely Catalan, and those who have a more progressive political outlook, the majority PSC voters or ex-voters.”

For Puerto, “those still open to discussion we are convincing little by little, because the attacks of the Spanish state on Catalonia affect everybody, and it is easy to explain that to reasonable people.”

In one of his visits to Barcelona for the election campaign, Iglesias told a radio interviewer: “Catalonia is as difficult to understand as Italy.”

Hopefully, after reflection on its first failed campaign since foundation, Podemos will be better able to orient to the Catalan national movement, indispensable if the caste is ever to be removed from power in Madrid.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A
much longer version of this article can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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