Catalonia heads towards showdown with the Spanish State

Issue 
Sea of flags at massive Catalan national day rally in Barcelona on September 11.

This year’s September 11 Catalan national day (Diada) demonstration, in support of the Catalan parliament’s planned November 9 popular consultation on Catalan statehood, was the biggest since the present cycle of mobilisations for Catalonia’s right to self-determination began four years ago.

The first was the July 2010 million-strong protest against the Spanish Constitutional Court’s overruling of key parts of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy. The second wave was the 2012 million-plus Diada protest in Barcelona and the third was last year’s “Catalan Way” ― a human chain of well over one million that stretched 400 kilometres across Catalonia from France in the north to Valencia in the south.

According to the local police, 1.8 million people (25% of the population of Catalonia) took part in this year’s Diada demonstration, forming an immense human V across the capital Barcelona. Its two arms each spread back 5.5 kilometres from the starting point in the Place of Catalan Glories, intersection point of the city’s three main avenues.

The V (for “victory”, “vote” and voluntat ― “will” in Catalan) was formed in the national colours of red and yellow. The striking impact of this 11-kilometre-long V-shaped national flag was achieved by demonstrators wearing either a yellow or red t-shirt and agreeing to stand in an assigned space. The resulting red-and-yellow-striped V straddled the entire central city area.

'Now is the Hour'

The whole effort was based on more than half a million people volunteering through a special “Now is the Hour” organising website, set up by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and the Omnium Cultural association.

Seven thousand volunteers oversaw the 73 separate stretches into which the V was sub-divided and in which participants from all Catalan localities (including south-eastern France around Perpignan, the Balearic Islands and Valencia) gathered by region.

The highly choreographed event went off without a hitch in a good-humoured and exuberantly festive atmosphere that featured the classic offerings of Catalan popular culture.

Along the V, 50 teams of “castlers” erected their six-, seven- and eight-story human castles, numerous “giants” (three- and four-metre-high puppets operated by a person hidden in their clothing) twirled, town bands played their traditional reed instruments and everyone broke into chants and song.

Along with “inde-independencia” the most popular chant was “we want to vote”, in reference to November 9. Everyone present knew that a showdown is approaching―the national Spanish People’s Party government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy is totally opposed to the consultation and will appeal it to the Constitutional Court.

To dramatise Catalonia’s right to decide and link it to the country’s tragic past, at 1714 hours exactly a schoolgirl, who on November 9 will reach the voting age of 16, stepped forward from the point of the V to place a voting paper in a ballot box.

The timing of this gesture marked the 300th anniversary of the final fall of a besieged Barcelona to Bourbon royalist troops in the War of the Spanish Succession (on September 11, 1714).

Two brief speeches by ANC and Omnium Cultural spokespeople, Carme Forcadell and Muriel Casals followed. Forcadell called on Catalan premier Artur Mas to listen to the will of the people and put the ballot boxes out on November 9, regardless of reactions from Madrid or any decision of the Constitutional Court.

The day ended with 1.8 million people singing The Reapers, the powerful Catalan national anthem dating from the 1640 popular revolt against tax increases imposed to fund the wars of the Spanish crown.

Causes of an outpouring

No one, not even the most rancidly anti-Catalan Spanish media, is denying that this Diada was clearly bigger than its two huge predecessors. What contributed to making it bigger?

The fact that 2014 marks the 300th anniversary of the Spanish crown’s suppression of Catalonia’s traditional rights―including the use of the Catalan language for state and public functions―would have had some impact. This year has seen endless reference to and recreation of the events of 1714, including the opening beneath the Born market building of excavations of the Barcelona of that epoch, effectively turning the site into a national shrine.

The traffic of novels, historical studies, television mini-series, concerts, exhibitions, re-enactments, newspaper supplements and university seminars with a 1714 theme has been dense.

This year’s official Diada ceremonies, broadcast live on public TV, put special emphasis on Barcelona’s final hours of resistance, with the main event being celebrated for the first time at the nationalist sacred site, the Graveyard of the Mulberry Trees, where hundreds of nameless defenders of the city are said to be buried.

Yet, by itself, this non-stop remembrance of 1714 wouldn’t have brought hundreds of thousands more onto the streets. The main recruiter of new demonstrators has been the stony intransigence of the Rajoy government, with its endlessly repeated lie that allowing a consultation of Catalan opinion would mean violating the Spanish constitution.

The resulting revulsion against “Madrid” showed in many ways. Originally it was thought that bussing demonstrators from the regions would require 1500 coaches, but on the day more than 2000 had to be hired.

The metro and rail lines serving the working-class inner and outer belts of Barcelona, where families from other parts of Spain and from Latin America predominate, were packed.

In the popular neighbourhoods, the estalada, the pro-independence version of the Catalan flag (with its white star on a blue triangle ― taken from Cuba’s flag) has been hanging from more balconies than ever, a visual symbol of working-class desertion of the social democratic and anti-consultation Party of Catalan Socialists, Catalan affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

As in Scotland, working-class support for national rights is driven by the experience of central government austerity. Put bluntly: “If those bastards are opposed to the Catalan right to decide, I’m with the Catalan right to decide.”

Another fact making for a greater turnout this September 11 is the crisis of the Spanish two-party system and the emergence of Podemos, which has now joined the United Left in supporting a Catalan right to decide. This is a reflection of the awareness, growing among the indignado generation, that any movement that weakens the “dynastic” parties responsible for austerity (PP and PSOE) helps the all-Spanish struggle for real democracy and social justice.

This year Catalonia’s left forces―parties, trade unions, social movements and neighbourhood associations―opponents of the Mas government’s “Catalan” austerity policies, took part in the V instead of conducting their own event as in past Diadas.

This September 11 was also marked by growing solidarity with Catalonia from within and beyond the boundaries of the Spanish state. As at the last two Diadas, Basque and Galician national flags joined esteladas and senyeras floating above the crowd, but this time the flags of the other European nations without a state also featured ― led by a healthy presence of saltires (the Scottish national flag).

In contrast to this massive outpouring, the pro-unionist forces had their smallest September 11 demonstration in years ― at most only 7000 attended their rally in Tarragona.

Coming challenge

As people approached the V, they were met by groups of pro-independence activists offering a placard for display. It called for “disobedience” in the case of a Constitutional Court ruling against November 9.

Would disobedience be the best response in the case of the almost inevitable suspension of the consultation by the Constitutional Court (composed of a majority of PP and PSOE-picked judges)?

Critical choices now face the four pro-consultation parties ― the ruling right-nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU), the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia(ERC), which has an agreement with CiU that allows Mas to govern in minority, the left alliance Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA) and the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP).

The CUP supports disobedience, ERC leader Oriel Jonqueras has said that the government should consider it, while ICV-EUiA spokepeople have stressed the critical importance of maintaining the unity of pro-consultation forces and that a badly executed “fake consultation” could boomerang against the movement.

To date, the Mas government has said it will only conduct the consultation if it is legal, but after September 11, the tune changed slightly ― it is seeking sufficient “democratic guarantees” to carry it out.

This seems to be an reference to the possibility of an impeccably representative consultation being carried out via the movements supporting the right to decide, most importantly the ANC and Association of Municipalities for Independence, which groups 697 of Catalonia’s 947 local councils. If that course is rejected, the only other option would be early Catalan elections.

Yet the decision remains to be taken, and the key variable will be the mood of the mass of people. To gauge that thoroughly, the ANC and Omnium Cultural have decided to carry out a door-knock of every home in Catalonia, calling on 100,000 people to volunteer to carry out the massive task.

If sufficient support can be organised for “disobedience” ― in reality obedience to the will of the Catalan majority ― November 9 might still yet go ahead.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon be available on the website of Links ― International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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