The Catalan coalition government of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (Junts) split on October 7 when Junts members voted 55.7% to 42.4% to abandon partners whom they believe had betrayed the coalition’s founding agreement.
Participation was a record 79.2%, a sign of how controversial the issue of staying in government with the ERC had become.
Junts’ conflict with the ERC and premier Pere Aragonès had three elements: refusal to implement the “National Agreement for Self-Determination and Amnesty” projected in the pact for government; rejection of a coordinated approach by the Catalan parties in the Spanish Congress; and disagreement over the make-up of the Catalan delegation to the “dialogue table” between the Spanish and Catalan governments.
That smouldering fire became red hot on September 28, when Aragonès sacked his Junts vice-premier Jordi Puigneró. The grounds were that Puigneró had not informed him that Junts parliamentary leader Albert Batet would air a possible no-confidence motion in the government if the ERC did not implement the coalition’s founding pact.
The October 27 vote confirmed that two different souls cohabit in Junts: There’s the “institutional” Junts, party of government, partial continuation of the once ruling but now defunct Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC); and there’s the “activist” Junts, political voice of those roused to action by the heroic October 1, 2017, independence referendum, held under the blows of Spanish police batons.
The October 7 win for the “activists” means Junts loses more than 250 party-appointed positions in the Catalan administration, amounting to €23 million in salaries.
In a feverish campaign before the vote, all but one of Junts’ seven ministers, numerous mayors and other officeholders past and present, urged party members not to take “the leap into the void” — in the words of foreign affairs minister Victoria Alsina.
Alsina tweeted: “I asked myself this question: does abandoning government take us closer to or further from independence? Obviously, the ERC is not carrying out the agreement, but giving up on being in government puts Catalan institutions in the hands of the PSC [Socialists’ Party of Catalonia, a local franchise of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party, PSOE] and shuts the Catalan file for many years.”
Junts president and former parliamentary speaker Laura Borras, who is suspended while facing charges of corruption, led the campaign for the party to abandon its cabinet portfolios.
She was accompanied by MPs like Josep Rius, who tweeted: “Given the stubborn refusal of ERC to carry out the government agreement we signed, I make my vote public: Yes to Junts, Yes to independence, No to being in this government.”
Jordi Sànchez, former secretary-general and political prisoner, said: “My vote will be a clear yes, yes to continuing to work for independence and yes to continue forcing ERC to come to the agreements that it is obviously not implementing.”
Jordi Turull, Junts secretary-general and former political prisoner and minister, decided not to reveal where he stood, probably so as not to be caught on the wrong side of the fence after the result came in.
Exiled ex-premier and former Junts leader Carles Puigdemont, who was the main architect of October 1 and is now the president of the umbrella Council for the Catalan Republic, implicitly supported leaving by re-tweeting the arguments of MPs who were advocating exit.
After the result he wrote: “Thanks to the members who have given us a master class in democracy, because they have voted massively and shown why they signed up to the party. They want to do politics, the good sort — debate, comparison of viewpoints, listening, participation.”
Junts was conceived in July 2020 as an all-embracing pro-independence party, open to any democratic political ideology.
However, Junts’ creation killed off the CDC’s immediate successor, the European Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCat), as ex-CDC pollies who had joined it realised that they would have no future in any party opposed to Puigdemont. They shifted to Junts, skewing it to the right.
Also, since the ERC and the left-independentist People’s Unity List were never going to dissolve to join Junts, explicitly left forces within it have always been a small minority.
Yet so far this has hardly mattered. While Junts formally houses three ideological currents — “left”, “social democrat” and “liberal” — left versus right debates within it have become near irrelevant.
It has above all become a battleground between those — left, right and centre — who cannot conceive of achieving independence without being in government and those — left, right and centre — for whom the point of membership is to restart the stalled independence struggle, if necessary from outside the corridors of power.
Which war are we fighting?
Junts came in a close second to ERC in the February 2021 elections and only managed to avoid a repeat election when Jordi Sànchez and Pere Aragonès reached a last-minute agreement for government.
Key to their pact was the accord on self-determination and amnesty. However, subsequent meetings to finalise it ended in frustration, with the ERC refusing the role of overall guidance of the project being assigned to the Council for the Catalan Republic.
Since then, tensions between the two forces have continued, with shifts in their fight for hegemony over independentism always having repercussions inside Junts.
This conflict is also about power and jobs, but most of all it is over strategy for an independence movement that has proven unable to turn its October 2017 referendum victory into a concrete step towards independence.
The conflict is not just the work of Junts and ERC. It has been generated outside the realm of institutional politics, in the deep divisions within independentism and the broader camp of supporters of Catalonia’s right to self-determination.
For the ERC, the failure of October 1, despite the heroic mobilisation on the day and the overwhelming vote for secession from Spain, arose because only 47% of the electorate voted due to police repression and the unionist boycott. That gave the “international community” the excuse it needed not to recognise the result.
By that token, expanding social support for independence — a work of years — is a necessary precondition for forcing the Spanish government to concede a negotiated referendum acceptable to the “international community”.
Within the broader movement, the language and culture association Òmnium Cultural, the largest civil organisation in Catalonia, also follows this orientation.
However, for Junts — and for the Council for the Catalan Republic and the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) — that legitimate referendum already took place in 2017: what has been missing is not broader social support but political will, unity of pro-independence forces and popular organisation to force implementation of the decision.
The tension between these two positions — one trying to accumulate forces and the other to prepare a showdown with Madrid — has only heightened over the course of the Junts-ERC government.
The fact that the ERC’s main tactic, the “dialogue table” with the Spanish government, has yielded practically nothing has only made a lot of the independence movement very angry with the ERC.
Such has been the hostility from sectors like the ANC — which has attacked “the parties” and threatened to form its own pro-independence “civil list” for the next election — that Aragonès decided not to attend this year’s Diada (Catalan National Day) mobilisation on September 11.
Hostility reached extremes like public booing of former ANC president, imprisoned ex-speaker of parliament and ERC member Carme Forcadell at the fifth anniversary celebration of the 2017 referendum.
It unnerved Junts, whose leadership decided in late August that the only way to disarm the criticism was to force the ERC to implement the suspended agreement on strategic leadership for the independence cause.
Yet the ERC refused in last minute negotiations to relinquish its control, convincing sacked vice-premier Puigneró that it had already decided on divorce from Junts.
That infuriated the Junts membership, and why they mobilised in enough numbers to throw their own ministers out of government.
Their replacements include one ex-PSC leader, one ex-PDeCat leader, and one ex-Podemos leader, people whom Aragonès will hope can seduce their former comrades into voting for a government now based on only 33 seats out of 135.
The person smiling on the sidelines of this spectacle is PSC leader Salvador Illa.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent. He belongs to the left tendency in Junts and voted for the party to remain in the Catalan government.]