Catalonia: Threat of mass disaffection scares independence parties into accord

May 20, 2021
ERC national coordinator Pere Aragonès (left) and Junts national secretary Jordi Sànchez (right). Photo:

With negotiations over forming a Catalan government bogged down and a repeat election looming, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (Junts) reached an unexpected agreement on May 17.

Hammered out in two days of secret meetings between ERC national coordinator Pere Aragonès and Junts national secretary Jordi Sànchez, the accord for coalition government was ratified on May 19 by the ERC National Council and a plebiscite of Junts members, with 83% in favour.

Aragonès, lead candidate for the ERC at the February 14 Catalan elections, will now become premier, with a 14-member cabinet made up of seven members from each party.

Catalonia’s third pro-independence force, the radical People’s Unity List (CUP), will vote to invest the government but not participate in it.

The CUP had earlier reached an agreement with the ERC that allows it to make a mid-term review of the progress of an ERC-led administration and decide whether to maintain support or even enter it. Aragonès confirmed that this accord carries over into its agreement with Junts.

Disaster looms...

The February 14 Catalan election produced two firsts: a pro-independence seat majority won with a vote majority (of 52%) and the centre-left ERC returned as the lead party of independentism. The composition of the 74-seat pro-independence majority in the 135-seat parliament is ERC 33, Junts 32 and CUP 9.

The ERC-Junts agreement came just nine days after Aragonès announced that his party had abandoned its attempt to form a coalition with Junts. He would instead seek to be premier of an ERC-only administration, hopefully to be invested with the vote of Junts, the CUP and even Catalonia Together, the party of Barcelona mayor Ada Colau.

The ERC was encouraged in this move by an earlier commitment from Sànchez: Junts would “lend” ERC the votes needed to make Aragonès premier, to avoid a repeat election in the event of failed negotiations.

However, when the ERC acted on this offer, it put all the main actors in Catalan politics into a spin.

Facing the prospect of 250-plus of its senior public service appointees having to hand over their office keys to ERC members, Junts “clarified” that Sánchez’s offer was not unconditional.

Within the party, tension rose between those appalled by the prospective loss of power and those prepared to risk a repeat election to regain the hegemony lost to the ERC.

Calau’s Catalonia Together demanded that the ERC go one step further, end its dependence on the “right-wing” Junts and form a “left government”. Its daydream was that this would include or be supported from without by the 33 votes of the unionist Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

The PSC’s response was to demand that the ERC abandon all hope of premiership and support its lead candidate, former Spanish health minister Salvador Illa: the PSC with Catalonia Together as its junior partner would reproduce the Spanish government formula (a Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) administration with Unidas Podemos (UP) holding minor portfolios).

...and misses

During this deadlock, the CUP got the ERC and Junts to sign a four-point “Commitment to a National Accord for Self-Determination”: Its one new feature was commitment to “achieving a space for debating independentist strategy outside the framework of governability”.

Catalonia’s mass independentist civic organisations, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural, next entered the fray.

Òmnium Cultural president and political prisoner Jordi Cuixart, allowed out on day leave on May 12, received a standing ovation when he told a Barcelona meeting: “We ask the political class, with all our heart, to abandon the policy of grinding down opponents, of super-tacticism, because all political spaces, absolutely all, are indispensable.

“The goal of the adversary is to divide us and we must continue to struggle without letting them divide us.

“The decisions that the parties take in the next few days could have an irreversible impact on Catalan civil society. If the pointless conflict between parties prevails, don’t count on Òmnium Cultural for support.”

ANC president Elisenda Paluzie told a May 16 rally in central Barcelona: “If you take us to elections or repeat a government with no plan [for achieving independence] the ANC won’t be with you.”

These interventions would have helped the ERC and Junts grasp that a repeat election would endanger the pro-independence majority: the tens of thousands of fed-up independence supporters — whose sentiment Cuixart and Paluzie were expressing — might just decide to stay at home on election day.

With an ERC-only government and repeat elections now both ruled out, only one course was left — Junts and the ERC had to do a deal.

Independence strategy

In presenting the accord, Sànchez apologised for the negotiation spectacle. “It’s clear that two days were enough to reach an accord, and that we’ve taken a few days more.”

In his desire to acknowledge people’s disaffection, Sànchez downplayed the real difficulties in achieving agreement. The final accord certainly appears to resolve some major points of conflict, but it also puts others in the in-tray of the new government.

The main stumbling block was strategy for the independence struggle and the roles within it of the Catalan government and the exiled Council for the Republic, formed as a representative umbrella after the Spanish government sacked the Catalan administration in 2017. It is headed by former president Carles Puigdemont but seen by the ERC and most of the CUP as unrepresentative.

Aragonès said that no government he headed would accept the “guardianship” of another entity. In reply, singer-songwriter and Council spokesperson Lluís Llach vehemently denied any such ambition on its part.

The two parties also disagreed over whether the October 1, 2017 referendum had been an effective plebiscite, the usefulness of the dialogue table with the Spanish government and the tactics of their MPs in the Spanish congress.

The accord notes these differences, but looks to overcome them via a series of compromises based on a shared assessment of the present state of the independence struggle: “The best instrument for resolving the conflict is a referendum of self-determination agreed with the [Spanish] State.

“We are, however, conscious that the process of negotiation with the State faces enormous difficulties and very limited possibilities of success, especially if we don’t succeed in increasing our negotiating strength.

“What is needed therefore is persistent, continuous work in the perspective of bringing about a new democratic offensive that allows achievement of the Catalan Republic and the independence of our country.”

Under the accord, leadership of the independence struggle gets placed in the hands of a “strategic leadership space” of the three independence parties and the two mass organisations. It will coordinate with the Council for the Republic, until that can be restructured, so that all forces are confident that the independence fight can be done within its framework.

Proposals and tensions

The rest of the agreement covers policies in the areas of post-pandemic economic recovery, social justice, environment and democratic rights. Despite shortcomings — especially vagueness about funding — they are at least as progressive as those of the Spanish PSOE-UP administration, with commitment to trialling a guaranteed universal income and spending on public housing increasing two-and-a-half times (to €1 billion).

Nonetheless, ongoing tension and conflict is inherent to the agreement, most of all because it incorporates commitments between the ERC and the CUP, which the neoliberal economic leadership of Junts will want to dilute.

The most obvious differences are over taxing the wealthy, private schooling, disbursing Next Generation European Union funds, the model of sustainable energy and the Catalan policing model.

The agreement ends with dispute resolution procedures aimed at forestalling the breakdown in trust that marked the 2018–21 Catalan administration. These include mechanisms that will give Catalonia’s wicked satirists a field day, but which experience has shown to be essential.

When the agreement became public, the PSOE-UP government pretended to welcome it, the parties of the right saw the evil hand of Puigdemont in it, and Catalonia Together cursed the ERC for capitulating to Junts.

The vast majority of supporters of Catalan sovereignty just breathed a sigh of relief.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed analysis will soon be published at Links — International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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