This year will be the year of the showdown between Catalonia and the Spanish state over whether the Catalan people have a right to vote on self-determination in relation to Spain.
The year starts with the final battle lines already drawn in the contest between the right-wing Spanish-patriotic People’s Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the pro-independence Catalan government, headed by Carles Puigdemont.
The Rajoy government justifies its stance by falsely claiming the 1978 Spanish constitution prevents it from granting Catalonia a Scottish-style referendum. Puigdemont claims the Catalan administration is simply acting on democratic grounds, given that more than 80% of Catalans support their right to decide via referendum.
On January 11, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said about the Catalonian government’s 46-point list of complaints about Madrid’s treatment of the region: “I call them 45 points plus one, which is the referendum — we can’t negotiate about that.”
Catalan treasurer Oriol Junqueras, also leader of the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), says Saenz de Santamaria had told him that “we will do everything possible to stop you holding a referendum”. He replied: “Well, we’ll do everything possible to hold it.”
The PP’s leader in Catalonia, Xavier Garcia Albiol, said on January 5 that no referendum would take place. The Spanish government and other anti-independence forces had learned from their failure to block the “participatory process” on Catalan statehood that was carried out by 37,000 volunteers on November 9, 2014 (known as 9N).
Garcia Albiol told Europa Press: “They fooled us once but they won’t get away with it again … What happened on 9N was an unprecedented case of improvisation. However, in 2017, the government and the constitutionalist parties have got things very clear…
“That’s why there won’t be any repeat of what we went through then. No one will be setting up illegal ballot boxes in public buildings.”
The heart of the approaching struggle is over the validity of a referendum declared and run unilaterally by Catalonia. How to ensure that it will not be a repeat of 9N, which was largely ignored by anti-independence Catalans with 2.3 million people participating as against 4.1 million in the September 27, 2015 Catalan regional election?
How, above all, to ensure that the referendum actually takes place in the face of a gamut of threats, including placing the Catalan police force under the direct command of the Spanish government?
A December GESOP poll indicated what a plausible result of a unilateral consultation would be: 64% of the electorate (around 3.4 million) would vote — more than in all previous referenda — and the vote for independence would be 79%.
The percentages of supporters of parties opposed to a unilateral referendum who would still take part if it happened would be: PP 12%; Citizens 29% and Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) 33%.
Seventy-five per cent of supporters of the left coalition Catalonia Yes We Can (CQSEP, which includes Spanish-wide left party Podemos and supports self-determination but not necessarily independence) would also take part.
The legitimacy of such a result would be unquestionable.
As a consequence, having rejected the negotiated referendum that would actually give it the best chance of stopping the Catalan rebellion, the Rajoy government must now use all possible means to stop a unilateral consultation.
In a taste of what is to come, the Spanish judiciary is prosecuting former Catalan premier Artur Mas and three of his ministers. They face charges of ignoring a Spanish Constitutional Court order to stop 9N from going ahead.
These charges are part of more than 400 investigations so far launched by Spanish courts and prosecutors against elected officials and local councils in Catalonia.
The intensifying Catalan conflict increasingly demands clarity from all political forces in the Spanish state. This includes the Catalan left that supports a right to decide but not necessarily independence, and from the all-Spanish left in Podemos and the United Left.
While supportive of a Catalan right to self-determination, these forces have issued mixed messages over the unfolding fight.
On December 19, Podemos political secretary Inigo Errejon told Catalan Nacio Digital that “it is very hypocritical for the Spanish government to be demanding a stop to unilateralism when it is offering no alternative”.
Errejon said: “If you close the door on any sort of bilateral relation, you are leaving the door open to unilateralism. Catalonia cannot wait.”
By contrast, Podemos’s secretary for relations with civil society Rafael Mayoral told Europa Press on January 8 that only a referendum negotiated with the Spanish state would have authority, stating: “I believe if we really want to find an effective way to decide how our country fits together territorially, it has to be based on an agreement.”
Mayoral felt he was supporting a January 3 statement by Xavier Domenech, the leader in the Spanish parliament of the radical Catalan coalition Together We Can (ECP), which includes the Catalan affiliates of Podemos and the United Left.
To the surprise of many, Domenech had called for early elections in Catalonia, saying that “a unilateral referendum would be no different from 9N, which had no binding political or legal impact”.
The next day, Domenech, politically close to Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, backed away from the call for an early poll. He said that, to be effective, the referendum would have to meet three conditions: participation by a majority of the population, international recognition and fulfilment of appropriate political and legal criteria.
On January 11, Colau, who had taken part in a December 23 government-convened summit of all forces supportive of a referendum, said: “The question is not whether it is negotiated or not, but whether it is real.”
She added that a judgement could not be made until the Puigdemont government produced a specific proposal.
The Puigdemont administration is based on a pro-independence majority of 72 seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament. However, this majority is not ironclad, institutionally or socially, as its parliamentary majority corresponds to 47.7% of actual votes cast.
In parliament, the government has the unconditional support of the 62 pro-independence MPs belonging to the Together For The Yes (JPS) bloc.
JPS is composed of the ERC, the conservative nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat) — formerly the ruling Convergence for Catalonia (CDC) — smaller pro-independence groups, and a range of non-aligned figures. Most of the non-aligned MPs hold left positions on social issues and several are Puigdemont government ministers. Puigdemont himself belongs to PDECat.
The other 10 pro-independence seats were won by the left-nationalist People’s Unity List (CUP). A bloc of radical nationalist and anti-capitalist forces, the CUP has swung between agreement with and opposition to the JPS government.
In November 2015, the CUP signed agreements with JPS outlining the road-map for the creation of a sovereign Catalan Republic as well as its social goals. Yet in January last year, the CUP forced the resignation of Mas as a condition for supporting a JPS government. In July, it voted to reject the JPS government’s 2017 budget entirely.
But the CUP returned to voting support when Puigdemont brought on a motion of confidence in his government in September.
In December, the CUP joined JPS in rejecting the budget amendments of all other parties but submitted its own €760 million set of amendments. These would set up 11 special funds to finance a guaranteed minimum income, increased public housing, improved public education, support for cooperative economy, and struggles against climate change and gender violence.
However, the CUP’s amendments — like those of the left alliance Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP) — clash with the debt reduction strategy of the JPS government as well as with the instincts of the more conservative parts of the PDECat voting base.
It is unlikely that many of the CUP’s amendments will be acceptable to the government. This will leave the left-nationalist force having to decide at the end of this month whether to pass a budget that improves spending on public services, but still leaves it below pre-economic crisis levels.
The alternative for the CU P, which all polls show could have its parliamentary presence cut by up to half, would be to trigger an early election.
This dilemma confronts the CUP as the aggression of the Spanish government increases daily and only a fortnight after reaching an agreement with JPS on legislation that will cover Catalonia’s shift from Spanish to Catalan legality.
That bill, which is being kept secret to prevent it being ruled unconstitutional, will be brought before parliament when the pro-independence camp judges the time is right to declare disconnection from the Spanish legal system.
It would aim to provide a legal framework for a unilateral referendum as well as shelter in law for the Catalan police and for any public servants transferred from Spanish to Catalan jurisdiction.
At the same time, the Catalan government is intensifying its appeals for international support for Catalonia’s right to decide. There have been many international expressions of concern at Spanish intransigence and its use of judicial weapons to settle political issues.
Within Catalonia, the government is launching its campaign to convince doubters of the need for the referendum and the benefits of independence. One feature will be a TV series in which the Catalan premier fields questions from doubtful or hostile citizens.
As 2017 progresses, political forces across Europe will increasingly have no choice but to say where they stand on Catalonia’s right to determine its future.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will be published on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]