Early elections a bid to stifle Catalonia

Pro-independence rally in Catalonia.

Pedro Sánchez, prime minister of Spain’s minority Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) government, announced on February 15 that the country would vote on April 28.

This election comes 15 months short of a full term and only nine months after the previous People’s Party (PP) government of Mariano Rajoy fell to a PSOE censure motion, supported by the rest of the all-Spanish left and by nearly all nationalist forces, left and right.

Once in government, Sánchez, with only 84 PSOE seats in the 350-seat Congress, had to negotiate support for legislation bill by bill. Nonetheless, he had been saying that his government would run its full term. Why did he change his mind?

The trigger was the February 13 vote against the budget by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat). This budget, negotiated with the more radical Unidos Podemos, was promoted as “the most social in Spanish history”.

It contained numerous positive measures and confronted the Catalan independentism’s rival parties with a dilemma: Would they join with the PP and the “cool right” Citizens in voting it down, on the grounds they had won nothing in negotiations over a Scottish-style referendum? Or would they vote in favour to avoid early elections? 

The opposition risked that the right, now including the neo-Francoist Vox, might repeat their win in the December regional elections in Andalusia and then move to permanently suspend Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the Spanish constitution.

In that case, the Catalan parties would also have to wear PSOE demagogy about “the nationalists” putting their “narrow” interests before the well-being of all Spaniards, especially workers and people on welfare.

The ERC and PDECat Congress caucuses were anxious to back the budget, but their vote depended on getting some offer that would be seen as a step forward by the independence movement.

Deeply angered by the present trial of its leaders in the Supreme Court, this movement can’t forget that the PSOE supported Rajoy’s article 155 operation against Catalan self-rule. It also retains an enormous power of mobilisation, seen once again in a massive protest in Barcelona on February 16.

Designed to fail?

The offer the Sánchez government made the Catalan administration of president Quim Torra was for a party-to-party and government-to-government dialogue, minuted by a “rapporteur”.

However, the two sides differed as to what it meant even as their negotiators strove to concretise it; it infuriated Spanish unitarianism, including its wing within the PSOE; and it increased suspicions within independentism that Torra might be getting sucked towards surrendering the right to self-determination.

Notwithstanding, authoritative figures, such as former Catalan premier Artur Mas and former treasurer Andreu Mas-Colell, came out strongly in favour of Catalan support for Sánchez’s budget.

After it was voted down, Mas-Colell wrote: “The PNV voted in favour. Its MP Aitor Esteban spelled out that he didn’t see what the advantage could be for Catalonia in voting against. He was right. The most plausible explanation of what we’ve done is, simply, that we don’t know how to stop.”

Panic or plan?

Did the Catalan Congress MPs shoot themselves in the foot for fear of being regarded as traitors back home, or had they deliberately been made an offer they had to reject?

On February 6, negotiators agreed that the Spanish government would search for candidates for rapporteur while their Catalan counterparts would sketch out how the negotiating forums should function.

The next day, however, the Catalans were presented with a sign-it-or-leave-it document that bore little relation to this agenda: the already weak references to a Catalan right to decide vanished, as did the figure of the rapporteur.

Accounts differ as to what had made Sánchez change tack. One version is that he was afraid that a February 9 PP-Citizens-Vox demonstration in Madrid would be huge and that the PSOE regional leaders (“barons”) who had organised his beheading as leader in 2016 were once again on the warpath.

The other is that the decision to break off negotiations was already in the pipeline: concerned about a possible economic downturn and buoyed by internal polling predicting a PSOE victory if he ended negotiations, Sánchez acted to provoke ERC-PDECat rejection.

Whatever the truth and despite last-minute solo rescue attempts by Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, the government announced the negotiations over and PDECat joined the ERC in opposing the budget.

A nettle grasped

Sánchez now had to choose between governing with Rajoy’s budget or calling the early poll that Citizens and the PP were demanding. Why did he choose the latter?

The Sánchez government faces enemies on four fronts. The most important is the movement for Catalan sovereignty. If he can get it to “realise that independence is impossible” or have it lose the next Catalan elections, he will become the hero of the Spanish and European establishments.

So burning is this issue that a victory would strengthen Sánchez on his other fronts: rival Podemos would see an important point of difference with the PSOE — the right to national self-determination —fade in importance; the various “final solutions” of the right to the Catalan rebellion would become irrelevant; and the PSOE barons and former leaders like Felipe González would be forever discredited.

But the causality also runs the other way. To crack the 80% support for self-determination in Catalonia — getting a majority to accept that the best they can expect is a new statute of autonomy — Sánchez must first strengthen his position against Unidos Podemos, his barons and the right.

In this situation, an election campaign run as a crusade against the anti-social and centralist right wing in the name of an “inclusive” and “socially just” Spain would seize the initiative and also be a powerful weapon against Catalan independentism.

Other factors that would have convinced Sánchez to go early were failure of the right’s feared mega-demonstration (only 45,000 attended), polling showing that a majority in Spain want to see the Catalan issue solved by negotiation and the chance to push the Catalan leaders’ trial off the front page.

Sánchez’s appearance announcing the election was thus a campaign launch. He proclaimed:

“It is obvious that the right wing, with its three parties, defends a sort of Spain in which not many fit, in which they alone fit. We defend a different sort of Spain, an inclusive Spain, a Spain where all men and women fit. […] Do we want a constitutional Spain, proud of its rights, its freedoms, that makes the transformations needed to conquer its future, or one that lives on longing for a past that will never return?”

Win for Sánchez...

The biggest losers from Sánchez’s move for the April 28 general election — coming before May 26 European, regional and council polls — will be his PSOE rivals. The barons, led by former Andalusia premier Susana Díaz, will find their candidates replaced by Sánchez loyalists for the Spanish and European contests, in turn increasing the pressure on their local fiefdoms.

The next advantage is over the forces to the PSOE’s left: in the 2015 and 2016 general elections it headed off Unidos Podemos and its allies only narrowly (in the 20%-22.5% band); recent polls show the PSOE leading on average by 24.4% to 15% (102 seats to 43, due to Spain’s rigged electoral system).

Moreover, divisions within Podemos — most importantly the decision of Iñigo Errejón, its lead candidate for the Madrid region, to drop Podemos in favour of an alliance with Madrid mayor Manuela Carmena — will make it harder to build the enthusiasm of past election campaigns.

If Unidos Podemos maintains its increasingly distant second place behind the PSOE, its proposal for a referendum in Catalonia will never see the light of day. The Iglesias leadership is also showing growing signs of settling for a junior role in any PSOE administration.

...without victory?

With his left flank apparently secured, Sánchez is freer to carry out the fight against the right, chiefly Citizens. He has been helped by Citizens’ February 18 decision — taken as it fights the PP for hegemony over the right — to rule out coalitions with the PSOE.

The election campaign dynamic will also help; as the PP, Vox and Citizens contend for the prize of best scourge of the Catalans, repelled voters will turn towards the PSOE. The PP’s tricky job of doublespeak — trying to seduce the centre and win back the neo-Francoist right lost to Vox — will also favour the PSOE.

None of these advantages, however, will guarantee a victory: that will depend on the overall left and nationalist vote surpassing that of the “triple-headed monster” of the right.

A right victory would not just produce another Rajoy-style corrupt, anti-worker administration but one of black reaction — a disaster for working people, the poor, women, refugees and Spain’s oppressed nations.

It will only be blocked if enough young people are inspired to vote on April 28. The result will depend on those most revolted by the racism and anti-feminism of Vox, the corruption of the PP, and the social regressiveness and virulent centralism of the whole right.

If high participation by younger people helps carry a victory for the left, it will also weaken that part of it that Sánchez represents — anti-democratic “constitutionalism” — and strengthen Spain’s forces of democratic renewal.

[Written with help from Julian Coppens. Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will appear on the web site of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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