Protests paralyse Catalonia as pro-independence groups debate elections

November 11, 2017
Protesters in Barcelona
Protesters in Barcelona demand freedom for the political prisoners on November 8.

Road and rail blockades organised by the Committees in Defence of the Republic (CDR) paralysed traffic movement across Catalonia on November 8.

The blockades were part of a day of protest action aimed against the Spanish government’s takeover of the Catalan government and parliament, and the detention of eight Catalan government ministers.

The ministers, including deputy president and economics minister Oriol Junqueras, face charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. The charges stem from their role in organising Catalonia’s October 1 independence referendum and for supporting the Catalan parliament’s October 27 declaration of independence.

The protests were accompanied by a “general strike” called by the minority trade union confederation Intersindical-CSC, which identifies as Catalan nationalist. The call was supported by the major teachers’ union, the Union Alliance of Education Workers of Catalonia (USTEC), and by the Farmers Union.

By contrast, the three largest confederations — the Workers’ Commissions (CCOO), the General Union of Workers (UGT) and the Catholic Workers Trade Union  Alliance of Catalonia (USOC) — refused support.

The CCOO and UGT restricted themselves to urging members to attend the demonstrations that were held on the day.

The fourth-largest confederation, the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT), while deploring the jailing of the ministers and the Spanish state takeover of Catalan institutions, left the decision on whether to take part in the strike to its rank-and-file organisations.

Predictably, then, November 8 was not much of a general strike. The highest participation was in the education sector (45% according to USTEC). Manufacturing and commerce operated largely normally.

This was in sharp contrast to the October 3 “civic stoppage” against Spanish police violence on October 1. Supported by all union confederations, it brought almost all economic activity to a standstill.

Protest action

Yet what failed as a general strike succeeded as a protest action that did not depend on the degree of official trade union support.

The core of activity on the day was a program of road and rail blockades organised through the CDRs. These groups began life as Committees in Defence of the Referendum, playing the central role in ensuring that voting took place on October 1 despite Spanish police violence.

On November 8, the CDR-organised blockades, supported in some regions by the tractors of the Farmers Union, cut the expressways linking Catalonia to France, Andorra and the rest of the Spanish state. The blockades held out for between four and 14 hours, despite the anger of some motorists and pressure from police.

The CDRs, supported by the student movement Universities for the Republic, also occupied the high-speed train stations in Barcelona and Girona. They stopped train traffic through Catalonia for almost the entire day.

Video: Catalan students blockade Barcelona's main train station - euronews.

These actions provoked hysterical reactions from the Spanish-patriotic media in Madrid, even though not one person was arrested on the day — mainly because the Spanish National Police were under orders not to repeat the violence of October 1.

Right-wing papers such as La Razón and ABC focussed on such abominable practices as young children at the blockades, with heavy emphasis also on the role of the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP) in forming the CDRs.

Completely missing from these accounts was any description of the CDRs’ real role and social composition. People of all ages and political persuasions have come together in the CDRs to organise peaceful resistance against Madrid’s intervention and the jailing of the Catalan ministers and independence movement leaders.

The CDRs are guided by a non-violent direct action platform, whose guidelines are required reading for all members. The entire Catalan independence movement, beginning with President Carles Puigdemont, is acutely aware that any descent into violence would give the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy the pretext to further criminalise the Catalan movement and possibly impose a state of emergency.

The most maniacal Spanish-centralist voices, like former People’s Party (PP) prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, portrayed the blockades as a “descent into the reign of anarchy”. For them, it was an example of what would follow if pro-independence forces won the December 21 Catalan elections that the Rajoy government has called as part of its intervention.

Scare campaign

The Rajoy government has made this election a decisive test of strength between pro-independence and pro-unionist forces in Catalonia. How does unionism plan to mobilise the extra 200,000-250,000 votes election analysists calculate it will need to win?

This would involve the participation rate rising to more than 80%, surpassing the previous record of 74.95% in the 2015 elections, which was seen as a “plebiscite” on independence.

The size of the task is revealed by the latest polls: all show a slight swing to the unionist parties, but not enough support to wrest government from pro-independence and pro-sovereignty forces.

The core unionist strategy — common to the PP, its new-right clone Citizens and the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) — will take the form of a huge fear campaign.

Catalan voters will be bombarded with the message that a vote for the pro-independence parties will bring economic disaster, job loss, the destruction of social welfare and entrenched discrimination against Spanish-speakers.

The specific goal will be to terrify those who never or rarely vote in Catalan elections to come out against independence to save their families’ future.

Economic blackmail will include the refusal to return home by the 1800 firms that have shifted their headquarters out of Catalonia since early September, a decline in tourist bookings and a drop in foreign investment due to an “uncertain political outlook”.

PP government spokespeople have made it clear that if the pro-independence forces win, the Spanish-state take-over will continue.

The other fear campaign is aimed at frightening Catalonia’s Spanish-speaking neighbourhoods with the nightmare that awaits them as second-class citizens cut off from the Spanish homeland.

This was the tone of the two large unionist demonstrations to date: the Catalan threat to the unity of Spain was not just illegal and unconstitutional, it would mean Spaniards becoming foreigners in their own country.

Amid this hysteria, the only half-credible line of attack against independence is it could never have taken place along the lines promised by the Puigdemont government.

Civil Guard wiretaps of conversations revealed that finance minister Oriol Junqueras was told the Catalan tax office was far from ready for independence, but kept this information from Puigdemont and the rest of the cabinet.

According to the transcript, on August 30 treasury secretary Josep Iluis Salvardo told a Catalan government adviser: “The thing doesn’t stand up, it’s very premature …

“If we tell the truth we’re dead. If we say what the real situation is they will end up saying that the department of economy hasn’t done its job and, as such, it’s Junqueras’s fault.”

The PSC, in particular, will hope to exploit this and other material to draw attention away from its own support for the Spanish state intervention. It will seek to pose as the party that battled throughout the “intoxication” of the independence process to look after the interests of ordinary working Catalans.               

Pro-sovereignty unity?

How will the pro-independence forces approach December 21?

The  Catalan National Assembly has called for a single ticket of all forces committed to repeal of the Spanish state’s intervention under article 155 of the constitution, the release of the political prisoners and recognition of the October 1 referendum result as binding.

This ticket would encompass all forces from the most conservative parts of Puidgemont’s Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat) right across to the CUP, and even pro-independence parts of Podemos Catalonia. The PDECat endorsed this approach at its November 3 National Council.

Yet, this outcome seems unlikely, despite support from Puigdemont. The underlying cause is the leftward shift in Catalan society in recent years with the rise of the independence movement.

The main political reflection has been the displacement of PDECat by the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) as the leading pro-independence party. Recent polls show the ERC winning up to three times as many seats as its more conservative government ally and political rival.

One difficulty blocking unity is the different assessments that pro-independence and pro-sovereignty forces have of the October 1 referendum. Four positions are visible.

There are those, principally Catalunya en Comu (“Catalonia for All”) of Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, for whom October 1 was never a binding referendum, even though they admit its value as a major mobilisation in favour of a Catalan right to decide.

This position’s weakness is it can’t acknowledge that the 3 million people who voted that day believed they were taking part in a referendum.

At the opposite pole are those, especially within the CUP, who see October 1 as having settled the question of a referendum once and for all. For them, the struggle is now focused on consolidating the Catalan Republic.

This position brushes aside the relatively low participation on a day dominated by police violence (the Yes vote amounted to 37% of the electoral roll of 5.5 million). Many voters who oppose independence also did not feel the referendum was legitimate.

A third position recognises the referendum as binding, but still pushes for a negotiated referendum whose result would have to be accepted by other states. No state has recognised the result of October 1.

Lastly are those who don’t see taking a position on October 1 as a central concern, as they view the chances of making the declaration of independence that followed it to be remote.

This was the meaning of a November 6 statement by around 150 well-known Catalan cultural, political and intellectual figures. It called for all parties standing on December 21 to include a negotiated referendum in their program.

The list of signatories was notable for its breadth. It included former PDECat, PSC, ERC, CUP, Initiative for Catalonia-Greens figures, and even one PP figure, along with cultural and sporting personalities.

The most likely outcome seems to be what is being called a “common front with separate tickets”. The common front would be based on five demands: rejecting the Spanish state’s article 155 intervention, recovering Catalan institutions, releasing political prisoners, withdrawing the 12,000 Civil Guards and Spanish National Police and launching a constituent process for the Catalan Republic.


The October 27 declaration of independence, the stripping of Catalan autonomy under article 155 and the Spanish justice system’s creation of political prisoners have convulsed the political battleground in Catalonia and Spain. It presents European institutions with their biggest headache since the 2015 election of Syriza in Greece.

As Puigdemont asked representatives of these institutions at a November 7 rally of 200 Catalan mayors in Brussels: “Is this the Europe you are inviting us to build? Will you accept or not the results of the Catalan elections?

“If the people support the decision of the Catalan parliament and continue supporting an independent state, will you accept that? Or will you keep helping Mr Rajoy’s coup d’etat?

“We are prepared to respect the results, so our citizens have the right to know whether you will accept the result of their vote.”

Whatever the final shape of the tickets for December 21, it seems certain to be the dirtiest election campaign in modern Spanish history. Can the Spanish state succeed in mobilising enough resources to defeat the pro-independence and pro-sovereignty majority in Catalonia? Or will the mobilisation of the democratic forces defeat their assault?

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He is running a daily live blog on the Catalan struggle for independence. A longer version of this article will be posted soon at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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