Rebellious Catalonia moves to vote, defies Spanish court

November 7, 2014
Rally for Catalan independence in Barcelona, October 19.

Millions of residents of Catalonia will indicate their preference for the future political status of their country, one of the 17 “autonomous communities” (regional governments) within the Spanish state, in the November 9 Catalan “participatory process”.

The “process” will present voters with the same ballot paper as the original non-binding consultation adopted by the Catalan parliament on September 26 — which was immediately suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

Its asks: “(1) Do you want Catalonia to become a state? (2) If yes, do you want that state to be independent?”

November 9 will now have the status of a mass survey of Catalan public opinion rather than a formal plebiscite. There will be no electoral roll — all residents of Catalonia over 16 will be able to vote if they present their identity card. There will be no informal votes — all suggestions written on the printed ballot will be recorded.

However, the day could have enormous political impact across the Spanish state. The vote is being carried out in defiance of a November 4 veto decision by the Spanish Constitutional Court and against a background of Spanish state intimidation of school principals and others responsible for opening workplaces as voting centres.

When forced to choose between a Spanish court ruling and Catalans’ enormous desire to vote on November 9, the government of the right-nationalist party Convergence and Union (CiU) came down on the side of the Catalan majority.

In so doing, Catalan Premier Artur Mas did what he said he would never do — violate Spanish state legality. This was the first time under the 1978 constitution that a regional government defied a Constitutional Court ruling.

As of November 6, the Catalan government’s appeal against the Constitutional Court decision has failed. That leaves it with the choice of proceeding with an “illegal” vote or “complying” with the court prohibition by formally surrendering responsibility for the vote to a non-governmental organisation.

An obvious NGO candidate would be the National Pact for the Right to Decide, an umbrella group involving more than 3000 groups supporting Catalonia’s right to self-determination.

In that case, the last chance for the Spanish national government to stop the vote would be for the national prosecutor’s office to order the Catalan state police to block access to voting centres and remove ballot boxes.

The exact political repercussions of such an action are hard to imagine. However, they would be devastating for the national People’s Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. It has been shaken in recent weeks by corruption scandals and the stunning rise of new radical political force Podemos — now at more than 25% in the polls.

One thing then seems certain: whatever its final packaging November 9 will go ahead. On November 5, Mas urged all residents in Catalonia to “keep calm and participate”.

On November 6, CiU coordinator-general and MP Josep Rull stated: “The ballot boxes will be there and the government will be putting them there.”

Road to defiance

Mas’s path to defiance started after the September 29 suspension of the original non-binding consultation. After a week of vain attempts to convince the other parliamentary forces supporting that consultation that it was now impossible to conduct it in its original form, Mas announced the new “participatory process”.

The arrangements for organising this November 9 “lite” continued while the Rajoy government decided whether to again appeal to the Constitutional Court. They finally did on October 30.

In Catalonia, Mas’s decision set off differences among the pro-consultation parties. The centre-left nationalist Republic Left of Catalunya (ERC), presently leading CiU in opinion polls, and the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP) were for defying the court ruling.

Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and its partner the United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), the Catalan sister party to the all-Spanish United Left, favoured turning November 9 into a huge day of protest and signature-collection to dramatise Spain’s violation of Catalan national rights.

Joan Herrera, co-convener of ICV, denounced the new November 9 as a fraud and said he, for one, would not vote. While not explicit, the ICV-EUiA line seemed to be that little could be done until the balance of political forces changed on an all-Spanish scale in next year's general elections.

The CUP, after failed bids to get the government to agree to a plan to strengthen the new consultation, announced they were abandoning negotiations and “returning to the street”.

Most importantly for Mas, ERC leader Oriel Jonqueras said that ERC support for the minority CiU government was finished as it was based on an agreement to have the consultation. That decision raised the possibility that the CiU government might fall if the ERC failed to support its budget.

With the ERC leading in all opinion polls, its victory at an early election would be likely.

Movement reaction

The disarray among pro-consultation parties stirred the mass organisations of the Catalan national movement into action. An October 19 rally in central Barcelona, called by the “Now is the Time” campaign of the Catalan National Congress (ANC) and Catalan language and culture group Omnium Cultural, drew more than 100,000 people.

The mood of rally participants pointed the way out of the mess — the new consultation had to be made a success, despite its second-best character. The parties should get their act together and help give November 9 maximum political impact, otherwise the only winner would be the national PP government.

That sentiment was confirmed by the powerful response to the Catalan government’s call for volunteers to run the November 9 vote. The target of 20,000 volunteers was reached in little over a day.

In the end, more than 40,000 people put their names down. All of Catalonia 947 municipalities will be covered, despite PP mayors refusing to cooperate in a tiny number of towns.

Next came a meeting of the National Pact for the Right to Decide, called on the initiative of the two main Catalan trade union confederations, with a view to ironing out differences.

As a result, a revised basis for unity emerged. It embraced support for the new November 9 consultation, but with explicit recognition that it did not represent a definitive test of Catalan opinion, let alone a referendum.

At the same time, the ICV-EUiA proposal to use November 9 for mass signing of a protest declaration was adopted. On October 5, this declaration was formally adopted at a special ceremony in the Catalan parliament.

ICV co-coordinator Joan Herrera then said he would now be voting on November 9 as a protest action against the PP. He indicated his vote would be a “Yes-No” — yes to Catalan statehood, no to independence.

Dolors Camats, the other ICV co-ordinator, declared she would be a “Yes-Yes”, in this way telling the pluralist ICV membership that they, pro-independence, federalists and confederalists alike, should vote according to conviction.

Lefts for Yes-Yes

In parallel, parliamentary and extra-parliamentary left forces in favour of a “Yes-Yes” vote have been organising the platform “Lefts for Yes-Yes”.

The platform’s 16 points cover all the basic social, economic, environmental and democratic issues essential to genuinely progressive politics in an independent Catalonia.

They reflect the demands of social movements in areas such as housing, health, education and environment, as well as around worker, pensioner, immigrant and women’s rights.

An October 2 Lefts for Yes-Yes Barcelona public meeting featured speakers from ICV, ERC, EUiA, the CUP, Let’s Win Barcelona citizens´ ticket for next year's municipal elections, the Constituent Process, the Socialism, Catalonia and Freedom Association of former members of the social-democratic Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), as well as health, housing, education and trade union activists.

The turn-up at the event, from which hundreds had to be turned away, showed the strength of desire to build a united left pole inside the broader independence movement.

‘Madrid’ strikes again

It was against this background that the Constitutional Court brought down its November 4 decision suspending the “participatory process”. An immediate barrage of statements from Catalan institutions urged that November 9 proceed regardless.

In this atmosphere, the PSC had no choice but to condemn the Rajoy government’s intervention. This meant effectively also condemning the support given to Rajoy by its national big brother, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party.

These events set the scene for Mas, on November 5, to pour scorn on the “medieval” Spanish state and demand it learn “21st century democracy”.

The Spanish government, he stressed, was violating the fundamental human right to express opinions. Mas announced his government would take the Rajoy administration to court for “abuse of the Constitutional Court”.

He also expressed his confidence that democratic-minded people across the rest of Spain would understand why Catalonia was carrying on with November 9.

Mas’s stance is the end result of the huge movement for Catalan's right to decide and for Catalan independence. It has become so strong that the CiU premier has had no choice but to place himself at its head.

As of November 6, all Catalonia was awaiting the response of the Rajoy government, but not passively. After the Constitutional Court announced its veto, someone suggested via social media that at 10pm every night until November 9 people bang pots and pans from their balconies in protest.

Ever since, these caceroladas have become noisier every night. On the night of November 8, they will surely be deafening, as all Catalonia announces its determination to vote on the following day.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. An updated version of this article will appear on the web site of Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal after November 9.]

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