Spain: Can a PSOE-led government dependent on Catalan independentism last?

November 20, 2023
two faces and protest crowd
Carles Puigdemont (left) and Pedro Sanchez (right). Image: Green Left

After three months of fraught negotiations, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and the Catalan pro-independence force Together for Catalonia (Junts), announced from Brussels on November 7 that they had reached an agreement for Junts to support the investiture of a PSOE-led government of the Spanish state.

After two days of acrimonious debate, the 350-seat Spanish congress invested the second-term government led by prime minister Pedro Sánchez on November 16, by 179 votes to 171.

The PSOE, which had come in behind the right-wing People’s Party (PP) in the July 23 general election (with 121 seats to 137), built its majority for government through separate deals with six of the seven independentist, nationalist and regionalist parties with seats in the congress. These added 27 votes to the 152 of the PSOE and its coalition partner Sumar (with 31).

The deal that won the support of the seven Junts MPs was key. Negotiations took place in Brussels because they were led for the Catalan side by Carles Puigdemont, exiled former Catalan premier and Member of the European Parliament (MEP) since 2019.

Puigdemont’s role

Puigdemont has been labelled a “fugitive from Spanish justice” by the PP and the far-right Vox ever since he arrived in Belgium after the October 1, 2017 Catalan independence referendum ended in the sacking of the government and prison sentences for its leaders who remained in Spain.

In the TV debate before the November 2019 general election Sánchez himself said: “I undertake, here and now, to bring him [Puigdemont] back to Spain so that he accounts for himself before the law.”

However, that changed the moment the results of the July 23 general election left Sánchez’s chances of a second term in government in the hands of the former Catalan premier.

According to the PP and Vox, Sanchez’s subsequent deal with Junts then ended the bipartisan consensus in support of Spanish unity and installed a “dictatorship”.

The parties of the right and far right have been in competition to organise mass protests of their support base, giving the most rancid, neo-Francoist and violent elements of the far right a chance to dominate media coverage of its “movement of ordinary Spaniards”.

As a result, unhappy Spanish-patriotic PSOEsupporters who oppose the deal have been left asking “where can we protest this betrayal without ending up in the company of fascists?”.

On the other side of the fence, Puigdemont’s fellow MEP Clara Ponsatí has accused him of betraying the Catalan independence cause. Writing in Vilaweb, she said Puigdemont’s deal “represents contempt for the people who trusted in and protected him”.

Junts-PSOE agreement

The rival Catalan independence parties, Junts and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), always made clear that to win their support the PSOE would have to agree to an amnesty for all those who have been targeted by the Spanish legal system because of their actions in support of the Catalan independence process.

The result was a November 13 amnesty bill “for institutional, political and social normalisation in Catalonia”. This will cover all those charged and convicted of offenses in relation to the Catalan struggle for self-determination and independence, starting from the November 9, 2014 consultation on the future of Catalonia and including the October 1, 2017 referendum and the mass protests against the Supreme Court’s jailing on October 14, 2019 of nine movement leaders, including former ministers.

The ERC also extracted the transfer to the Catalan government of the troubled regional railway system presently maladministered by the Spanish state operator RENFE.

A notable feature of the text of the PSOE-Junts agreement is that the PSOE had to swallow a factual account of the oppressive relations between Catalonia and the Spanish state, from the abolition of Catalonia’s independent institutions in 1715 (after the Borbon monarchy’s victory in the War of the Spanish Succession) down to the police violence of October 1, 2017.

The text also registers the main points of PSOE-Junts disagreement: Junts regards the 2017 referendum result and declaration of independence as a mandate, while the PSOE “denies all legality and validity” to both; Junts will seek a referendum on self-determination under Section 92 of the Spanish constitution while the PSOE will propose a new statute of autonomy.

Despite this, both sides “note that important agreements can be reached without renouncing their respective positions”. These will involve negotiations over taxation, preservation of Catalonia’s “cultural and linguistic diversity”, representation of Catalonia in international forums, returning companies to Catalonia that were encouraged to flee at the time of the 2017 referendum, and a congress investigation into the use of lawfare and electronic eavesdropping against Catalan politicians and activists.

To carry out negotiations in a context of mutual distrust, the PSOE has had to swallow a proposal it long resisted, independent dispute-resolution by a non-Spanish mechanism “with the functions of accompanying, verifying and monitoring the entire negotiation process and the agreements between the two parties”.

Also, Junts’ continuing support for the incoming PSOE administration will, in the words of Puigdemont to the Brussels Press Club, “have to be won agreement by agreement: without fulfilment the legislature has no future”.

Any agreement reached will have to win the support of the Catalan parliament.

A sell-out?

Independentist critics of the agreement claim that the price paid by Junts is to have abandoned the unilateral path to independence as enshrined in the popular mobilisation of October 1, and to have been lured back into the labyrinths of Spanish constitutionalism.

In the words of Ponsatí: “We already know the PSOE: the foreseeable amnesty will be the one that allows as many [Catalan] politicians as imaginable to be kept under control. The price has been to give up at the same time on self-determination and the policies the country needs.”

Vilaweb editor Vicent Partal, conscience and intellectual guide of Catalan independentism, cautioned against this sort of catastrophism in a November 15 editorial, urging readers to “also recognise the importance that things objectively have happened that a few months ago would have seemed to us like science fiction: from an end to the calvary of the victims of judicial revenge, to the fact that Spain has accepted international mediation or that the PSOE recognises, if only to get the votes it needs, that October 1 was a referendum, that independence was declared and that the solution of the conflict between Spain and Catalonia must be political.”

Nobody on the all-Spanish right and far right or in Spain’s “deep state” thinks for a second that Sánchez has tamed the Catalan independence movement with its agreements with ERC and Junts.

Instead, the Junts-PSOE deal has provoked an unprecedented storm of anti-Catalan, anti-PSOE protest and a chain of manoeuvres, using the PP’s Senate majority, to stall the implementation of the amnesty bill.

The far right, led by Vox, has been inciting the police and Civil Guard to disobey government orders and called on King Philip not to recognise the investiture. It tried, and failed, to have the Constitutional Court stop the investiture session.

Fully robed judges have demonstrated outside their courts at the “threat” to the division of powers represented by the agreement to have parliament investigate lawfare; a Civil Guard association has issued a statement reminding everyone of “the military nature of the armed institute”; Vox and a gaggle of tiny far-right groups waving Franco-era flags and inciting the police to join them have maintained a demonstration outside PSOE’s Madrid headquarters for a fortnight.

Tense times approach: for the Spanish establishment the PSOE, formerly so reliable, has committed a mortal sin in achieving its investiture by making intolerable concessions to Catalan independentism: it will now use all the weapons at its disposal to create a crisis triggering early elections.

The counter-mobilisation of Spain’s left and progressive forces will be key to stopping that scheme.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent.]

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