Spain: Million-strong rally brings Catalan self-determination showdown closer

Barcelona, September 11.

By some estimates, more than 1 million people came out across Catalonia on September 11 for Catalonia’s national day (the Diada) to show their support for Catalan sovereignty and — for most present — for Catalan independence from the Spanish state.

For a region of about 7.5 million people, it was an impressive turn out for the fifth annual mass mobilisation for Catalan statehood since 2012. The demonstrations were once again organised by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and the Catalan cultural association Omnium Cultural — confirming that this social movement remains easily the largest in Europe.

Posing a threat to the Spanish state, it will become an increasingly critical issue for a European Union reeling under the blows of Brexit, its brutal handling of refugees and its economic stagnation.

For how long can the rulers of the EU maintain the fiction that the Catalan national question is simply a domestic issue for the Spanish state while Spain’s rulers deny Catalonia a Scottish-style referendum?

Five mobilisations

This year’s Diada mobilisation featured a number of firsts.

Apart from the 2013 Catalan Way human chain across Catalonia, it was the first not to only take place in the capital Barcelona. Four other provincial centres — Salt, Berga, Lleida and Tarragona — shared in the mobilisation. In all, the demonstrations were the biggest yet, as hundreds of thousands of independence and sovereignty supporters descended from surrounding shires.

The largest mobilisation, in Barcelona, drew 540,000 (municipal police figure). It cut vertically across the city as a vast sea of people overflowed from the two broad avenues meant to contain the demonstration.

In Salt, with its 40% migrant population made up of 70 nationalities, up to 200,000 overflowed the avenue closed off for the demonstration.

Participation from the town’s African, Latin American and Asian communities produced a new Diada “decor”: traditional Catalan independence flags (esteladas), human towers (“castles”) and giant puppets came together with Latin American and African dance rhythms in a new mix that local media commentators sympathetically dubbed as “madness”.

Banners in the Salt mobilisation reading “independence for Catalonia” in Arabic will no doubt be used by the caretaker Spanish government of the People’s Party (PP) to draw the link between “separatism” and “terrorism”.

In Lleida, capital of Catalonia’s westernmost province, the huge demonstration was held on the broad bank of the river Segre, in a space that the organisers had originally divided into ten sections. By the time of the rally — put at between 60,000 and 120,000 by independent sources — 14 sections had to be opened to hold the overflowing crowd.

In Berga, in central Catalonia, the population grew five-fold when up to 70,000 packed out the town centre so tightly that thousands had to seek relief by retreating into the side streets.

In industrial Tarragona, where the nationalist vote and sentiment is weaker, between 50,000 (council police estimate) and 110,000 (ANC estimate) came out in a demonstration that also exceeded all predictions. The space assigned to the mobilisation was packed out two hours before starting time.

Notable in all demonstrations was the presence of people from outside Catalonia: from within the Spanish state (especially the Basque Country and Galicia), from Catalonia North (in southern France, including the mayor of Perpignan) and from other European countries without a state (especially Scotland, whose flag is increasingly shown in demonstrations here to symbolise the referendum demand).

Opponents of Catalan self-determination gave very different attendance figures for September 11 to supporters. The Spanish government representative in Barcelona put attendance at 370,000 while the pro-Spanish union group Catalan Civil Society (SCC) claimed it was only 292,000.

Pro-unionist counter-mobilisations on the day drew about 500 to 700 at a “people’s breakfast” put on by new right-wing party, Citizens (the official opposition in the Catalan parliament), 200 to a gathering of the Catalan branch of the PP and 23 to a protest of the extreme right.

Unlike the social-democratic and anti-nationalist Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), neither Citizens nor the PP chose to take part in the traditional wreath-laying ceremony that takes place in the morning of September 11 at the statue of Rafael Casanova, leader of the 1714 defence of Barcelona against the invading forces of the Bourbon monarchy.

In the evening, about 2000 took part in the traditional separate Diada mobilisation of the Catalan nationalist left. It was addressed by left-nationalist People’s Unity List (CUP) parliamentary spokesperson Anna Gabriel and ended in a mass “burn-in” of photos of Spain’s King Philip.

Catalan Republic

The slogan for this year’s Diada was, in Catalan, “a punt”, conveying the meanings “ready to go” and “on the verge”. This reflected another important first for this Diada. It was the first Catalan national day since the election last September of a pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament. A Catalan government committed to a road map to independence was formed.

The government was formed by the Together For Yes (JPS) electoral coalition made up of the conservative nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and other forces, including prominent unaffiliated pro-independence figures.

The government was formed after over two months of fraught negotiations between JPS and the CUP. It ended in the “stepping aside” of former CDC premier Artur Mas and his replacement by present Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont.

To dramatise the fact that the movement now holds government in Catalonia, this year’s Diada also featured the presence of “the politicians”. They were led by Puigdemont himself — the first time a Catalan premier has attended what has always portrayed itself as a people’s movement.

Puigdemont attended the Salt mobilisation as one more participant, while other government figures attended the other four centres. As ex-premier, Artur Mas finally felt free to attend the Barcelona mobilisation.

Now that pro-independence forces rule the Catalan state institutions, exactly where is the movement “ready to go”? The stated answer is towards a Catalan Republic. This is a goal that can include pro-independence forces, but also those who would want to see such a republic in a federal or confederal relationship with Spain.

This would include a sizeable part of the voting base of the left alliance Together We Can (ECP), which emerged as the main Catalan party at the December and June Spanish general elections. ECP supports a Catalan right to decide, but currently opposes the Puigdemont government’s “road map to independence” as one that excludes large parts of Catalan society.

As part of their effort to broaden the social base of the movement, the ANC and Omnium Cultural used this Diada to make the concept of a Catalan Republic as seductive as possible. Interviewed by nationalist website Vilaweb on September 7, Omnium Cultural president Jordi Guixart said: “What is the message? Forward to the Catalan Republic! It’s that simple.

“It’s time to stop adding so many qualifiers — everyone together! When we talk about Catalan culture we’re talking about culture produced in Catalonia. When we talk about Catalan literature, we’re talking about what’s written in Catalan, whatever it is.

“Let’s simplify things, or we’ll get them wrong. [Barcelona mayoress] Mrs Colau, [ERC president and Catalan treasurer] Mr Junqueras, Mr Puigdemont, are they for the Catalan Republic? Yes. Well, great. September 11 is for all those who want the Catalan Republic.”

This approach was reflected in the manifesto for the day, which outlined the republic’s five main defining features. These were outlined in turn from each centre by five well-known figures from culture, sport and the movement to defend the Ebro River.

They described a country that would be democratic, socially just, cultured, peaceful, accepting of difference, welcoming to refugees and committed to rescuing its environment and restoring the balance between its cities and countryside.

Towards showdown

This year’s Diada took place in the face of growing aggression from the Spanish state and the PP caretaker government.

Latest developments include the possible charging of the speaker of the Catalan parliament, Carme Forcadell, for allowing a vote on a bill outlining a road map to independence.

The Spanish interior ministry also rejected the new name for the CDC—Catalan Democratic Party (PDC) — on the grounds that the new party advocates Catalan independence. For the first time, the CDC-PDC was also refused the right to form a parliamentary group in the Spanish parliament. There has also been growing red-baiting of the Puigdemont government as being hostage to the CUP.

This last PP shellfire came after the CUP indicated that it would vote in favour of a September 28 motion of confidence in the Puigdemont government. This vote was brought on by the CUP’s earlier refusal to support the government’s 2016 budget.

The CUP is still to decide its position on the budget, regarded by the government as absolutely necessary for laying the financial basis of “disconnection”.

At the same time, the Catalan government is pondering whether it might not be worth formally asking the Spanish government (for the 18th and final time) for a Scottish-style referendum. It would do this as publicly and dramatically as possible. The aim would be to put the PP on the spot and make it as difficult as possible for all self-styled democrats to then reject the results of a unilateral Catalan referendum in the event of almost certain rejection by Madrid.

The Puigdemont government’s tactics will be revealed on September 28. They boil down to two options — a unilateral referendum or new Catalan elections seeking endorsement for continuing the break with the Spanish state. In either case, a final showdown with Madrid is inevitable.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent based in Barcelona. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]


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