Spanish state: Catalonia hurtles towards showdown

If a Catalan Rip Van Winkle were to wake up today after a sleep of only six years, his disorientation with Catalonia would be as great as that of the original Rip Van Winkle after he dozed right through the American War of Independence.

“Am I hallucinating?” he might ask, struggling to find the right answer to questions like:

• What’s Raul Romeva, former member of the European Parliament (MEP) for the left-wing Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV) doing on a ticket for the September 27 Catalan elections with Catalan Premier Artur Mas, from the ruling conservative nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC)?

Is that the same Romeva who said in 2009 that “if it were up to Convergence, Catalonia would be a huge highway with nuclear power stations, buildings and factories everywhere, without even a tree to provide shade”?

• Why is Josep Duran I Lleida, historical leader of the conservative Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), attacking his former political buddy Mas for involving Catalonia in “a journey to nowhere” by pushing independence?

• Why has the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), which along with ICV and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) ruled Catalonia from 2003 to 2010, shrunk by 70%? Why has its leader Miquel Iceta said he agrees 95% with the electoral program of a new list called “Catalonia — Yes We Can”, centred on a new anti-austerity party called Podemos, ICV and the United and Alternative Left (EUiA- the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left)?

For this modern Rip Van Winkle, the only familiar feature of today’s scene would be the virulent anti-Catalanism of the right-wing People’s Party (PP) government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, still reassuring the citizens of the Spanish state that “there will be no independence for Catalonia”.

But here, too, he might be thrown by the collapse of the PP’s Catalan arm (the PPC), and its replacement as lead weapon of Spanish patriotism in Catalonia by Citizens, the hipster “anti-Podemos” that is popularly known as “the party of the Ibex 35” (the Madrid stock exchange index).

September 27

The immediate focus of today’s agitated and volatile Catalan politics is the September 27 Catalan election. All pro-independence forces — CDC, ERC, the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (PUC) and others — agree that this is a “plebiscitary” poll, called as a stage on the agreed “road map” towards independence.

That is, it is a substitute for a Scottish-style referendum. Such a substitute is needed thanks to the refusal of the Spanish government to grant Catalonia a vote on its future.

For those opposed to Catalonia's right to decide – PSC, PPC and Citizens – September 27 is just a normal regional election. The parties involved in “Catalonia — Yes We Can” avoid characterising it. But they say it is no substitute for a legal referendum, the precondition for which is removing the PP from government in the Spanish state.

The political dynamic in the run-up to September 27 is the product of a three-way clash between two “irresistible forces” and one “immovable object”.

The object is the Spanish centralism embodied in the PP and Rajoy. The irresistible forces are the stormy rise of Catalan independence sentiment - creating the biggest mass movement in Europe - and the emergence of Podemos as political expression of the indignado movement against austerity and for “real democracy”.

A high point in this last process was the inspiring success of the “popular unity” ticket Barcelona Together in the May 24 municipal elections. This citizens’ electoral list was led by now-mayor Ada Colau and backed by ICV, EUiA, Podemos, the all-Spanish Green party Equo and Constituent Process (a movement for a “Catalan Republic of the 99%”). Its success inspired the creation of “Catalonia — Yes We Can”.

The latest polls show “Catalonia — Yes We Can”, which as yet is primarily an alliance between Podemos, ICV and EUiA, winning between 17% and 22.4% of the vote.

The independence camp

The victory of Barcelona Together also shook up Catalonia’s pro-independence camp. Would Barcelona Together’s commitment to a Catalan right to decide — but not necessarily independence — erode support for the independence cause? A June 21 GESOP poll showed that a “Catalonia Together” list would win as many votes as Mas.

The independence movement had reached a high point on November 9 last year when the Catalan government conducted its successful “illegal” consultation of Catalan attitudes towards independence. About 81% voted in favour with 37% of the electorate voting.

Since then, the movement has lost some momentum. This is largely due to ongoing tussles over what electoral ticket would give the independence cause its best chance of winning on September 27.

Among the formulae proposed and rejected within the movement were premier Mas's idea of a non-party ticket “with the president” (rejected by the ERC), and a “civil society” list excluding all politicians.

This formula based on electing candidates “from below” was proposed by the Catalan mass organisations, the Catalan National Assembly, Omnium Cultural and Association of Municipalities for Independence. Both ERC and the CUP were prepared to accept this formula, but it was anathema to the CDC and Mas himself.

In the end, the mass organisations backed away from their proposal and, along with the ERC, agreed to a mixed list of independence movement leaders and political figures, called “Together For Yes”.

Latest polls show “Together for Yes” with between 32% and 39% of the vote.

For its part, the CUP, committed to a list decided from below via primaries, rejected this compromise formula. It will now run its own campaign called CUP-Constituent Call.
Constituent Process may vote to join this ticket. Many Constituent Process members have expressed suspicion over the supposed domination of “Catalonia — Yes We Can” by the established left parties ICV and EUiA, as well as concern about Podemos’s vague positions on the right of Catalonia to self-determination.

The latest polls show the CUP-Constituent Call ticket winning between 7% and 10% of the vote.

The total pro-independence vote is therefore polling between 39% and 49%. A recent poll indicates if pro-independence forces win 49%, they would take a one-seat majority in the Catalan parliament, reigniting the debate as to whether this “plebiscitary” election should be based on seats won or votes won.

Divergence and disunion

To win convergence in the independence camp, some old convergences had to be broken, as was the case with Convergence and Union (CiU).

Most leaders of the UDC, part of the CiU, opposed the “road map”. In early June, the group leaders asked its membership to back this position in a poll. After winning a narrow victory with 50.9%, the UDC split from CiU and its members left the Mas government. A sizeable chunk of the minority, including the parliamentary speaker Nuria Gispert, left to form a new group that will take part in “Together for Yes”.

The UDC majority will go to the September 27 elections on a program of opposition both to independence and to Rajoy’s rejection of any change to Catalonia’s status within the Spanish state. This stance takes them close to the PSC.

The latest polls show UDC winning between 3% and 4.7% of the vote, meaning it may dip out of the next Catalan parliament.

In this phase of “realignments”, the most spectacular has been Romeva's. He was convinced to abandon ICV to become the lead candidate for “Together For Yes”. This position was a big coup for the ticket, which has laboured under the perception of being, in the words of ICV co-spokeperson Dolors Camats, “of, by and for the premier” Mas.

Romeva’s allegiance shift may not be the last from within ICV. On the Catalan national issue, it has long been a common home for federalists, confederalists and supporters of independence. The time for choices is rapidly arriving.

For Joan Coscubiela, ICV MP in the Spanish parliament and the party’s candidate for lead position on the “Catalonia—Yes We Can” ticket, including Romeva at the top of “Together For Yes” makes it “clear that for Mas the adversary to be beaten in these elections is ‘Catalonia—Yes We Can’…

Coscubiela said: “Not only do we defend the right to decide with as much conviction as him, but we do it without forgetting the emergency social situation of our country’s citizens, for which he is responsible.”

The election campaign will therefore take the form of “Together For Yes” accusing “Catalonia—Yes We Can” of standing in the way of independence, and of “Catalonia — Yes We Can” accusing “Together For Yes” of wanting to use the national question to avoid discussing the social crisis.

The CUP-Constituent Call, meanwhile, will agree that both are right about each other.

Citizens and the PPC will fight it out for the Spanish-centralist vote. Along with the UDC, the PSC, which has lost so many voters to “Catalonia—Yes We Can” that it has to praise its program, will wander around the battlefield looking for any left-over “moderates”.

However, this multilateral struggle may well be brought to a halt by the Rajoy government. It has lawyers scrutinising every last declaration and statement of the Mas government in the run-up to the poll, with a view to blocking it in the courts.

It will be judging from day-to-day whether the cost of blocking democracy in Catalonia is not exceeded by the gains it can win for “standing up to Mas” in the rest of the Spanish state.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. A longer version of this article is at LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]