The Spanish state versus Catalonia: towards flash point

The ongoing war without guns between the Spanish state and Catalonia entered a critical new phase on October 27. On that day, the newly elected pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament published a draft bill that “solemnly declared the start of the process of creating an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic”.

The bill proposed by that majority — made up of the mainstream nationalist Together for Yes coalition and the anti-capitalist People's Unity Candidacies (CUP) — also declared that the Catalan parliament would not “be subject to the decisions of the Spanish state, in particular the Constitutional Court”.

Instead, the Catalan parliament would adopt the measures needed to start the process of “democratic, massive, sustained and peaceful disconnection from the Spanish state in such a way as to allow the empowerment of the citizenry at all levels”.

Although the declaration — a compromise between the Together for Yes and CUP views of the path to independence — was no surprise, it guaranteed the Catalan rebellion would be the central issue of Spain's December 20 elections.

People's Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy set the tone at a campaign rally in Andalusia on October 29: “There are two primary issues in Spain. The first, people's livelihood and jobs, citizens' wellbeing; the second, what is happening in Catalonia as a result of decisions some people have adopted, irresponsible decisions, decisions contrary to the evolution of events, contrary to our history, contrary to reason and common sense.”

Rajoy said: “I ask everyone, political and social forces and all Spaniards, to stick together in unity … so as to, among other things, differentiate ourselves from those who have behaved neither with prudence nor with a sense of proportion and have wanted to liquidate the law.”

The PM concluded: “They are not going to get away with this and I say to you, don't worry, this will end well.”

Which side?

Rajoy called on all parties to join him in defence of Spanish unity, staging meetings with political, business and union leaders for an entire week to highlight his commitment to defence of the unity and “idea” of Spain. The stream of figures entering the prime ministerial residence, the Moncloa, became known as the “Moncloa boardwalk”.

Madrid's conservative media was ecstatic at Rajoy's performance. Carmen Morodo of the pro-PP La Razon wrote on November 1: “After a parliamentary term in which even some of his own people criticised his low political profile, the independentist challenge has provided Rajoy with an opportunity to correct his line of fire in a striking way, and to do it just two months out from the elections …

“In the end, by going for broke Together for Yes and the CUP will turn themselves into exactly that which they have constantly denied themselves to be — the rabble-rousing element in the biggest paroxysm around the unity and idea of Spain that has ever happened under democracy.”

This outcome was inevitable. Since nothing provokes division within the PP's rival parties more than the national question within the Spanish state, it has never resisted the temptation to pose as the strongest defender of the Spanish state.

Rajoy's invitation to the parties to join his holy war provoked the usual responses within the camp of Spanish centralism.

After meeting the prime minister on October 29, leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) leader Pedro Sanchez agreed to “work in a coordinated way in defence of the Constitution, national unity, national sovereignty and equality of all Spaniards”.

At the same time the PSOE leader, who attacks Rajoy as “being more interested in Spain than Spaniards”, launched his party's election platform for a “federal reform” of the Spanish state.

This is a retreat from already weak PSOE positions on the national question. Gone is the description of Spain as a “nation of nations” or any reference to “national aspirations”. Now, Catalonia itself is not even a “nation”, despite the pleas of the PSOE's Catalan affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

Albert Rivera, the leader of Citizens — the “Podemos of the right” that began life as a force opposing the Catalan statute of autonomy — likewise gave “firm support to the government in defence of the law and also in defence of having it obeyed”.

“Spain is not to be touched”, said the “cool”, “modern” politician of the moment, sounding like any Spanish-nationalist relic from the past 150 years. Citizens is fishing for the vote of traditional PP supporters who feel that Rajoy has been passive towards the “secessionist threat”.

Meeting the prime minister, Rivera proposed a five-point “pact for Spain”. This would recognise that sovereignty belongs to the “Spanish people” as a whole, that the country is a unitary state and the constitution is the framework for any changes in institutional arrangements. It would pledge Spanish support for greater European integration and parties signing the pact would undertake not to depend on the support of nationalist parties to govern.

This last point is aimed at both major parties, but particularly the PSOE. Given a possible close result in December, the social democratic party could need the support or abstention of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and/or various Catalan and Galician forces to push the PP out of government.

The Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD) takes an even more patriotic stance. It has already filed a lawsuit against the speaker of the Catalan parliament for “possibly committing a crime of conspiracy to commit sedition”.

UPyD leader Andres Herzog demanded Rajoy immediately apply article 155 of the constitution against the Catalan parliament. This article gives the central government the power to suspend regional administrations “in case of not fulfilling the obligations of the Constitution and the law, or acting in a way that seriously damages the general interest of Spain”.

But the holy alliance of Spanish centralism does not include every all-Spanish party: both the United Left and anti-austerity party Podemos have refused to join. Their support for a Catalan right to decide its future means the election campaign will likely see the first mass discussion about the democratic rights of nations that make up the Spanish state since the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s.

Rajoy invited Podemos general secretary Pablo Iglesias and United Left lead candidate Alberto Garzon to be part of his crusade. Both pointed to the undemocratic foundation of the prime minister's defence of existing legality.

Iglesias refused to join the “grand coalition of the three parties” because the Podemos project for Spain (“a country of countries”) is to “recognise diversity”, “build bridges” and “not be afraid of democracy”. For the Podemos leader “the PP is the reason why Spain is coming apart, because it is a factory of independentists”.

Garzon said: “We are not going to take part in this theatre of a supposed pact of state, whose purpose is to intimidate Catalonia.” United Left opposes any use of the law against the Catalan parliament, even while disagreeing with the declaration of Together for Yes and the CUP.

The United Left proposes a table of dialogue among all political forces. The aim is to start a discussion about how to launch a constituent process to restructure the Spanish state as a federation, allowing a referendum in Catalonia in that context.


The scene is now set for a showdown between the Spanish state and Catalonia, with increasingly aggressive threats from Madrid combining with filibustering tactics from the PP and Citizens' parliamentary groups in the Catalan parliament.

On November 2, foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told Channel 3 that what was going on in Catalonia was “an authentic uprising”. He said: “When you are faced with an uprising of this type you have to suppress it, you have to stop the law from being broken.”

The same day, Spanish finance minister Cristobal Montoro threatened to cut off financing to Catalonia and Spanish interior minister Jorge Fernandez described the situation as a “civil coup d'etat” and “the most critical situation since the death of Franco”.

On November 4, the Catalan parliamentary fractions of the PP, Citizens and the PSC took separate lawsuits to the Constitutional Court. They claimed the speakership of the Catalan parliament had infringed parliamentary regulations in setting November 9 as the day when the draft bill of Together for Yes and the CUP would be voted on.

The basis for this claim was that the speakership had made the decision illegally, before the PP had formed its parliamentary fraction (this was a deliberate filibustering tactic of the PP). The court ruled that the session could go ahead, rejecting the application of the PP and Citizens that it be banned.

Nonetheless, once the draft bill is passed, the Rajoy government will immediately appeal to the Constitutional Court, which is bound to rule it unconstitutional.

What will the Catalan parliament then do? Given that governing majority only won 47.8% of the vote, and that the December 20 Spanish elections could produce a new, more progressive, majority in the Spanish state, the temptation to take a temporary step backward is strong.

On the other hand, the pressure to maintain the momentum towards the creation of a sovereign Catalan state is also powerful, especially given that there has been not one concession from Madrid in the five years since the independence movement began its massive rise.

The next two weeks will be decisive.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly's European correspondent. An updated, more detailed version of this article will be published soon at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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