Catalan elections: Left poised to make strong gains

Sunday, November 25, 2012
Alexis Tsipras, the lead of Greece's radical left-wing SYRIZA party, addressing a rally in Barcelona in support of the ICV-EUiA candidates in Catalonia's November 25 elections.

Politics in the Spanish state is a Rubik’s cube where all players must mark out their position on the axis of the rights of its nationalities, as well as class struggle and social justice.

All-out warfare on both fronts marked the final week of the campaign for the November 25 elections for the Catalan parliament, as the nine parties with a chance of winning representation in its 135-seat chamber traded blows.

The election took place against the background of vast mobilisations around Catalan national rights and the all-Spanish social struggle. These were dramatised by the 1.5 million-strong Barcelona demonstration for independence on September 11 and the million-strong turnout for a rally as part of the November 14 general strike.

If the election result confirms polls, the right-wing nationalist government of Convergence and Union (CiU) will fall just short of an outright majority. Support for the social-democratic Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), meanwhile, could collapse so much that it would plummet from second place to fourth or even fifth.

If the PSC loses any more of its traditional working-class support, its place would be taken by one of the centre-left nationalist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the right-wing Spanish-centralist People’s Party of Catalonia (PPC) or ― a longer shot ― the left alliance of Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and the United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA).

The last polls showed up to 30% of voters are undecided, putting these five major contenders in a position where their worst nightmares could still come true:
· CiU, after calling an early election with the idea of surfing the wave of national sentiment to a 68-seat absolute majority, might actually end up losing some of its 62 seats, especially to the ERC, which openly stands for Catalan independence;
· The PSC could be reduced to 15 seats from 28 (it had 42 seats in 2003), especially if the trend for its disillusioned voters to move leftwards to the ICV-EUiA strengthens;
· The ERC, despite showing higher support in all polls, could still be cut back by CiU on the national front and ICV-EUiA on the social front;
· ICV-EUiA could be hurt by disenchanted PSC voters going back “home”, especially if there is also a surge of support for the activist-based pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP); and
· The PPC could lose its war for the anti-nationalist vote to Citizens and for the anti-immigrant vote to Islamophobic hate merchant Josep Anglada and his Platform for Catalonia.

In the atmosphere of radicalisation and volatility only three things seemed pretty certain.

Within the broad family of Catalan nationalism its maddest cousins, Solidarity and Independence for Catalunya, with their happy line of “don’t worry, just declare independence”, look set to lose all three seats; support should rise for Citizens, as the way of voting “for Spain” but not for the PPC, affiliated to Spain's governing party that is implementing hated austerity measures; and the issue for the PSC would be just how much it could contain its losses.

CiU v PPC

The election took place two years before the due date because Catalonian President Artur Mas realised that playing the nationalist card was his best way of guaranteeing CiU’s survival in government. Before taking that plunge, Mas was just another hated implementer of austerity in free fall in the polls.

The price of Mas’s move was to unleash the Spanish oligarchy’s ancient hatred of things Catalan. It has taken the often-tense relationship between the ruling elites in Barcelona and Madrid to breaking point.

The main PPC line has been that if Mas’s “separatist delirium” were successful, the incoming government in Catalonia would be obsessed with “separation” rather than the economic crisis and unemployment.

PPC leader Alicia Sanchez-Camacho’s campaign (“Catalonia Yes, Spain Too!”) was full of spooky nonsense about an independent Catalonia being doomed to Third World status ― broke,out of the euro, unable to pay pensioners while forcing immigrants to Catalonia from other parts of Spain to adopt Catalan names.

A week out from the poll, the conservative daily El Mundo published a copy of a “legal document” that purported to show Spanish interior ministry police investigating Mas for allegedly receiving funds from a scam involving Catalan government contract kickbacks to CiU. The funds were supposedly in a Swiss bank account.

With no one able so far to locate the original of the document, this affair only helped Mas. Already running a messianic personal campaign parallel to CiU’s, he increasingly presented himself as a non-politician who would retire to play with the grandchildren once he had given his people self-determination.

In a three-way TV debate between Mas, Sanchez-Camacho and PSC leader Pere Navarro, the Catalan premier easily emerged on top as the one candidate supporting an unconditional Catalan right to decide.

CiU v PSC

Independently of his motives, Mas’s move revived debate about the structure of the Spanish State like nothing else in decades.

It even forced the PPC to cover its most exposed flank, with Sanchez-Camacho admitting that Catalonia actually does suffer from fiscal discrimination. She said she would not repeat her party’s 2009-10 campaign against Catalonia’s statute of autonomy with the Spanish state.

Most of all, Mas wrong-footed the PSC, whose line was that it supports Catalonia’s right to decide, provided this is exercised constitutionally.

Since the Spanish constitution allows only the regional governments (“autonomous communities”) to conduct referenda on the say-so of the Spanish parliament, the PSC position means the Catalan right to self-determination can only ever be exercised in the almost unimaginable case that a majority in its favour sits in the Spanish parliament.

Yet polls taken in Catalonia since September 11 show that more than 80% of people, including those opposed to independence, support the country’s unilateral exercise of the right to decide, as do a clear majority of Catalan parliamentary parties.

Little wonder Mas kept intoning that “no constitution, no law, no court can stop a people from fulfilling its destiny”.

ERC v CiU

But just how pro-independence is CiU? The party is a federation between the pro-independence Democratic Convergence of Catalonia and the federalist Democratic Union of Catalonia.

Over the years it has also become the main party of patronage, attracting a sizable membership of people content with the status quo and prepared to go along with CiU’s Catalanist rhetoric so long as it was not acted on.

The vagueness of CIU’s election campaign slogan (“The Will of a People ― Let’s Make it Possible”) contrasts with the ERC’s “A New Country for Everyone”.

A sign that ERC's attacks on CiU ambiguities were having some impact was the late rush of CiU advertising urging a vote for Mas as the man “who would have to lead the process to a state of our own”.

Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, CiU parliamentary leader in the national parliament, reminded voters that in 2003 the ERC had formed a three-party government with the PSC and ICV-EUiA rather than stick to the nationalist camp.

Everyone else v ICV-EUiA

The ICV-EUiA campaign was summed up in its slogan “National Rights, Yes; But Social Rights Too”. It backed the need for a Catalan act of self-determination, but avoided a commitment to a specific outcome, saying this would depend on the options available at the time of choice.

In the words of lead candidate Joan Herrera to a November 20 meet-the-candidate event at the University of Barcelona: “The sovereignty debate shouldn’t be approached in terms of identity or sentiment but in terms of what sort of political community we want.”

The ICV-EUiA campaign, based on giving a voice in the institutions to the vast range of social struggles taking place in Catalonia, had enough impact to attract counter-attacks from all the other main contenders.

The nervousness of the PSC was particularly marked. A former PSC mayor and more than 1000 trade unionists called for a vote for the left-wing coalition.

One emblematic moment occurred when Diana Garrigosa, wife of former Barcelona mayor and Catalan premier Pasqual Maragall, said she was hesitating between a vote for ICV-EUiA and spoiling her ballot.

The PSC response to this trend has been to lie. Navarro told a meeting in working-class Hospitalet that “whoever votes for ICV-EUiA is voting for independence”. On the same day, the ERC attacked the left coalition for not supporting independence.

Mas tried to counter ICV-EUiA criticism of CiU-imposed austerity with attacks on the ICV-EUIA’s role in the previous tripartite government, whose “waste” was supposedly at the heart of the Catalan state’s financial crisis.

The CUP emerges

Almost in a parallel universe to that of the main election campaign was that of the CUP, with its slogan “Independence! Socialism! Catalan Lands!”. It generated enormous enthusiasm among activists, with 450 meetings around the country, culminating in a main rally in Barcelona involving 2400 people, with hundreds having to follow the event from outside the hall.

The CUP campaign received endorsement from left nationalist and radical forces across the Spanish state, including from Arnaldo Otegi, the jailed leader of the Basque nationalist left.

In the streets of Catalonia’s main cities CUP material often predominated, testimony to the enormous mobilisation of its own activists and other social collectives that identified with its message.

Confident of winning seats, on November 21 the CUP announced the five proposals it would take into the Catalan parliament: exercising the right of self-determination; stopping public service cuts and privatisations; closing nuclear power stations and reinstituting public management of water; carrying out a debt audit and not paying back any illegitimate debt; and immediately halting evictions.

Given this likely left shift, Artur Mas may yet rue the day he decided to play the Catalan nationalist card against Madrid.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green left Weekly, based in Barcelona. A full analysis of the results of the November 25 Catalan election will appear on the Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal website.]



From GLW issue 947