New Catalan left force represents a hurdle cleared on the road to unity

Ada Colau and Xavier Domenech at the Un Pais En Comu congress.
Monday, April 24, 2017

The struggle to build a united left force with enough support to implement real social and environmental change took a crucial step forward in Barcelona on April 8.

On a bright spring day, the new Catalan “political subject” provisionally called Un Pais En Comu (“A Country Together”) held its founding congress.

The group, whose definitive name will be decided by membership referendum, is the third Catalan left unity project with “en comu” (“together”) in its title.

The first, in June 2014, was the broad activist coalition called Barcelona En Comu that won the May 2015 Barcelona city council election. Defeating the ruling conservative nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU), the new formation made former housing rights activist Ada Colau the city’s mayor and a reference point for radical politics across the Spanish state.

Next came the success in the December 2015 and June 2016 Spanish elections with En Comu Podem (“Together We Can”). This alliance of left forces headed by university lecturer and author Xavier Domenech became the lead Catalan force in the Spanish parliament, with about 25% of the vote.

In between these striking successes for a united left project came the disappointing result of the left alliance Catalonia Yes We Can (CSQEP) in the September 2015 Catalan election.

Barcelona En Comu did not participate in the formation of CSQEP, which was an electoral coalition between the old and new parties of the Catalan left. These were the Initiative For Catalonia-Greens (ICV), the United and Alternative Left (EUiA, the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left), the green party Equo, and Podem (the Catalan sister organisation of Spanish-wide anti-austerity party Podemos).

The absence of Barcelona En Comu and Colau in CSQEP showed in its 8.9% vote — and in the alarming success of the right-wing, anti-Catalanist party Citizens.

In the light of these mixed experiences, Colau and Domenech announced in January last year plans to launch a new political project for Catalonia. Its aim was not just to unite existing left forces, but draw together the thousands of non-aligned people who are active in Catalonia’s social movements but often wary of its existing left parties.

What process?

The 2000 members who attended the congress had the job of bringing to a successful conclusion the very specific process needed to create the “new political and social space” of Un Pais En Comu.

The process was driven by an animation group, which developed a draft text focused not on ideologies (hardly any “isms” appear in it) but on the sort of society the majority should fight for.

This draft, the work of 375 contributors, was organised along six axes: for a new economic and environmental model; for a new model of social welfare; for a country that is sovereign “in all spheres”; for a “democratic and feminist revolution”; for a country in which “everyone fits” regardless of difference; and for a democratic, bottom-up restructuring of Catalonia’s territorial organisation.

Ecological consciousness pervaded the text. It noted that, “on a finite planet victim of a global environmental crisis, the capitalist economic model puts at risk the life and wellbeing of many people at present and of all future generations”.

To solve this crisis, the common good has to prevail through a democratic revolution that puts power into the hands of the majority: “Our proposal is one of social and community liberation. In the face of the neoliberal hegemony of the free market and the hierarchical and bureaucratic state, we stand for a new model, radically democratic and based on the empowering of citizens.

“A model that places people in the street at the centre of political action and which strengthens community life in the neighbourhood, the suburb, the workplace and in all places where citizens come together.”

This initial text was then discussed at 70 face-to-face meetings across Catalonia, as well as online. More than 3500 took part, producing 2000 contributions.

Most contributions were incorporated into a revised document, except where they were judged too concrete for a text that outlines general orientations and priorities.

National question

Sixteen amendments were then put before congress on the grounds that they embodied a different approach to the proposed draft. The most important of these concerned the attitude of Un Pais En Comu to the Catalan national struggle.

The text from the animation group proposed the goal of a “democratic and environmentally just Catalan social republic”, as well as the maximum Catalan national sovereignty. Such a republic would look to share sovereign powers with a Spanish state of a “fully pluri-national” character

Against this vision of a sovereign Catalonia in a confederal Spain, one amendment proposed an essentially federal relation with the Spanish state. Another expressed a preference for an independent Catalonia, while not ruling out some relation with Spain.

Both amendments lost after a debate in which leaders from the four main groups involved in the project spoke forcefully in support of the original text.

Another important amendment committed Un Pais En Comu to a strategy of “degrowth”.

The interim leadership elections produced no surprises. Domenech and his team won a majority on the 32-member interim executive, while Colau’s supporting team won a majority on the 120-member interim coordinating committee.

Podem withdraws

With its founding congress, a solid foundation for Un Pais En Comu has been set. This is despite the last minute withdrawal of Podem, whose Catalonia leaders claimed that the conditions for its ongoing participation had not been met.

This was even though Podem members had signed the initial call for the new project. They had also taken part in developing its draft founding text and in the process of formulating amendments.

It was also despite an agreement being thrashed out with the other groups on March 21, 11 days before voting was due to begin on Un Pais En Comu’s interim leadership bodies.

The March 21 agreement met two of Podem’s demands, which had been previously endorsed by a membership ballot. These were that winner-take-all candidate lists not be allowed for all positions and that a Podem-style code of ethics be put to the vote at Un Pais En Comu’s founding congress.

A compromise was reached on Podem’s third demand — that its 52,000 members automatically become members of Un Pais En Comu without having to personally join the new formation in order to vote.

It was agreed that Podem members would have to enrol in Un Pais En Comu, but that a link be put on the Podem website to facilitate this. Membership identity checks — necessary to guarantee one vote per member — could be done over the internet.

An earlier demand by Podem, that it maintain its own structure and participate in an electoral alliance with Un Pais En Comu, was rejected by Colau. The mayor said the whole point of the exercise was to create something going beyond the existing left formations.

The March 21 compromise was endorsed by Pablo Iglesias, the general secretary of Podemos in the Spanish state, as “magnificent news for Spain and for Catalonia”.

For his part, Podem Catalonia general secretary Albano-Dante Fachin commented that “the rest of the protagonists have understood that those three points enrich the whole space”.

Podem then announced its own tickets for the two interim leadership bodies. Fachin declined to take part in the list headed by Domenech, which he dubbed as “the list of the parties” (although independents made up one third of the positions).

Then, on March 30, Podem announced it was withdrawing its candidate lists and not taking part in the founding congress. Its reason was that it had not managed to get the other forces to explain the process of voting in a clear way.

Podem also complained that “the other forces act as both referee and participant, unilaterally setting conditions for [acceptance of] Podemos members”.

The rules of the game “have to be within the grasp of everyone who is standing”, Fachin said, attacking the “old parties” for repeating “the errors of the past”.

For their part, “sources close to the Domenech list” quoted in the March 30 El Diario said that “the only reason for Fachin’s change of opinion is the existence of another Podem list that is competing against him”.

Paying a price

Whatever the rights and wrongs of its decision, the withdrawal of the Podem leadership from Un Pais En Comu so far looks to be hurting it more than the new formation.

The ticket of dissident Podem members got some of its candidates elected to the new force’s leadership bodies. The national Podemos leadership, through Iglesias, also made it clear it will continue to regard Un Pais En Comu as its partner in Catalonia.

Iglesias’s video greeting to the congress stated: “I have no doubt that we shall continue to walk together.”

Pablo Echenique, Podemos’s organisational secretary, told the crowd — which kept chanting “unity, unity, unity” — that “there are some people who have been struggling for 30 years and some who have been struggling for just a while. We have to understand that we in different traditions that share the same goals just have to live together in the same space.”

[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.]