Catalan elections: Jailed and exiled candidates confront the Spanish state

December 2, 2017
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont (centre) with other Together for Catalonia candidates, in Oostkamp, Belgium, on November 25.

All three competing blocs in the intensely polarised December 21 Catalan election are working feverishly to win in a battle shaped by Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s October 27 sacking of the Catalan government.

The elections were called as part of Rajoy’s intervention in Catalonia under article 155 of the Spanish constitution, in order to suppress moves towards independence. The vote is being held in an extraordinary context: two-thirds of the cabinet of the sacked pro-independence government of President Carles Puigdemont are in jail and the other third are in exile in Brussels.

Along with the two detained leaders of the mass pro-independence organisations the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Omnium Cultural, they are facing charges of rebellion, sedition and misappropriation of public funds. Yet most of these jailed figures are candidates for December 21.

The pro-independence bloc for the elections is represented by Together for Catalonia (JxCat, a non-party “ticket of the people” put together by the exiled Puigdemont), the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) of jailed deputy-president Orol Junqueras and the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP).

It is straining to maintain its narrow seat majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

A central goal is to win an outright majority of votes. This would not only harvest the pro-independence forces a bigger seat majority, it would be a devastating political blow against Rajoy and his backers in the Europe Union.

As Puigdemont said in a November 26 interview with El Nacional: “The absolute priority for us is to defeat the coup d’etat, defeat the 155 gang ... that they clearly lose the elections and as a result clearly commit to accepting the decision of the Catalans.

“If the result is a slap in the face for 155 and that gang, what they have to do is undertake to apply the result, to repeal 155 that very night.”

The unionist bloc (which likes to call itself “constitutionalist”) is represented by the social-democratic Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the Catalan branch of the ruling People’s Party (PP) and the neoliberal yuppies of Citizens. For them, the holy grail is a seat majority that makes it impossible for the pro-independence camp to return to government, thus enabling a return to “normality”.

However, the three unionist parties differ over what an alternative to a pro-independence administration should be. The PSC, for example, has rejected  Citizens’ proposal that they agree to support the unionist party winning the most votes to head an alternative administration.

The last thing the PSC leaders want is to campaign in working-class outer Barcelona hobbled by a prior commitment to backing a PP or Citizens government — especially if that’s what they’re actually prepared to do.

That would be a free kick to the remaining political force seeking to extend its support on December 21: Catalunya en Comu-Podem (CatECP), known as “The Commons”. Its campaign calls for return to a social agenda that “overcomes the dynamic of blocs”.

Its vision to achieve this is a left coalition (CatECP-PSC-ERC) that would repeat the “tripartite” Catalan government of 2003-2010, but in which CatECP, not the PSC, would be the dominant force.

The dream of CatECP is to produce a stronger version on a Catalonia-wide scale of the Barcelona en Comu administration of Barcelona Council, led by mayor Ada Colau.

Mutually excluding vetos

The probability of a stable government emerging from this scenario is low. This is especially the case if the pro-independence bloc, presently the largest, suffers any major loss of support.

This is because of vetos on post-election alliances that are being declared by all parties. This is driven not just by competiting positions on the national question, but social ones too.

For example, PSC leader Miquel Iceta announced that his party would not “ally with the parties of the right” (i.e. PP and Citizens) nor with pro-independence parties. That left the PSC with CatECP as its only possible partner. This provoked the former PSC speaker of the European Parliament Josep Borell to comment that “these things should be decided after the vote comes in”.

Borrell’s comment simply invited CatECP to demand watertight guarantees from the PSC that it would not do a deal with Citizens. At the same time, as long as the PSC maintains its veto on alliances with any pro-independence party, CatECP’s plan for a tripartite left-leaning government is unrealisable.

As for CatECP, it has declared that it will not be part of any alliance with JxCat. It portrays the pro-independence alliance as the continuation of the long-ruling and corrupt Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), which was rebooted last year as the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat).

This is despite the fact that almost the only PDECat members on the JxCat ticket are Puigdemont and three detained ministers. The vast majority are “activists for Catalonia”, including some from a left background. PDECat agreed to Puigdemont’s formula for the election campaign, but with much grumbling.

Within the pro-independence camp, the CUP has its own veto — on collaboration with any force pursuing what it calls the “impossible” project of a negotiated referendum with the Spanish state (namely CatECP). This is a warning shot across the bows of JxCat and ERC not to abandon the project of the Catalan Republic, which was offically declared on October 27 on the basis of the October 1 referendum.

Underlying reality

The situation is likely to remain gridlocked unless one of two things happen: a clear repetition of the level of support for the pro-independence camp (preferably with more than 50% of the vote) or a sharp rise in the unionist vote (requiring record participation) combined with stagnation in support for pro-independence forces.

A third scenario — of a huge rise in support for the two parties defining themselves as “left” and “social” (CatECP and PSC) — would require hundreds of thousands of Catalans to become defeatist about the struggle for national rights. Yet while the events of October and revelations of the lack of preparation of the Puigdemont government have demoralised some, they have also enraged and hardened others.

These are are just two of the multiple reactions that the volatile Catalan political situation is producing. This makes it hard to detect anything like a predominant mood. It also makes it hard for most parties to know how best to pitch their message.

It is also a reflection of an underlying reality: that the movement for independence in its component parts — mass associations, pro-independence local councils, Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) and Puigdemont government — has never really managed to associate the independence cause with a improvement that can be felt in the lives of hundreds of thousands of working Catalans (especially from a non-Catalan background). This is important as they need to be convinced that independence would mean a better life for them and their families.

This was not for lack of understanding of the importance of this task, nor of propaganda about the gains that could come with independence.

It was partly due to the needed shift to fighting for a referendum (after a period of assuming that the election of a pro-independence government in itself meant majority support for independence). This shift meant that the discussions on “what sort of Catalonia do we want” had to be sidelined.

It was partly, even largely, due to the adoption of an 18-month timetable to complete the “process” for Catalonia to achieve self-determination. This turned meeting legislative and organisational deadlines into a priority at the expense of being sensitive about how people were reacting to it.

It was certainly due to the Spanish Constitutional Court overruling nearly every piece of progressive Catalan legislation that, if implemented, would have improved the lives of those doing it hardest. This includes a guaranteed citizen’s income and a law to prevent cutting off electricity to households too poor to pay their energy bills.

It was not especially due to resistance from the more conservative elements in the Puigdemont government, or even to ongoing austerity policy. Growth rates above 3% since 2014 have allowed funding of social spending, while still inadequate, to start recovering from the economic crisis.

Whatever the most important influence, the result is today’s very unsettled scenario. According to the latest Metroscopia poll (November 27), 20% of people are still to make up their mind about how they should vote.

All wings of the Spanish establishment — from the Rajoy government, to the Spanish and Catalan big business umbrella organisations, to sections of the Catholic Church — are equating a vote for Catalan independence with populism, economic ruin and sin. In this context, finding the message that will convince undecided voters is not simple.

This is the case across the independence-unionist divide and also within each side.

Independence bloc debate

The three tickets within the independence camp share the basic position that the October 1 referendum, with all its difficulties, was legitimate, as was the October 27 declaration of independence. All three state that the task of an incoming pro-independence government is to return to these foundations and “build the Republic”.

But how is that to be done when the Catalan government is completely controlled from Madrid? Any newly elected pro-independence government will be warned that it, too, faces an article 155 intervention if it steps out of line.

The CUP sees these challenges as being met by the mobilisation and self-organisation of the people. In a November 30 interview with the daily Ara, CUP candidate in Barcelona Vidal Aragones said: “The people are mature enough to decide what they want. If we build majorities, the intervention of the State isn't possible.”

Asked what the CUP would do “if ERC and JxCat do not implement the Republic”, Aragones said: “We haven’t come into the institutions to take part in a Spanish regional administration. If ERC and JxCat violate their commitments, we will adopt measures that put on pressure to make the Republic effective.”

The main tool for building the republic and putting pressure on the other independence parties that the CUP sees is the network of CDRs that has sprung up across Catalonia.

JxCat has not so far engaged publicly with the CUP viewpoint: the priority for Puigdemont’s ticket is recovery of the Catalan institutions and an end to the article 155 intervention, including the oversight of Catalan finances from Madrid.

The unspoken implication is that this recovery isn’t achieved, plans for unfolding the republic will become a distant dream in the absence of a state controlled by a pro-independence government.

Winning the election is therefore the most important task, because it will make it impossible for the Spanish government to continue ignoring and slighting Catalan claims.

In Puigdemont’s words:What is indisputable is that if there is a sufficient pro-independence majority, Catalonia will have sent a colossal message to the world, which is that, despite everything, despite Europe’s green light to Rajoy to do what he wants and despite having open slather to solve what he thinks is a problem, he will have been defeated...

“If with detainees, people in exile, violence, the coup d’etat of 155, 10,000 police, financial persecution, media warfare, economic warfare, we nonethess win, Mr Rajoy will have to give many explanations to Europe.”

For the ERC, its general-secretary Marta Rovira says developing the republic “depends on how overwhelming the democratic mandate received is”.

The ERC and JxCat have been having a muffled debate on what form of government Catalonia should have in the case of a pro-independence victory on December 21. The ERC has floated a number of trail balloons, including an “executive government” in Barcelona to complement the “legitimate government” in exile in Brussels.

Puigdemont’s response was that any number of such formulae could be viable, but “I would like to hear from all candidates, especially those of the article 155 gang, that if the people of Catalonia want there to be a pro-independence majority in parliament and this majority wants to invest as president a person who’s outside the country, that they commit to this person being able to take up the position”.

The ERC has also floated the idea of a broad pro-sovereignty government, running from JxCat to CatECP. The CUP has ruled this out, however, on grounds it cannot govern with a force (CatECP) that does not recognise October 1 as a binding referendum.


On the unionist side, the division of labour is much less complicated. PP leader Xavier Garcia does the Andrew Bolt-style thuggery, including baseless attacks on the Catalan education system and public media.

Of Channel TV3, he said: “I would close it down and reopen it with normal people.” He has also taken out a suit against Catalunya Radio, claiming to be defamed in its morning program.

Citizens leader and leader of the opposition Ines Arrimadas does a “leader in waiting” act, based on trite nonsense about wanting to “govern for all Catalans, including supporters of independence”. Her most venomous barbs are directed not so much at the pro-independence bloc as at the PSC and its leader Iceta, for having done deals with PDECat and the ERC to run various councils.

The PSC is also suspect for not ruling out an alliance with CatECP, seen as little better than the independence bloc for its support for a Catalan right to decide.

Meanwhile the PSC, which has lost councils, mayors and councilors because of its support for 155, is engaged in a shameless hunt for votes from Catalonia’s richest who have abandoned PDECat because of its obsession with independence.

An acidic article in the November 28 NacioDigital, titled “The bourgeoisie breaks its own taboo and starts to feel socialist”, stated: “One of the forums where the contest between unionist candidates is lived out is in the elitist Equestrian Club. [PSC leader] Miquel Iceta was the first candidate invited to its pre-election colloquia, an indicator to be kept in mind.

“Those present observed a lot of empathy between Iceta and the Equestrian Club board.”

Constitutional Court

On November 30, Unidos Podemos, the alliance between Podemos and the United Left in the Spanish parliament, announced that it would appeal the Spanish government’s article 155 intervention to the Constitutional Court.

This was a potentially fruitful move. This is not because there is any chance of the Constitutional Court finding in favour of Unidos Podemos, but because it provides an opportunity to publicise the Rajoy government’s arbitrary use of an article that was never envisaged to allow Madrid to sack a regional government — as many jurists have pointed out.

It will also do no harm to CatECP, which will use the appeal to dramatise that it is the only Catalan party with allies in the Spanish state supportive of Catalonia’s right to self-determination.

All progressives will be hoping that between them, the CUP, CatECP, ERC and JxCat win a broad enough majority, humiliating the “Gang of 155” and opening the door to recovering Catalan self-rule and deepening the crisis of the Spanish state.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He is running a daily live blog on Catalonia’s struggle to decide its future.]

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