Are new Catalan elections on cards despite the pro-independence majority?

March 8, 2018
A pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona last October 21.

After the December 21 Catalan election reconfirmed a majority for pro-independence forces, it seemed inevitable a new government would soon be formed. More than two months later, however, the spectre of a repeat election haunts Catalonia.

The December 21 result effectively ratified the October 1 referendum on independence and the October 27 proclamation of a Catalan Republic. It also showed an overwhelming rejection of the Spanish government’s squashing of Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the constitution.

So why have matters reached this point?

Firstly, because the entire Spanish establishment — led by a central People’s Party (PP) government backed by the judicial system — refused to accept the result.

They immediately subverted it with a legal offensive. This included a January 28 Constitutional Court “provisional” judgment that prohibited outgoing Catalan president Carles Puigdemont from being reappointed in his absence, with Puigdemont in exile in Belgium to avoid Spanish state charges of sedition for organising the “illegal” October 1 vote.

This ruling also disqualified the vote of the four pro-independence MPs also exiled in Brussels and threatened the Catalan parliament with severe sanctions if it disobeyed these rulings.

Secondly, because this assault immediately provoked different responses within the pro-independence bloc.

War of position?

The reaction of some, mainly but not only from the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), was caution. Their absolute priority is to recover the Catalan institutions lost under article 155. If needed, they will sacrifice Puigdemont’s chance at resuming the presidency and accept that an incoming Catalan administration — whatever its republican window-dressing — will be a regional government within the Spanish state.

This rests on an assessment that the independence cause suffered a severe defeat with the Mariano Rajoy government’s coup against self-rule, and needs to accumulate more social support to advance.

Joan Tarda, senior ERC MP in the Spanish parliament, wrote in a March 4 El Periodico article: “To broaden the social majority, two ideas are indispensable without which nothing makes sense: that Catalonia is and must be one single people in the framework of freedoms, economic progress and social justice … and that we need to learn the best route to reach the summit [of an independent Catalan Republic] and with whom to make the journey.

“In this sense, republicanism must join with the other political forces that also defend a binding referendum, led by [Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP) leader] Xavier Domenech, and must open the road to a frank dialogue (local council work can be a good laboratory) with the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) of [secretary] Miquel Iceta, who has to decide whether to oppose or foster the decline in rights and freedoms.”

For the ERC, repeating elections is a folly to be avoided at all cost. It would offer the pro-unionist camp of Citizens and the PP the chance to wreck the Catalan education system, police force and the public broadcaster.

A practical impact of ERC caution was the January 30 decision of parliament speaker, the ERC’s Roger Torrent, to suspend Puigdemont’s planned investiture to avoid a Constitutional Court sanction.

Another example was Puigdemont’s March 1 decision to provisionally step aside as candidate and allow jailed former Catalan National Assembly (ANC) president Jordi Sanchez to take his place.

JxCat-ERC agreement

This risk aversion is shared by leaders of the right-nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat), part of Puigdemont’s Together for Catalonia (JxCat). But it provoked sharp reactions from other pro-sovereignty forces.

In the negotiations over government formation, JxCat leaders closest to Puigdemont held out for more than a month in support of a “Puigdemont or elections” stance. They argued that December 21 had been about the legitimacy of the president’s sacking. Therefore, not having Puigdemont as candidate would accept the right of the Spanish authorities to overturn the will of Catalan voters.

It was only when ERC made it clear that it would not give unconditional support to this position if it threatened the speakership panel with legal sanction (probably jail) that JxCat finally backed down.

Its retreat opened the door to a February 27 agreement that marked a JxCat-ERC compromise between the need to affirm the Puigdemont government’s legitimacy and the need to make it impossible for Madrid to stop a new Catalan administration forming.

It envisaged that:

  • The Catalan parliament would vote to recognise Puigdemont as Catalonia’s legitimate president, reconfirm the declaration of independence and demand the lifting of article 155;

  • An Assembly of the Republic, made up of representatives of Catalan local government and civil society, would be set up in a “Free Space in Brussels”, along with an executive Council of the Republic headed by Puigdemont. Its main tasks would be to initiate a Catalan constitutional process and build support for Catalan independence internationally. Its formal status would be that of a private foundation to protect it from legal persecution by Spanish authorities;

  • A government would be set up in Catalonia, with 14 ministries equally divided between JxCat and ERC. Sanchez would be the candidate for president. If Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena, responsible for Sanchez’s detention, did not allow him to leave jail for the investiture session, this ruling would be appealed all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. JxCat leader Jordi Turull would be candidate for president in the meantime.

Unfolding the Republic?

On the basis of these negotiations and discussions with the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP), the pro-independence bloc was able to present a joint majority resolution to Catalan parliament on March 1.

This resolution dodged the threat of legal action by Spanish authorities by only “noting” the December 21 vote as confirmation of support for an independent Catalan Republic.

It also denounced Spain’s “authoritarian and undemocratic evolution”, demanded article 155 be lifted and asserted the Catalan government’s “support of the social, civil and political rights of all Catalans without exception, building a new, just, inclusive and solidarity-based country”.

However, the CUP rejected the JxCat-ERC agreement, characterising it as “a recipe for regional government” rather than an “unfolding of the Republic”.

On March 3, the CUP’s Political Council voted to abstain on Sanchez’s investiture. This guaranteed its defeat 65-64 because CatECP had already said it would vote against any government including JxCat.

Among the reasons for this stance given by CUP spokesperson Vidal Aragones were the agreement’s “total submission to Spanish legality” and its “failure to address the degree of suffering of the popular classes”.

The proposal to leave the organising of the constituent process to the “Free Space in Brussels”, rather than form part of the program of the Catalan government, was also of concern. Given this, said Aragones, “new elections would not be the worst alternative”.

The back-and-forth between pro-independence parties has created increasing disquiet within the independence movement. This movement had shown itself still in good health with vigorous protests against Spanish King Felipe’s February 25 visit.

Leaders of the ANC and Catalan language and culture organisation Omnium Cultural have attacked “the politicians” for letting it down.

On March 6, Omnium Cultural vice-president Marcel Mauri tweeted: “The citizens who defended the October 1 vote, who mobilise for freedom of expression and freedom for the prisoners and exiles and who voted for independence on December 21 deserve more respect, a more transparent exchange of viewpoints and fewer shameful tactical squabbles among the parties.”

Such criticisms also featured in the ANC’s 2000-strong annual general convention on February 25. As well as calling a March 11 mobilisation in support of restoring Catalan self-rule, the convention adopted a road map of “preconditions for consolidating the Catalan Republic, the constituent process, the calling of constituent elections, the participatory elaboration of the Catalan constitution and the referendum to ratify it”.

For their part, the grassroots Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDRs) are pushing ahead with implementing symbols of the republic, such as naming streets and squares after October 1, and preparing a program for “unfolding the republic” in more material ways.

The CUP’s national municipal conference in March will also focus on “growing the Republic from the roots”.

New reality

These differences are a symptom of a new reality for the Catalan sovereignty movement: the days of easy advance based on an alliance between movements, parties and government ended with the Spanish state’s article 155 coup. The enormous mobilisation to win on December 21 also came at the expense of broad discussions within the pro-independence camp over strategy.

Suggesting new elections could be a way forward, Vilaweb editor Vicenc Partal wrote on March 4: “If with the present configuration of the pro-independence bloc the way to form government can’t be found, let the people decide on another configuration. Or let them repeat the current one, which would send a strong message to the parties that they have to negotiate seriously.

“And in any case, let the people respond to the great background debate that is masked by the negotiations: do we need to move straight to building the Republic or is it necessary to first look to build whatever can be managed in the framework of regional government, accepting, therefore, the rules imposed by the coup d'etat?

The key concern is whether a failure to form government would so demoralise independence supporters that the result would lead to electoral success for pro-Spanish forces. Talks between the parties are now underway that could determine the next steps.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. His live blog on the Catalan struggle can be found here. A more detailed version of this article will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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