catalonia demo Demonstration in Barcelona, 2014. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the new year, supporters of independence need to build a mass movement in Catalonia and solidarity across Europe

Let’s start with a reason to cheer the result of Catalonia’s elections.

The biggest loser was the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy and his minority government in Madrid. Rajoy’s Popular Party trailed in last among all the parties.

Seven Catalan politicians remain behind bars after Rajoy took control of Catalonia, dissolving its government and parliament. This was the man who chose to send in the paramilitary Guardia Civil to attack voters, to seize ballot papers and ballot boxes and to close polling stations on 1 October when the Catalans voted in an independence referendum agreed by their parliament but declared illegal by the PP influenced Spanish Constitutional Court, largely appointed by the Madrid government.

For those of us in Britain it’s sweet justice for a man who has become closely allied to Theresa May in a cynical deal whereby she backs him over Catalonia and he helps her over Brexit (and drops demands for the return of the British military enclave, Gibraltar).

But for those of us who support Catalan independence the cheers must be a bit muted. Yes, the independence parties took the biggest share of the votes, and yes the turnout was impressive but… The centre right Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia), centre left Esquerra and the radical left CUP, Popular Unity – together won 70 seats, two above a majority but two less than in the previous parliament. Together they fell short of winning a majority of votes, though getting 48% of the total.

Esquerra had been in the lead to become the biggest party in the polls but in the end it came third. Junts per Catalunya, led by the Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, overtook them. The CUP went down from 10 seats to four.

Reasons to worry include the fact that the party which received the biggest share of the votes was the pro-business Ciutadans (Citizens) party which won 37 seats, led in Catalonia by Ines Arrimadas. This means they have displaced the Popular Party as the Unionist party in Catalonia, reflecting the fact that in Spain they have been picking up support because they have taken an even harder stance against the Catalans, and the Basques, than Rajoy.

It is a reminder how supposedly socially liberal neo-liberal parties can shift so easily to authoritarianism, something we are witnessing elsewhere in Europe.

That the independence parties did not do better reflects, in my opinion, the fact that their campaign rightly focused on the repression imposed on Catalonia by the Spanish state and the plight of the prisoners. But what they did not do was put forward a vision for an independent Catalan Republic which could break from Madrid’s full on neo-liberal policies and its love affair with finance (sounds familiar to British ears), boost welfare and create jobs. In contrast, the unionists banged on and on about the number of corporations fleeing Catalonia faced with the prospect of independence.

One of the problems in doing that is the divide between Junts per Catalunya coalition, dominated by Puigdemont’s Partido Demócrata Europeo Catalán, and Esquerra and CUP. PdeCat is a centre right grouping which supports neo-liberal policies. On independence Puigdemont prevaricated before finally declaring independence post-referendum, and a substantial section of the party is much cooler than him on the whole independence agenda. Clearly Junts per Catalunya gained votes through sympathy with Puigdemont, but that obscured the fact that his party seems to be in retreat from the declaration of the Catalan Republic.

PdeCat will now be in position to regain the Presidency (it remains to see if Puigdemont can return). That requires CUP not just to offer external support to a PdeCat-Esquerra government, as before, but, despite its own setback, to hopefully launch a grassroots movement for the Republic. That means transforming the existing Committees to Defend the Republic, formed from the grassroots mobilisation which ensured the 1 October referendum went ahead, into a mass movement involving all of those committed not just to supporting independence but creating, from the bottom up, the Catalan Republic.

Local assemblies need to sketch out their blueprint for a new constitutional basis for a Republic, ensuring mass participation, and for an agenda which can create jobs, boost welfare services and more.

That brings me to the biggest problem overshadowing this election. The Catalan Parliament declared independence, then went home for the weekend. The Spanish state, in contrast, mobilised immediately to ensure independence remained a dead letter. In other words, it was in effect a symbolic declaration of independence with no strategy for dealing with the inevitable Spanish response.

The Catalan Government seemed to believe the EU would ride to their rescue but instead its reaction in backing Rajoy speaks volumes about its own undemocratic nature.

The Rajoy government has said it would repeat its repressive actions again. It is under no pressure from the European Union which has backed it to the hilt and remained silent over its repression. Rajoy is under pressure from his right not to make any concessions to the Catalans. In addition, he has to consider his own support. For a decade they have been mobilised in opposition to Catalan demands, demonstrating, petitioning and even demanding a boycott of Catalan goods. Across Spain we have seen Spanish nationalism mobilising, so in Madrid the display of Spanish flags is not confined to upper class areas but is in evidence in working class ones (reflecting in part the hopeless position taken by the Spanish left in relation to Catalan self-determination).

In the immediate term we need to support several crucial things in every way possible: demands for the release of the four political prisoners; the dropping of all investigations and charges against these, plus against the six Catalan ministers released on bail and the President and four ministers in exile in Brussels; the right of President Puigdemont and exiled ministers to return to Catalonia unhindered. The latter are targeted by arrest warrants for their role in organising the independence referendum and face arrest the minute they set foot in Spain.

Unless the three elected candidates in prison (one prisoner is a civilian leader, not politician) are released and Puigdemont and the ministers return, they cannot vote in parliament to form a workable majority. In other words, the Spanish state will over-ride the result of a democratic election.

It is up to Spanish PM Rajoy to convene the Catalan Parliament since he has ripped up Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy and imposed direct rule. He has a deadline of 23 January to do that and the Catalan Parliament must vote on a new government by 8 February.
In the opening days of 2018 this situation requires mass mobilisation in Catalonia and the building of solidarity across Europe. Those of us who support democracy and Catalonia’s right to self-determination all have a job of work to do.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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