Chris Bambery analyses the Catalonia election which put pro-independence parties ahead of unionists, the crisis for Madrid and the challenges ahead for the left
The result of Sunday’s elections in Catalonia were not meant to be. The Spanish, and indeed UK media were confidently predicting the parties supporting Catalan independence were going to lose because of the Illa effect. Salvador Illa was the Spanish health minister who had resigned his post to head up the challenge of the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), the Catalan affiliate of the ruling Socialist Party (PSOE).
Support for independence, we were told, was slipping, the pro-independence parties were divided (nothing new there) and the coming victory of Illa would remove the issue of Catalan independence to the huge benefit of the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, who is in coalition with the more radical party Podemos and relies on the votes of the Catalan pro-independence Esquerra Republicana Catalan (Catalan Left Republicans, ERC) and the Basque nationalists to get legislation through.
But when the polls shut on Sunday evening, first the exit results and then the actual results showed that while the PSC and Illa polled the most votes, just, with 23 per cent of the vote and 33 deputies just ahead of the ERC, which got the same number of seats with 21.3 percent.
Most of the British media, reporting from Madrid and not Barcelona, reported this as a victory for the Socialists. Perhaps they thought it was a Westminster election or as in Scotland and Wales, there is just one pro-independence party.
But in Madrid as soon as the exit polls were announced Sánchez and his advisers understood Illa could not win and was destined to be the leader of the opposition. And something worse dawned on them.
For in Catalonia there is not just one pro-independence party but a number. The centre-left ERC, the more right-wing Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) and the radical left grouping Popular Unity (CUP).
For the first time pro-independence parties had won a majority of the popular vote - 51.16% - that was the crucial factor in the election, together, of course, that the three pro-independence parties retained a majority in the 135-member chamber with a total of 74 MPs in favour of a Catalan republic, 4 more than in the last election in 2017.
Along with the ERC’s 21.31%, JxCat took 20.06% with 32 percent of the votes. and the CUP 6.68 percent.
This marked a shift within the pro-independence camp with the ERC overtaking JXCat as the bigger party. The latter emerged from a party called Convergencia which dominated Catalan politics for most of the time following the granting of autonomy and the first elected Catalan parliament in 1980 until today.
It only switched to supporting independence at the close of its history after the Spanish Constitutional Court, in 2010, struck down key clauses of a new Statute of Autonomy passed by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments and by a referendum in Catalonia. Not that this bothered the judges of the Constitutional Court, unelected with many political appointees, and indeed have subsequently continued to rule out laws passed by the Catalan parliament.
That decision brought over a million people onto the streets of Barcelona, such large protests became a feature of Catalan society and saw a tsunami of support for independence, which until then was very much a minority position.
In Sunday’s election, a majority of those who voted for independence voted left, for the ERC or CUP. That gives the lie to the oft-repeated canard that Catalans support independence because they are selfish and don’t want to pay taxes to Madrid which benefit the poorer provinces of Southern Spain (actually the money stays in large part in the Spanish capital).
As in Scotland people in Catalonia vote for independence for democratic reasons and because they want a more equitable social and economic agenda.
Meanwhile, another attempt was made to rubbish Sunday’s election results by highlighting the low turnout, a record low of 53.55%. In fact, the Catalan government wanted the election postponed until the Spring when the lockdown is expected to ease but that decision was overturned by judges.
The collapse of Ciudadanos
The relative success of the Catalan Socialists has to be viewed as a shift within the unionist camp. In the outgoing Catalan parliament, elected in December 2017, the biggest single party was Ciudadanos (Citizens) with 36 seats. Today it has just six with its vote collapsing spectacularly from 25.35% to 5.57%.
Ciudadanos is best compared to Emmanuel Macron and En Marche across the Pyrenees in France. It began life as a cuddly neoliberal outfit but, as with Macron, easily shifted to a more authoritarian position in opposing Catalan independence.
In October 2017, when the Catalan parliament authorised an independence referendum, declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, Ciudadanos tried to be even harder than the then ruling government of the right-wing Popular Party (PP). It sent paramilitary police to attack voters, smash their way into a polling station, seizing ballot boxes.
After the Catalan parliament eventually, half-heartedly, declared independence the Spanish government suspended Catalan autonomy and imposed direct rule while the Spanish Supreme Court began proceedings against political and civic leaders on charges of “rebellion” and “sedition.” Nine are now in prison with sentences of up to 13 years. Others are in exile with German, Belgian and Scottish courts refusing to extradite them because of the political nature of the charges facing them in Spain.
Previous Ciudadanos voters defected to the Catalan Socialists in this election, with the PSC almost doubling its vote, because Illa was seen as the best-placed unionist candidate.
But something else also occurred. Those who had previously voted for Ciudadanos or the Popular Party (down to 3 seats from 4 with just 3.85% of the vote) now had an even more right-wing option, Vox.
This is an anti-migrant, anti-Islam and pro-Catholic, pro-“family values” party which includes open fascists and fans of General Franco, the victor of the Spanish Civil War who ruled Spain as a dictator from 1939-1975. It took 7.7 percent of the vote and entered the Catalan parliament for the first time with 11 seats.
Ciudadanos, the PP and Vox were competing as to who was hardest against Catalan independence and there could only be one winner, Vox.
So where now?
A new Catalan government formed by the ERC and JxCat, with CUP voting for it but not joining, under the ERC’s Pere Aragonès is on the cards. It remains to be seen what the CUP’s asking price will be.
Aragonès is committed to creating a dialogue with the Sánchez government with one source describing his wish list thus:
“… the release of the political prisoners and a dialogue table to really face the political conflict. They want the returns they haven’t had up till now. ERC is privately committed to pushing for pardons for the political prisoners, provided it is done with the utmost discretion and the least possible ambient noise, from both the right and the independence movement. It also has the commitment, voted in Congress, to return to the Catalonia-Spain dialogue table as soon as there is a new Catalan administration. A year ago the table met for the first and last time, an unkept promise that weighs heavily.”
The threat ERC has is that it will deny Sánchez its votes which he requires (although when they did do this over how EU money to deal with Covid was distributed, Sánchez relied on the votes of Vox). They also hope Podemos, the junior coalition party, will deliver on its position of supporting a referendum but not independence and in opposing the jailing of the political prisoners,
The trouble is that would require Podemos acquiring a backbone which its shown no signs of having so far.
The purpose of dialogue is to secure a legal independence referendum, one approved by Madrid. But the Financial Times reports:
“But although Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist-led national government favours talks with the separatists — which the PP, Ciudadanos and Vox all reject — it says it will not agree to hold an independence referendum.”
Within the PSOE there were fierce critics of Sánchez for bargaining with the ERC and Eh Bildu, the left Basque pro-independence party, for crucial votes.
There is across Spain a fierce anti-Catalan mood, built up by the PP, Ciudadanos and now Vox and Sánchez knows it can eat into his party’s vote. Vox’s first breakthrough electorally was in 2018 in the Andalusian elections. It then backed the PP and Ciudadanos in forming an administration, ousting the PSOE from its historic fiefdom.
Moving beyond the courts
The other issue is a pardon for the nine convicted Catalan civic and political leaders. They have up until now demanded an amnesty, not a pardon. The latter would not entail them being declared innocent. But even if that was to be granted by the Spanish government, there are thousands of cases going through the courts of pro-independence activists and politicians in relation to the October 2017 independence referendum.
The Spanish courts would have a say too. This week they have jailed a Catalan rapper for his lyrics insulting the King (only in Spain!) and ordered that leave from prison granted to the nine Catalan political prisoners be rescinded. No sign of any softening there by a highly politicised judiciary.
The situation is not dissimilar from Scotland where the Scottish government wants a legal independence referendum but Johnson, who has a veto, says no. Currently, the Scottish National Party has no alternative strategy.
The CUP’s position is that securing over 50 percent of the vote requires not only a move to a referendum as quickly as possible but that new institutions for an independent Catalan state must be built from the grassroots upwards. That might mean boycotting Spanish security forces, taking control of the borders or withholding paying tax revenue to Madrid.
The pro-independence Catalan National Assembly, a grassroots organisation with some 100,000 members is also demanding a move to independence soon. They issued a statement saying:
“The foundations of pro-independence support are as solid as a rock. We have exceeded 50%, a milestone that the Assembly set on its roadmap 2 years ago. This gives us a lot of strength. Now it's up to ERC to lead a united bloc and a government to move towards independence.”
It’s important to say that since the October 2017 independence referendum it is the mass movement which saved the day while Catalan politicians seemed caught in the headlights. There lies hope.
The crisis and the challenge
One last point. The PSOE and Vox votes came from Spanish speaking communities particularly in the Barcelona region, with many Latinos. The unionists have whipped up opposition to their children being taught predominantly in Catalan (all are taught Spanish too).
Thus far the independence movement has not presented a vision of an independent Catalan state which would benefit its people, breaking from the Madrid neoliberal model which prioritises the interests of finance (sound familiar?). It needs to do this to make inroads into those Spanish speaking communities.
To end, the Spanish state now faces a crisis similar to the UK state. It cannot tolerate Catalan independence but the very actions of the Spanish state drives up support for that very thing.
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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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