Referendum on the Catalan Estatut: Victory for the “Yes” but with a huge abstention

On June 18, a referendum was held in Catalonia (Spain) on the new Estatut. A big majority voted “yes” but the level of abstention was very high, with only 49.5% turning out on the day. Abstention was particularly high in the working class areas. The massive “yes” vote was more a vote against the right-wing PP than an enthusiastic vote for the Estatut itself.
After two long years of debate, the new Estatut of Catalonia was recently ratified by a referendum in which 74% of those who turned out voted for and 20% against. The total turnout however, was only 49.5%. The process of reform has been characterised by the extreme polarisation that the reactionary right wing has introduced into the situation. The Popular Party (PP) has launched a campaign in defence of its own view of “national-Catholicism” that differs very little from what the Franco regime stood for. This is one of the key reasons why it is necessary to have a correct interpretation of the results of June 18. Amongst those that voted for the Estatut we find a strong rejection of the reactionary policy of Acebes, Rajoy and Zapalana (the three main leaders of the right wing in Spain).

The “Yes” vote received more than 67% in all of the regions with an overall average of 73.9%. In the regions of Central Catalonia the size of the “Yes” vote was even more impressive. In the Berguedà the “Yes” vote reached 77.59% and the “No” only a mere 16.36%; in Anoia, it was 75.98% against 18.55%. In those regions the Popular Party normally gets a mere 7% in the regional elections, however the ERC (Left-wing Republican Catalan Party – Campaigning also for the No because it did not recognise Catalonia as a nation with the right of self-determination) in the latest elections obtained over 20%. What has happened is that the “No” defended by the ERC was not able to cut across the right-wing polarisation introduced by the PP and a section of the voters of the ERC voted “Yes” as a way of opposing the Spanish right wing.

In fact, the ERC in the last elections increased its share of the votes thanks to a wave of protest votes against the PP (and they were the best placed to win those votes). The same process was observed in Girona (one of the four provinces of Catalonia) where the “No” got less support than what the ERC achieved in the last elections. In Barcelona, in the Gràcia district, where the ERC has traditionally won its best results, the level of the “No” vote was eighth out of the ten districts that make up Barcelona. Only in the region of El Tarragonès, in the southern province, did the “No” reach 27.82%. In Tarragona where the CIU (a right-wing nationalist party) rules the “No” got almost 30%.

On the other hand, we see that the abstention in the industrial red belt of Barcelona was very high. In Sant Adrià del Besòs a 60.75% abstention rate, in Santa Coloma de Gramanet 59.51%, in Badalona 57.34% and in Badia del Vallès 64.87%. In general, in the working class neighbourhoods the turnout was very low. Also in Sabadell and Terrassa the abstention rate was over 60% in the working class areas, despite the fact that both the Socialist Party (PSC) and Iniciativa-Esquerra Unida [a coalition of the former communists - now greens and the left-overs of the PSUC and some other minor groups] with the support of the two main trade unions, the UGT and Workers’ Commissions (CCOO) had presented the new Estatut as a step forward in terms of social rights. On this they convinced no one. They repeated ridiculous slogans such as “this Estatut is the Estatut of the people” (!!). The real situation is one where the policy of these parties in the regional government, has not produced any change. They have accepted all the factory closures, they have not stopped the casualisation of labour, the shortage of housing has not been resolved, and they have not broken with the right-wing policy of the CIU in the years 23 previous. If the tri-partite regional coalition government had made any difference in just one of these issues it would have come into conflict with the interests of big business. This would have sent a clear signal to the working class neighbourhoods that the regional government was implementing left-wing policies, and thus the level of abstention would have been reduced. But no such signal was sent out, and therefore, the people punished the government by not bothering to vote in the referendum. Especially when the “No” vote was seen as support for the PP, they decided not to vote.

Early elections

Now that the referendum is over we have already entered the election campaign. In fact the whole referendum was a badly disguised campaign for the Catalan elections. The tops of the CIU have been repeating tirelessly that after a good Estatut, Catalonia needs a good Government, i.e. themselves in power. Their leaders Artur Mas and Duran i Lleida have used the vicious attacks of the Popular Party to put themselves forward as the more moderate option for a coalition with the Spanish national government than the “pro-independence” ERC [at the moment the PSOE has a coalition with the ERC], because the ERC is seen by the PP as a dangerous nationalist beast! Zapatero’s manoeuvres have split the tri-partite Catalan regional coalition government (PSC-ERC-IC-EUiA) and forced early elections. The CiU has been attacking the ERC presenting them as dangerous leftists, while at the same time wrapping themselves in the Catalan flag. The problem is that the CiU defends the very same extremely conservative economic and social policy as that of the PP [they were in fact together in a coalition government a few years ago].

The agreement between Mas (CIU leader) and Zapatero (Prime Minister and leader of PSOE) has undoubtedly been a factor in demobilising the youth and the workers. This was clear from the low turnout at PSC-PSOE election campaign meetings in Catalonia. At the main rally during the referendum campaign only 3,000 people turned up, far fewer than the usual 15,000 to 20,000 that turn out during normal electoral campaign meetings.

There is another important aspect in the current political situation in Catalonia that needs to be underlined. All parties have deep internal divisions and political differences. In the CIU, it is one between Artur Mas and Duran i Lleida, whioch amounts to a power struggle to control the party. In the PSC, it is between Maragall (current President of the Catalan regional Government) and Montilla (Industry Minister) both campaigning to head the list in the coming elections. In the ERC, there are two wings, the Carod-Rovira (leader of the party) and the Puigcercós wing (he is the leader of the parliamentary group in the National Assembly). In the PP, Piqué leader of the Catalan party is watched with suspicion from Madrid – for being too nationalist - and in the background waiting his turn is Vidal Quadras (former leader of the Catalan PP). All these divisions reflect the period of instability that we have entered. As the saying goes, when the storm is coming the tops of the trees move first.

For 23 years the youth and workers suffered under the conservative governments of Pujol and the CiU. In just two years the pressures from the right wing on the left-wing government have provoked a split within the ruling coalition. The lack of a serious and coherent policy on the part of the left has highlighted the bankruptcy of the reformist leaders. What is needed is a radical change in the policy of the Catalan government. It is not enough to label oneself as being left-wing and to go around saying that the Estatut is a left-wing one. One has to back up words with deeds. What are the elements within the Estatut that prove that the text is a left-wing one? Let’s look at just one aspect, education for instance. 1) The state-funded schools are defined as lay, but religious education will be still given in those schools. 2) There will be two school networks, one state-funded but with fewer resources and another privately-funded, still with some public money and with an elitist character.

In the same way the ERC, despite deciding at the last minute to vote “No” to the Estatut, during all the process of negotiations accepted all the limitations imposed by the Spanish Constitution. The fact that at the last minute they reminded us that they also defend the right of self-determination did not have much effect. For many voters of the ERC the “No” vote that the party was asking for had little sense, as many concessions had been accepted in the previous months. On the other hand, they concentrated the debate on the question of taxation, linking this to the investments that they demand of the bosses and not to the social needs of the workers and youth. Also within the ranks of the EiUA [the coalition of the left-overs of the Communist Party] the campaign was received with little or no enthusiasm, with a large part of the rank-and-file defending the “Yes” more out of loyalty to the leadership than conviction.

As we have said, we have entered fully a new election campaign. In the media there is already speculation about the future coalition government and all the possible alliances that may be built after the elections. From the point of view of the bosses’ elite in Catalonia, the first choice would be a CiU government or a coalition between the PSC and the CiU, that would allow them to have their direct representatives in office in Catalonia and at the same time anchor the Socialist Party in the Spanish government to the right-wing economic policy of Solbes (Minister of the Economy) and co. This, however, would not be a good option for the workers and youth. What we need is a left-wing government with a socialist programme with the support of the workers in order to carry out our democratic and social demands.

The Marxists believe that a class-based alternative is needed now more than ever, an alternative in defence of democratic rights that will purge the state apparatus of fascist elements. The defence of democratic rights, such as the right to self-determination, has to be linked to the defence of social rights, as part of an economic programme to challenge the capitalists, to carry out ambitious social changes at all levels, putting an end to casualisation of labour and low wages, solving the housing problem, defending the public healthcare system and state-funded schools, etc. Only by adopting a socialist programme can the left mobilise the workers and youth and offer a coherent alternative to the programme of those who defend capitalism, to the right wing of the PP and CiU.