The campaign for the Catalan elections on Sunday, September 27, has been dominated by a crescendo of attacks and threats by all the reactionary Spanish institutions against anyone defending Catalonia’s independence.
From the Minister of Defence threatening to use the armed forces, to former Spanish president Felipe Gonzalez comparing the pro-independence movement to 1930s fascism in Italy and Germany. Both the Spanish bank owners’ organisation and the wedding dress manufacturer Pronovias have threatened to take their businesses elsewhere if Catalonia goes independent. The reactionary Spanish government of Rajoy has lined up Merkel, Obama and the EU’s Juncker to make statements in defence of Spain’s unity. To top it all up, the archbishop of Valencia has called a holy mass to “pray for Spain and its unity”. If Catalonia goes independent, it will be expelled from the EU, threatened Rajoy. There will be bank closures like in Greece and Argentina, added the president of Spain’s Central Bank. Self-determination is what Stalin adopted by sending millions to the gulag, retorted Felipe Gonzalez. Even the leaders of Spain’s two main unions, CCOO and UGT, which have not lifted a finger against Rajoy’s austerity policies and even tacitly supported the government, added their voices: “independence is not in the interest of working people” they said cynically. Every single reactionary institution has been used to agitate in defence of the “sacred unity of Spain”.
The threat they are so worried about is brought about by “Junts pel Si”, JxS (Together for Yes), the joint list standing on the idea that these elections should not be considered normal elections to the Catalan parliament, but rather as a plebiscite on the question of independence. JxS, which is first in all opinion polls, has declared that, if they win the elections, they will proceed to a Unilateral Declaration of Independence within 18 months.
JxS is backed by two main parties, the bourgeois nationalist CDC of current Catalan president Artur Mas and the left nationalist ERC. Artur Mas has been Catalan president since 2010, implementing a policy of brutal cuts, austerity measures, privatisations, repression of social movements and his party has been involved in several corruption scandals, the latest one regarding 3% bribes taken from construction companies in exchange for public works contracts.
In 2011, when the Catalan parliament was to discuss its budget of cuts (jointly agreed between Mas and the right-wing Spanish PP) tens of thousands of people surrounded the building, forcing the Catalan president to be airlifted in by helicopter. That image encapsulated the enormous movement against cuts and austerity measures which was taking place at the time and which threatened the overthrow of both the Catalan and the Spanish government.
That was then. Today, Artur Mas and his JxS list is at the top of the opinion polls and will probably get close to an overall majority of MPs on Sunday. He is a clever political manoeuvrer. As the elections approached he launched the idea of a “president’s list”, involving all those in favour of independence. That was too much for some. In the end he settled for a “non-party” list, in which he would not be at the top of the list but would nonetheless be elected president if it won. Instead they agreed to have someone with a left profile as their top candidate: Raül Romeva, former MEP for ICV (the former Catalan wing of United Left). They added a number of figures from different pro-independence civil society organisations to make it more palatable.
Artur Mas’s own coalition CiU split into its component parts as a result: the pro-independence CDC and the anti-independence UDC going their own separate ways. Mas managed to rope in the soft left nationalist ERC (Catalan Republican Left) into the joint list. In fact, in all the opinion polls ERC was ahead of CiU, but they were given only 40% of positions in the list, for CDC’s 60%.
Artur Mas has been quite clever in riding the wave of pro-independence feelings and polarising the whole debate around this question (with a lot of help from the reactionary Spanish right-wing nationalists and their constant provocations). That, however, does not explain everything.
The very strong support for independence, which has grown from around 25% in 2010 to over 40% now, can be explained as a combination of national grievances and discontent over social issues. In 2005, a left-wing Catalan government drafted a revised version of the country’s Estatut (the Catalan Autonomy Statute) which had widespread support from all Catalan parties, with the exception of the right-wing Spanish nationalist PP. It recognised Catalonia as a nation and established a higher degree of self-rule and devolved powers. That reformed Statute was ratified in a referendum by 74% of those who voted, but with an extremely low turnout of only 49%. The issue was not foremost among people’s concerns.
The new Statute was appealed against by the right-wing PP. Finally, years after being passed by Catalonia, in 2010 the Constitutional Tribunal decided to declare 14 of its articles as “unconstitutional” and modified another 27.
That led to a demonstration in Barcelona, backed by all Catalan parties with the exception of the PP and the right-wing populist Ciudadanos (“Citizens”, Cs), where over a million people turned up under the slogan of “We are a nation - we decide”. It was the beginning of a series of mass mobilisations each gathering over a million people which have taken place on Catalan National Day, September 11, every year.
Blocked on that front, the national movement then stepped up pressure for the calling of a referendum on independence. There is a widespread majority in Catalonia in favour of that democratic right, with opinion polls consistently showing a two thirds majority in favour of a referendum being held. In 2012 the Catalan parliament passed a resolution (with 84 votes for, 21 against and 25 abstentions) declaring its intention to hold such a referendum. CiU, ERC, ICV voted in favour, the social-democratic Catalan Socialist Party (PSC) abstained and the right-wing Spanish nationalist PP and Cs voted against. Between 1.5 and 2 million people marched that year on September 11, this time with clear slogans in favour of independence. It was at this point that support for independence jumped to over 40% and even approached 50% on some key occasions.
Seeing an opportunity to take political advantage of the movement, Artur Mas decided to call snap elections for November 2012. Up until that point he had relied on the votes of the PP to get the budget passed. He wanted an overall majority to give him a free hand. But in the meantime, the issue of austerity and cuts came back to the top of the agenda, with the Spanish 24-hour general strike on November 14, days before the Catalan elections. Instead of CiU winning an overall majority, it lost 12 seats (from 62 down to 50), while the more left-wing nationalist ERC went up from 10 to 21 seats, and the radical, anti-capitalist, pro-independence party won 3 seats for the first time.
The left-wing ICV-EUiA increased from 10 to 13, but its leaders made the mistake of just following the lead of Mas on the national question. Instead of saying, yes we are for the right of self-determination but we will have nothing to do with the right-wing, pro-austerity, pro-privatisation, repressive and corrupt government of Mas, they provided him with a left cover.
The new Catalan parliament passed yet another resolution on calling a referendum in January 2013. This time it got 85 votes in favour (CiU, ERC, ICV and critical support from the CUP), 41 against (PP, Cs and a section of the PSC) and 2 abstentions. Once again, the Popular Party used the Constitutional Tribunal to suspend the declaration pending further investigation on its constitutionality.
On the basis of this resolution, the Catalan parliament decided to call a referendum on self-determination on November 9, 2014 Despite the fact that the referendum had been banned by Spain and all sorts of threats were used to prevent it from taking place, 2.3 million people turned out (approximately 37% of the census) to the unofficial consultation, with 80% voting for independence.
As we explained at the time, the pro-independence movement was to a large extent the by-product of the enormous discontent against austerity, cuts, corruption and the impact of the crisis of capitalism, combined with the fact that left parties had been completely unable to offer any serious alternative (and in the case of Catalonia they tail ended the bourgeois nationalists).
This can be shown clearly in the regular opinion polls carried out by the Catalan Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió. In their most recent survey (carried out in June 2015), when people were asked what is the main problem Catalonia is facing, 42% cited unemployment and casualisation of labour, 14.5% mentioned dissatisfaction with politics, 10% the way the economy works, and only 9.9% relations between Catalonia and Spain. When asked which party they think can best solve that problem, a whopping 31% said none, and a further 14% don’t know. The first party mentioned was Podemos, by 9.7%.
At that time, in June, over 58% said that they would vote in the forthcoming elections judging on the basis of each party’s proposals to solve the economic crisis, and only 20% on the basis of the parties’ proposals on relations with Spain. That was before the setting up of the JxS list.
Clearly, Mas understood that he cannot win any election on the basis of his record in power: privatisation of healthcare and other services, repression against social movements, transfer of money to privately owned schools, corruption scandals, etc. Therefore it is in his interest to shift the whole axis of the campaign towards the national question, taking advantage of the genuine feelings of national grievance felt by many Catalans at the constant assault against their democratic rights by the Spanish institutions and particularly those run by the reactionary PP.
As no one is providing a clear explanation of the reasons for the economic crisis and resulting cuts and austerity measures (the crisis of capitalism), the idea that these problems are caused by an unfair relationship with Spain and that independence would release the necessary funds to put an end to austerity policies began to gain credibility. However, that idea is flawed and contains the seeds of a reactionary conclusion: one which argues that if Catalonia were not “subsidising” poorer regions in Spain, then it would have “the living and welfare standards of Sweden or Holland”. This is the type of reactionary nationalism of Italy’s Northern League.
As a matter of fact, what needs to be argued is that in reality it is not a question of one part of Spain subsidising another, but rather, the fact that all wealth is created by working people but appropriated by the capitalists. There are enough resources in Catalonia and Spain to provide housing, education, healthcare and jobs for all, on the basis of a fundamental economic reorganisation of society in which all the means of production are put in the hands of working people and democratically planned for the benefit of the majority.
The other side of the coin is that the pro-independence movement expresses, although in a distorted way, a fundamental rejection of austerity policies and cuts, as well as a rejection of reactionary Spanish institutions, including the Monarchy.
The national question in Catalonia is further complicated by the fact that support for independence is lower in the working class strongholds in the red belt of Barcelona and in the working class neighbourhoods around Tarragona. Many of the people who live in these areas are Spanish speaking and first or second generation immigrants from the rest of Spain, forced to move to Catalonia in the 1960s and 1970s by extreme poverty in rural areas, attracted by the industrial development of Catalonia. These layers of the working class are less likely to support independence, as was seen in the November 9, 2014 consultation.
The Catalan workers and people fought a revolutionary struggle in the 1970s for democratic rights against the Franco dictatorship (which key sections of the Catalan bourgeoisie had supported). That movement combined the struggle for democracy, the right to strike and an amnesty for the political prisoners, with the defence of national rights for Catalonia (lifting of the ban on the Catalan language and culture), including the right of self-determination.
Left-wing parties PSUC and PSC (the Catalan wings of the Communist and Socialist parties) had an overwhelming majority of the vote and complete hegemony over the working class. It was the betrayal of their leaders during the so-called “transition” to democracy which set the basis for the long domination of Catalan bourgeois nationalist CiU over the Catalan parliament. The leaders of the Socialist and Communist parties betrayed the revolutionary and democratic aspirations of the masses of working people in a rotten compromise with the Franco regime which ended in the 1978 constitution.
The 1978 constitution enshrined impunity for the crimes of Franco’s dictatorship, the monarchy which had been restored by Franco, the red-yellow-red national flag with which Franco had replaced the Republican tricolour, the funding of the Church by the state and its role in the education system and also the denial of the right of self-determination for the oppressed nationalities. This was sealed by the Constitution establishing the sacred unity of Spain to be guaranteed by the Armed Forces.
Reactionary undemocratic Spanish nationalism (and its links with the Church and Army) is therefore a main pillar of the rule of the Spanish capitalist class and particularly of its right-wing PP. It is for this reason that any moves towards holding a referendum have been constantly blocked.
As a matter of fact, opinion polls show that if Catalans were given a choice between the status quo, a federal solution with devolved powers for Catalonia and straight independence, a majority would favour a federal solution. For the reasons explained above, it is very unlikely that the PP will ever offer anything like that. Even more so in the run up to the December general election in Spain, in which the PP is likely to lose about 50% of the votes it got in 2011. Whipping up Spanish nationalism is in their interest if they want to rally the vote, or so they think. The Socialist Party, PSOE, is divided on the issue with its dominant wing fully committed to Spanish nationalism and a smaller section toying with the idea of federalism.
The new factor in the equation is the rise of Podemos. The new party has a decent position on the national question. It argues that a constituent process in Spain would put everything up for discussion, including the territorial organisation of the country. On a number of occasions, and particularly during the Catalan election campaign, Pablo Iglesias has come out clearly in favour of the right of Catalonia to decide its own future in a referendum. In a recent meeting he put it this way: “We can understand that you want to become independent from Rajoy. What we offer you is to stay and help us to kick him out”.
The weakness of this position is that Podemos limits the holding of a referendum to strictly legal and constitutional methods. To many Catalans this does not seem a likely prospect. For the last 10 years they have tried all legal means and been blocked. To change the constitution would require a two thirds majority in the Spanish parliament and Podemos is far from that, having gone from being the first party a year ago to being the third now.
In the Catalan elections, Podemos is standing as part of a joint list with left-wing parties ICV and EUiA called “Catalunya Si Que Es Pot” (CSQP - Catalonia Yes We Can, incorporating the slogan of the anti-evictions campaign). Although this is very similar to the Barcelona en Comú (BeC) list which came first in the municipal elections in May in the Catalan capital, the methods used to build CSQP have been more top down and bureaucratic. This means that unlike BeC which was based on rank and file participation, CSQP has not yet been able to generate the same levels of enthusiasm and participation.
The central line of argument of the CSQP’s campaign (in which the main leaders of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias and Errejón have been involved fully) is that sovereignty is not just a question of flags but rather a question of schools, hospitals and jobs. They have attacked the record of Artur Mas and criticised ERC for joining in a list with him and his party.
Finally, the Candidatures d’Unitat Popular (CUP) are billed to treble their 3 MPs in the Catalan parliament. The CUP was put under a lot of pressure to join the “Junts pel Si” list but correctly refused. They argue that they are for independence but also for a fundamental break with the system. They declare themselves to be anti-capitalist and have attracted a layer of radicalised youth.
It is clear that within the pro-independence bloc there is a shift to the left. First from CiU to ERC and now from these parties to the more radical CUP. Thus, opinion polls give “Junts pel Si” between 60 and 67 seats (CiU + ERC had 71) with 38 to 41% of the votes, while the CUP, which had 3, is billed to get between 7 and 10. An overall majority of seats is 68, so this means that they would probably need the votes of the CUP in order to form a government.
While opinion polls predict an overall majority of seats for the pro-independence parties, at this point they are not forecasting that they will get an overall majority of votes (constituencies are skewed towards less populated areas). That would be an ideal result from the point of view of Artur Mas, as it would not be seen as a mandate for independence. The decisive sections of the Catalan bourgeoisie is not really in favour of independence, as that would have a disruptive impact on business. A result short of an overall majority for independence would allow Mas to form a government and then have a stronger hand to negotiate more powers for Catalonia.
A result in which “Junts pel Si” has to rely on the CUP to form a government would put the latter in a very difficult position. They would be under pressure “not to rock the boat on the road towards independence”, while at the same time maintaining their left-wing credentials. They have already said that they would not vote for Artur Mas to be the new president, but have accepted the idea of a “unity government” with a “consensus president” (perhaps Raül Romeva, or ERC leader Junqueras). In any case, even a “unity government” would see the CUP sitting side by side with, or supporting, CDC ministers who are directly responsible for privatisation, cuts, repression, tainted with corruption scandals, etc.
CSQP has correctly appealed for them not to join such a government and to support a government led by CSQP candidate Rabell (a veteran activist of the neighbourhood rights movement). The CUP have always insisted that for them national and social liberation cannot be separated and so, depending on the results, they would be put under a lot of strain.
The Marxists of Lucha de Clases have issued a statement, “Catalonia needs a social revolution”. In it they explain why so many Catalans will vote for the “Junts pel Si” list wanting social change and progress, but then they explain the real character of the CDC politicians which lead the list and how they represent precisely the opposite. They explain the need for Podemos and CSQP to unconditionally defend a referendum on independence, regardless of whether this would be legal or constitutional, as the only way to win the confidence of the people in Catalonia. Finally, they argue that the only way to get a “new country” is by getting rid of both Mas and Rajoy, the Catalan and Spanish bourgeois.