The government of the Spanish state is making a mockery of democracy by attacking the Catalan people’s right to determine their future.
On October 5, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan parliament, prohibiting a session set for next Tuesday in which Catalonia’s elected representatives were set to begin debate on declaring independence from Spain. This follows an October 1 referendum in which an estimated 90 percent of those voting cast their ballots in favor of independence.
“We have to apply the results of the referendum,” Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan government, announced after Sunday’s vote. “We have to present the results of the referendum to parliament.”
For this simple democratic statement, Puigdemont now faces the real threat of arrest from the Spain’s central government.
Arrayed against the Catalan independence movement is a rogue’s gallery of hypocrites.
Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative People’s Party has outrageously demanded a “return to legality” after sending 15,000 riot police — the hated Guardia Civil — into the region before and during the referendum to seize election posters, arrest public officials, destroy ballots and attack polling stations. Almost 900 Catalans were injured on the day of the vote, making October 1 the most violent day of repression in the Spanish state since the fascist Franco regime fell in the 1970s.
Clearly, the first step in any “return to legality” begins with the Spanish government withdrawing all its Guardias from Catalan territory, revoking its ban on the Catalan parliament and respecting the will of Catalan voters.
Meanwhile, Frans Timmermans, vice president of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union (EU), sided with Rajoy, claiming that the “regional government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law.”
Spanish King Felipe went on television to charge Catalonians — even as they were under police assault — with treating the nation with “scorn” and to demand “unity.” Felipe forgot to mention that he owes his crown to the fascist dictator Francisco Franco restoring the monarchy after it was toppled by a popular rebellion in the 1930s.
Chief among the hypocrites, however, must be the fully neoliberalized Catalan Socialist Party — closely aligned with the center-left Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE), which has led the government of the Spanish state for most of the years since Franco’s.
The party filed the complaint that Constitutional Court used to suspend the Catalan parliament. It bizarrely claimed that convening a session of the duly elected parliament would result in the “illegitimate demolition of the constitutional bloc in Catalonia.”
In response, Catalan trade unions, civic organizations and political parties launched a general strike on October 3, demonstrating that Rajoy’s gambit has only stiffened the resolve of the independence movement and edged Spain toward a showdown. Sectors with the highest participation included teachers, doctors and public-sector workers.
The questions raised by the day of protest go beyond the need to oppose repression. As Catalan socialist Luc Salellas said in a recent interview with Jacobin, the strike “also had many republican themes, with people hoping that a Catalan Republic will be declared by the Catalan government. I expect the size of the strike and demonstrations today will accelerate that process.”
Outside of Catalonia, huge solidarity demonstrations in support of Catalans’ right to decide took place in several Spanish cities like Madrid and Burgos, showing that the Spanish people are not the same as the Spanish state.
And far from being an isolated clash, all this comes on the heels of growing polarization across the European Union — with different aspects represented by the years of mass strikes and anti-austerity struggles in Greece; the Brexit vote and left-winger Jeremy Corbyn’s rise in Great Britain; and the shocking rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany party that won 13 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections; to name a few examples.
So what’s behind Catalonia’s independence movement?
In the immediate sense, in the weeks preceding October 1, as the Spanish state sought to delegitimize the referendum and mainstream media created an environment of fear, many Catalans joined campaigns organized from the bottom up.
One of the most celebrated of these was the Committees in Defense of the Referendum, which became the place for hundreds of people to come together to collectively discuss and plan how to respond to Rajoy’s threats.
The central government’s unprecedented actions convinced many people that a vote for independence was about much more than separating from Spain. The referendum became a vote to exercise a basic democratic right and to resist the Spanish state’s violations of legality.
There’s no doubt that Catalan and Spanish politics have been changed forever by this past week, and left-wing forces supporting independence, like the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), are well-positioned to both grow and influence the course of events.
But what happens next is highly dependent on what sectors of the population get involved in the effort to build a Catalan state, as well as a contest between the left and right wings of the movement.
Today’s movement has deep roots in the history of Catalonia, which has had an uneasy relationship with the central government in Madrid going back centuries. In the modern period, tensions rose dramatically when Spain suffered a series of military defeats in 1898 — leading to the ruling class losing much of its remaining colonial possessions and the majority of the population falling into devastating poverty.
Throughout this period, the Spanish state repressed Catalan institutions, culture and language. Franco’s fascist dictatorship, from 1939 to 1975, only reinforced this long-running national oppression. Catalan was not even recognized as an official language in Catalonia. Textbooks were produced exclusively in Spanish, and history books were rewritten to match the extremely conservative ideology of Francoism.
Economically, the region suffered especially badly. In the eyes of the newly consolidated fascist dictatorship, the people of Barcelona — who rose up against Franco’s forces in 1936 under the leadership of socialists and anarchists, before they were finally defeated and massacred by Franco’s forces — had to be taught a lesson.
Franco’s death in 1975 led to a transition directed by the top layer of the traditional political parties and King Juan Carlos I from a dictatorial regime to a liberal democracy with the signing of the 1978 Constitution. Part of this transition included a “pact of silence” between the main politicians, agreeing that no investigations were to take place about anything that happened during the civil war or the Franco years.
Erasing all historical memory of the Franco era has been a top priority for Spanish rulers over the last 40 years. In order to access the stories of those years, we have had to read English or French texts, or read and watch fiction. As all of Spain was integrated into the EU — and while this national trauma remained unresolved — movements from below pushed to recover the real stories of Spain’s darkest period as a precondition for moving on to real democracy.
The claim that there are still unresolved issues tied to the dictatorship isn’t an abstract or historical complaint.
The same politicians involved in Franco’s regime created Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), a conservative formation attached to neoliberalism, which has been governing Spain for the past six years and had previously introduced the starkest neoliberal policies when it was in power from 1998 to 2004.
The PP has been at the forefront of smashing any attempts to change politics as usual in Spain. It has alternated in power with the PSOE — which immediately abandoned its socialist past to become one of the two leading neoliberal parties after Franco’s death.
This difficult history, together with the deepening of the economic crisis, both in Spain and across Europe, have been the main rallying points that pushed Catalans to consider their position as a region fully subordinated to Spain.
Since 2005, there have been attempts by different Catalan governments to pass resolutions through the central government that would allow for Spain as a whole to become a federal state, with Catalonia attaining independence. The PP and the PSOE blocked these initiatives at every step.
These efforts, however, were led by parties at the top of the Catalan capitalist class and had very little organized support from below.
These parties also proved incapable of responding to the worst aspects of the economic crisis beginning in 2008. Unemployment for youth in 2009 reached over 50 percent, and millions of people lost their ability to pay bills, as state sectors, such as energy and electricity, were sold off to private companies.
The situation was never as dire as that of Greece, but Spain is the fourth-largest EU economy, and while the rich are getting richer, official unemployment remains over 17 percent.
In 2011, Spain’s youth took to the squares and occupied them to protest the lack of real democracy and what they called the “dictatorship of the banks and the corrupt.” The protests became known by the name for their participants: the Indignados.
Itself inspired by the uprisings of the Arab Spring earlier in the year, the strategy of occupying public spaces spread around Europe in a matter of weeks and months — and eventually all the way to the US, in the form of the Occupy movement.
The movement didn’t remain mobilized past those opening months, but the pull to the left continued.
In 2012, the CUP — the only truly left-wing party supporting independence — won seats in the Catalan parliament for the first time. Movements in defense of immigrants and health care and against evictions won significant victories. The left-wing Podemos party emerged in 2014 based on a model of a decentralized agglomeration of local organizers. In less than a year, it became the third-strongest party across Spain.
Thus, the mobilization in support of the referendum and the open defiance of violent repression are only the latest expressions of the polarization going on in the country.
Whether this continues to the left or can be co-opted by the usual players remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain. The people of Catalonia must not be isolated and forced to fight on their own. As the revolutionary socialist organization Anticapalistas wrote following the vote:
[I]t is increasingly evident that a new project for the working classes [all across the Spanish state] will only be possible by promoting constituent processes that go beyond the 1978 regime…[It is] urgent to promote a democratic movement which defends the legitimacy of the decisions of the Catalan people and which, at the same time, confronts the reactionary offensive of the PP. Only in this way will we be able to build a social majority capable of doing what the regime cannot: dialogue among equals, without repression.