02 / 05 / 2019

The “Catalan question” in Spain’s elections

It’s a few days after April 28, national elections in Spain, and the process of forming a government has not ended and it seems that it will take months. Catalonia's secessionist trend has its share in shaping political correlations




The wind whips the palm trees on the beach of Arenys de Mar, a little town 40 km from Barcelona.  Lots of Senyera, the Catalan flag, are flying from windows and terraces. According to official maps, we are in Spain, but the majority of people do not agree. The memory of the referendum on independence held in October 2017 remains strong in Catalonia and its consequences still affect everyday life.

“Society is fractured. There are those who are pro-independence and others who are anti-independence, living in the same buildings, sometimes in the same families. And they look at each other differently than before,” says a worker in the harbor. The mayor, Annabel Moreno and her team usually dealt with problems such as street cleaning and garbage collection, but now everybody feels involved in a greater battle. She has been elected with the independentist left party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and every day she wears a ribbon-shaped yellow badge, symbolizing her beliefs. “Our leaders are in prison and we will not leave them alone. We have to fight and never surrender,” she tells SOLOMON MAG.

“It’s about freedom”

The “Catalan question” has been the main issue of the Spanish elections. And it is deeply connected to the Supreme Court trial involving leaders of political parties and civic organizations which organized the referendum and declared the Republic of Catalonia on October 27, 2017.

Nine of them are in jail, seven had to escape from the country to avoid being arrested, including the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. Their followers call them presos politics, political prisoners. With a simple play on words, the unionists’ side suggests that they are just politics presos, politicians who have been arrested.

Their faces fill the walls in the Catalan cities, as lots of yellow ribbons are popping up everywhere symbolizing their plight. On the way to Barcelona, you can see banners, posters, writing on the walls: Va de llibertat – “it’s about freedom” – is the most common slogan, indicating that a mere political issue has now become a matter about democracy and freedom.

In Barcelona, this is by far the first topic of conversation. Books written by presos politics are among the best sellers on Sant Jordi, a day when every Catalan gives and receives a book or a rose.

Marcel Mauri has a very clear idea of why. He is now the leader of Òmnium Cultural, one of the most important cultural organizations in Catalonia. Òmnium played an active role in backing the independence movement, in fact its previous president, Jordi Cuixart, is now imprisoned in Madrid. “It is a shame that the State’s Advocate (the public prosecutor) demands more than 10 years of prison for the head of a civic association who has no political accountability,” Mauri explains to SOLOMON MAG.

Here the entire trial is seen more or less as a political persecution: “Spanish justice has already written its judgment and it will not be fair. Complete acquittal of all the accused would be the only result we can accept. Every other outcome would be a terrible message for all Spaniards,” he adds.

Hard times, hard choice

Facing elections in Spain, the independentists are trying to recover the spirit of “1-O”: October 1, 2017, the day of the referendum for independence, which was declared illegal by Spain. ‘‘1-O’’ creates a sense of unity which has overcome the traditional division between left and right and led to an unprecedented act of civil disobedience.

However, separatists are now divided. The main parties are Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Erc, left) and Junts per Catalunya (JxCat, centre-right). They seem to have different agendas and are fighting to lead the separatist front. Yet, the main problem remains mathematics: Catalan parties altogether gained 22 deputies in the Spanish Parliament at the elections of Sunday, April 28, too few compared to the total of 350. That means they could just support one of the national parties and try to find an agreement, a mission already failed in the last attempt.

Catalans seem to have few friends in the rest of the country: “Anti-catalanism wins votes in Spain. Pablo Iglesias of Podemos proposed to hold a referendum that would be agreed by all parties and he is now politically dead. Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez lost some support only because he was thought to be open to make a deal with Catalan parties,” says Montserrat Radigales, political analyst and member of the board of the Association of European Journalists of Catalonia.

Therefore, Erc and JxCat are faced with a fork in the road after the elections: they either support PSOE (socialist Spanish Party) and perhaps gain nothing towards their interests, which would be a sort of betrayal to their voters. Or they can avoid alliances, (since collaboration with right-wing parties are out of the question) and, by doing this, prompt new elections which might help the far-right gain power. “This would be a very bad result, not only for the Catalans, but for all Spanish citizens,” underlines Mauri.

The Spanish right is currently split into three parties: the traditional right party Partido Popular (66 seats), the neoliberals Ciudadanos (57 seats) and Vox, a new far-right and nationalist movement which is growing (24 seats). A coalition of the three would be extremely determined to answer the Catalan question in a very rough way.

Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, has already said that he would make independentist parties illegal and arrest Quim Torra, the actual president of Generalitat de Catalunya, the regional governing body of Catalonia. On the other side, there is a progressive front which includes PSOE and Podemos. To reach the majority of deputies, they need the support of Catalan parties. “A right government is different from a left one. But at the end, PSOE will also keep people in jail or in exile (as they don’t intend to withdraw the charges). And we will always keep asking for the same: dialogue, the end of repression, freedom of political prisoners and a referendum to decide our future,” explains Mauri.

No way out and no way back

Without a short-term plan, the “Indepe” seem to be caught in a black tunnel. And they cannot retreat, after the conflicts of the last two years. “Catalan leaders committed two mistakes. By declaring independence, they gave the Spanish government a reason for repression, and they additionally made people believe that secession was around the corner. Now the emotional involvement of people has reached a tipping point, both in Catalonia and Spain,” says Andreu Claret, a Catalan journalist who was jailed during Franco’s regime.

His analysis underlines a serious situation in Catalonia, where people live in a chronic state of conflict and dispute. “Catalan independentists cannot hope to attain their goal in a short time. A campaign to change the Spanish constitution is required and it will take two or three generations.” Claret is also critical towards the attitude of the former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who should not have been “the head of a rebellion movement,” because he had a representative duty towards all the Catalans.

The current political situation is quite confusing. Junts per Catalunya wants to speed up the progress towards independence, even if this means intensifying the clash against Spain: they plan to include Carles Puigdemont as a candidate for the European Parliament, in order to challenge Spanish justice to imprison an MEP. While Puigdemont is the head of the euro-list of the Catalan party, it has not yet been decided whether his candidacy is eligible.

Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya pushes for a softer solution, with a nod to the left in the rest of country. Indeed, the only real weapon remains citizen mobilization, an asset which the pro-independence side had never missed, as massive demonstrations in Barcelona are taking place every month. But will it be enough? Not in Andreu Claret’s vision: “You basically need two things to become independent: political agreement or military strength. Catalonia has neither.”

An adamant president

“Pati dels Tarongers,” a garden of orange trees inside Palau de la Generalitat, is a beautiful and inspiring place to think about important matters. When the sun is shining in Barcelona, you can appreciate the fragrant gardens within the gothic walls. It’s a haven of peace and nature in the heart of a chaotic city.

It is here that the government of Carles Puigdemont decided to go on with the referendum and declaration of independence in 2017. And here, his successor, Quim Torra, rules over Catalonia, 218 days after Article 155 was passed, which was the “nuclear option” that Spain used against the rebellion. With an unfailing yellow ribbon on his suit, Torra smiles in response to our questions and ensures us that he is not planning to take a step back. “We will continue our struggle by political measures, from the prisons of Spain, mobilizing the people,” he says. Nonetheless, their path remains an uphill climb.

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