Reflections on Catalan Elections

Catalonia is still embroiled in crisis, with many pro-independence politicians still jailed after being charged for sedition following the independence referendum on October 1. left wing activist Andy relays his impressions from Catalonia during the election, which saw a surge in support for centre-right parties on both sides of the constitutional divide…

Travelling through Barcelona, all the trappings of a national election campaign were apparent. The centrist Citizens party installed posters that combined the Spanish, Catalan and EU flags into a loveheart. The right wing People’s Party proclaimed that "Spain is the solution" to political instability. Together for Catalonia, the leading pro-independence coalition, displayed exiled Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont looking heroically alongside a slogan that affirmed his status as "our president".

Such symbols would likely be found in any number of national elections that have taken place across the Spanish state since the Eurozone crisis. But beyond these usual markers of electoral activity was something obvious to anyone who has had experience of Europe's social movements: the high level of politicisation amongst the population. Banners, flags and ribbons expressing solidarity with jailed independence activists and support for the Catalan Republic were unavoidable everywhere you went in the city. Visually, it was reminiscent of the prevalence of Yes badges, posters and flyers seen in Glasgow three years ago.

The parties of Spanish unionism took a more sanitised approach. The Citizens party conducted their electoral activity from slick orange inflatable huts that could easily have been used to sell Sky TV or mobile phone contracts. By contrast, pro-independence activists organised their communities by holding rallies in local squares, with an emphasis on identifying and confronting the failings of the Spanish state.

Activists used cardboard boxes labelled with titles such as judicial corruption, unemployment, state repression and the ‘regime of 78’. In a symbol of defiance, they used the boxes to build up a wall and would then break it down. What was noticeable was the absence of traditional nationalist arguments around immigration, national superiority or xenophobia – rather, the slogans and campaigns of the independence movement focused on Catalonia's democratic right to decide its own future and their opposition to repression.

Even the election material of Puigdemont, who stands on the right of the independence movement, was bereft of the usual conservative talking points around taxation and business. They instead prioritised the release of political prisoners and an endorsement of Catalonia' s right to select its own political leaders, free from outside interference.

Far from being a movement of the Catalan ruling class, the independence movement is built up of ordinary working-class communities who are desperate to escape a failing and corrupt Spanish state that can only meet their aspirations and concerns with the police baton.  This was the background to the international solidarity event ‘Building the Republic’, hosted by With Catalonia. It brought together trade unionists, socialists, prisoner defence groups, community activists and independence campaigners from within the Spanish state and outside of it.

As I attended the forum held on the issue of Spanish state violence, I was struck by how effective the independence movement was at facing down the intervention from the state. Activists informed us that despite the mobilisation of thousands of Spanish police, they were able to defend 95% of polling stations from harassment.

Even the school where the event was hosted was used as a polling station during the referendum, raided by the Guardia Civil who trashed the building when they could not locate the ballot boxes. Hearing first-hand accounts of the courage displayed by local activists to defend fundamental democratic principles of self-determination underlined the importance of international solidarity with Catalonia, which was the main forum held on the second day.

The main question discussed by the international section was on distinguishing between building a movement in solidarity with Catalan independence as a principle versus one that upholds the right of Catalonia to decide its future free from repression without necessarily endorsing independence.

Activists agreed this was a question that required nuance and consideration as the most successful movement against Spanish state repression. This would require the support of those traditionally sceptical of national independence movements such as Europe's social-democratic parties and affiliated unions, as well as those who advocated the construction of an independent Catalan republic.

Reaching the appropriate balance between these two positions will be crucial in developing Catalan Defence Committees across Europe, particularly in Scotland where support for Catalonia is largely restricted to pro-independence supporters. Although With Catalonia exists in an embryonic stage at this point, it has successfully brought together contacts from defence committees over a dozen countries, with a commitment to coordinated days of action after the election and in the new year that will seek to challenge Spain's violation of democratic norms.

Speaking with independence activists about their opinions on the coming regional elections, I received a mixed response. Many were sceptical of achieving a pro-independence majority and others believed there would be no real change from the previous pro-indy result. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result saw the pro-independence parties retain control albeit with a reduced majority.

However, what was clear was that irrespective of the election result, Catalonia now has the largest left-wing, radical independence movement in Europe. Whilst there may be ebbs and flows in this movement, the Spanish state is now confronted with a long-term challenge to its rule, one that is arguably an even greater threat than Podemos.

The role of the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) in this process is important for those of us involved with the radical left in Scotland to observe as we seek to build a similar organisation here. I spoke to many supporters of the CUP who were not entirely convinced by every left-wing economic policy but nevertheless gave the organisation their support based on their respect for its position on the national question and its role within social movements. Achieving a similar position as the CUP has proved elusive for RISE and the SSP since the independence referendum and there is much we can learn from the CUP in this regard.

What I found noticeable was that in contrast to all the major parties, whether it be those supportive of independence or the Spanish radical left, none of the CUP's election material had a figurehead or spokesperson. Rather, their material focused on using the upcoming election as a time to stand up for the republic and the collective social movements it has empowered, emphasising the solid roots of the organisation.

The results of the election are somewhat hazy, with the Citizens performing well, but the maintained pro-independence majority is still a historic setback for the Spanish state. They face a dilemma of whether to dissolve the parliament again, citing its continued state of rebellion, or to live with a body that has challenged its authority with a unilateral declaration of independence.

In either event, the prospect of increased repression is likely, and the need to build an international movement of solidarity increases in the same proportions. Now is the time for everyone involved in building solidarity with Catalonia to set concrete actions in place to make the Spanish state's repressive actions unsustainable in the long or medium term.