Catalonia: Pro-independence parties win “plebiscite” elections

A step towards independence?

Catalan elections on 27 September revealed a society virtually split down the middle on the question of independence from the Spanish state. These elections were billed as a de facto “plebiscite” on Catalan independence by Catalan President, Artur Mas. This call was made in the context of the Spanish state government’s repeated refusal to allow for an independence referendum, despite the growing mass movement over the last few years.

The two biggest parties formally in favour of independence – CDC, the right-wing nationalist party of Mas himself, and the ERC (Republican Left, so-called centre-left nationalist party) – formed a joint list called Junts pel Si (together for Yes), fronted by both politicians and prominent members of civil society. Votes for this list – as well as votes for the radical left pro-independence party, CUP – were to be taken as YES votes. On the other hand, votes for the array of anti-independence parties were to be taken as NO votes, with another broad left list, Catalunya si que es pot (Catalonia Yes we can, involving Podemos and the Catalan branches of United Left) caught somewhere in between.

YES/NO polarisation

This laid the basis for a polarised campaign. Given the numerous lists with differing positions competing for votes on either side of the YES/NO divide, these elections were not exactly a plebiscite. This being said, the question of YES/NO to independence increasingly dominated the campaign as elections approached. Voter turnout was 77%, 10% higher than the last Catalan elections, reflecting this polarisation and a sense of urgency among people to pronounce themselves on the question of independence.

A geographical breakdown of the results paints a deeply polarised picture. Rural Catalonia delivered a massive pro-independence majority in almost every area. On the other hand, Catalonia’s urban centres, including Barcelona, the capital all fell short of 50% for the pro-independence parties. Moreover, within Barcelona itself, results show a pronounced polarisation between pro and anti-independence neighbourhoods. For the first time since the beginning of the current movement for independence, an element of polarisation linked to people’s origins – established Catalan communities or communities of families from other parts of the Spanish state – was visible, and to an extent played on, mostly by the NO parties. There is also an element of generational polarisation, with a large majority of young people in favour of independence.

In general, the results confirm that the mass movement for independence in Catalonia has failed to peter out, or die down as many bourgeois commentators and leaders predicted and hoped. “Junts pel Si” won 39.5% of the votes and 62 seats – just short of the 64 seats needed for an overall majority – while CUP won 8.2% and 10 seats. The YES side thus won enough seats for an overall majority in parliament, although slightly under 50% of total votes cast.

In reality, the main parties within the Junts pel Si list, while winning the elections, won less seats than they had done standing separately in the 2012 elections. The growth of the CUP – which tripled its number of seats from 3 to 10 – represents an important change in the situation, a radicalisation and shift to the left within an important section of pro-independence voters.

On the NO side, the PP suffered a terrible defeat, winning only 8.9% of the votes. It had stood arch-racist reactionary, Xavier Albiol, as its candidate for President of Catalonia, in an attempt to shore up its support base among traditional right-wing voters, but even this had no effect. The party which “won” the elections on the NO side, was Ciutadans, the new right-wing populist party which stands on a hardline anti-independence position, which tripled its seats becoming the second biggest party in the Catalan parliament. The growth of Ciutadans on one hand, and the CUP on the other, represents in a way a strengthening of the extremes within both the YES and NO camps.

On the basis of this result, Artur Mas and Junts pel Si have announced a plan to form a government dedicated to executing a “process” through which Catalonia will obtain independence from Spain, allegedly in 18 months’ time.

Limits of polarisation

However, whether this majority will be reflected in a new Catalan government following these elections is much less clear and straightforward, showing the limits of this attempt to hold “plebiscite” elections. A joint YES government would mean the anti-capitalist CUP doing a deal with the austerity-mongers of CDC and Mas, who implemented brutal measures in the first years of the crisis, even beyond those implemented by the Madrid government. Another option would be the CUP, in opposition, voting to allow Mas to form a minority government and supporting the so-called process towards independence from outside.

Within the YES camp, vastly different political and class forces are represented and reflected. This has deep implications, not only for the class struggle on social and economic issues, but for the struggle for democratic rights and self-determination itself. A cross-class YES camp based on the current balance of forces is neither desirable nor viable, and can only result in the betrayal of both the workers’ cause and the struggle for self-determination.

In general, the polarising of an election campaign along purely “national” lines is not the approach of socialists and Marxists. It obscures society’s fundamental contradictions – between rich and poor, worker and capitalist. Within a cross-class YES or indeed NO campaign, the unemployed, exploited workers, oppressed women and minorities and the devastated middle classes are expected to share political interests and ambitions with those responsible for their suffering and the crisis ravaging Catalan and Spanish society.

Workers and youth – overwhelmingly against austerity and for democratic rights – on either side have far more in common with each other than with the pro-capitalist politicians on either side. The way forward lies in the unity and mobilisation of the working class on an independent basis, for an alternative to capitalism, national oppression and state repression.

Any joint YES movement, or indeed joint government, between the parties of the Catalan rich and the anti-capitalist left can only be formed on the basis of one class (invariably the workers) submitting to the other (the pro-austerity capitalists), against the interests of the majority. The CUP – while admittedly in a tricky situation, under pressure to be seen not to derail the move towards independence – thus has a responsibility to stand firm in its promise and refuse to support the formation of a right-wing cuts government, headed by Mas.

Capitalism, class and the struggle for Catalan self-determination

However, it is not only social and economic issues which make a cross-class movement for self-determination inviable. Class contradictions and conflicts are fundamental to the question of how democratic rights, including national rights, can be won in the first place. In Catalonia in particular, the rich have a long history of using opportunistically the national sentiments and aspirations of the masses cynically, for their own interests.

The Catalan capitalist class has always been opposed to independence from Spain, and remains so. It was one of the key actors in the ‘Transition’ of the 1970s, which replaced the Franco dictatorship with a constitutional monarchy, in order to avoid a revolutionary overthrow of the dictatorship and preserve capitalism. A fundamental part of the regime installed by the Transition was the negation of the right of self-determination of the nations contained within the Spanish state, the unquestionable unity and integrity of which is enshrined in the 1978 constitution, drafted in part by the “nationalist” Catalan bourgeoisie. Throughout the election campaign, big Catalan businesses and banks joined their Spanish counterparts in coming out with threats and blackmail against independence, reminiscent of “project fear” during the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.

The working class, youth and poor in Catalonia must therefore draw the conclusion that only their own forces can be relied upon in the fight for democratic rights and self-determination. This means taking control of the movement, out of the hands of political representatives of capitalism, such as Artur Mas. Only the working class, organized and mobilised in a united manner, fighting not only for the right to self-determination but also for the right to a dignified life, can lead the struggle.

On the other hand, Catalan independence is anathema to the capitalists of the rest of Spain, and to Spanish capitalism itself. This is for both economic reasons – Catalonia represents 20% of Spanish GDP – and political ones, as an independent A Spanish state without Catalonia, the Basque country and Galicia would lose almost all its remaining industrial base and over one third of its GDP. An independent Catalonia would of course provide a powerful impetus to the struggle for self-determination in the Basque Country, and potentially Galicia.

This has been reflected in the approach of the Spanish institutions and the PP government to the movement in Catalonia so far – one of intransigence and repressive moves. The Constitutional Tribunal has stepped in at every stage to prevent any hint of a referendum, and even banned the unofficial consultation on independence called by the Catalan government on 9 November last year. In a bizarre twist following the elections, it was announced that Artur Mas himself will be tried by the Spanish courts for disobeying the Constitutional Tribunal in calling the 9 November consultation. Mas must, or course, be defended against state repression while being 100% opposed politically by the Left and workers’ movement.

In the run-up to last week’s elections the PP government actually passed a bill giving the Constitutional Tribunal the power to suspend the President of an “autonomous region” (eg Catalonia) or indeed the President of the Spanish government for disobeying its rulings. This was intended as a clear threat to the Catalan people. However, it will be as ineffective as those threats which have come before it. In reality, the intransigence and repression of Spanish capitalism has been a driving force in the movement for independence.

It also helps to clarify the situation for the working class. The fact that bourgeois legality is presented time and time again as the main obstacle in the way of the people deciding their fate democratically, poses the question of mass civil disobedience, and a perspective which goes beyond the bounds of bourgeois legality. Again, this is a task which capitalism, be it Catalan or Spanish, is not up to. Only the working class has an interest in consistently going beyond the limits imposed by capitalist legality in the defence of democratic rights.

This also has political repercussions. The denial of democratic and national rights to the peoples of the Spanish state is woven into the DNA of capitalism in the peninsula. Thus, the struggle for the right to self-determination is inextricably bound to the struggle against capitalism. The building of a united working class movement with a revolutionary socialist programme is therefore the key component in a successful struggle for democratic and national rights for Catalonia.

For a united front of the Left, working class and social movements to break with capitalism and end national oppression

However, this requires the working class to be organised, united and play an independent role in the situation, rather than tailing the bourgeois leadership of one side or the other. Unfortunately in these elections, there were two competing left lists, in effect split by the national polarisation of the “plebiscite” elections. The CUP (Popular Unity Candidatures) stood on the YES side, with a strong anti-capitalist profile, independent from the Junts pel Si list. They achieved a very strong vote, more than tripling their number of MPs since 2012, when they entered the Catalan parliament for the first time.

The results for Catalunya si que es pot (CSQP – coalition of Podemos and the Catalan associates of United Left – IU) were more disappointing. They won 11 MPs, less than the results of the various component parts in the 2012 elections. The leaders of Podemos in particular will see the results as a big blow to the formation, with its top leaders Pablo Iglesias and Inigo Errejon investing a huge amount of time and energy in the campaign. They claimed to stand aloof from the polarised debate, emphasising the need to base the debate on more social and economic issues while defending the right to a referendum. However, in the polarised atmosphere, their position was interpreted by the majority as a NO position. This was added to by the fact that Podemos’ leaders such as Iglesias and Errejon personally argue clearly for a NO position.

This adds to the general troubles of Podemos on an all-Spain basis, seen to be generally in decline and falling in the polls. As we have analysed in previous articles, this decline is partially down to the leaders of the formation’s own political mistakes, in having moved further and further to the right, seeking to adapt themselves to “what is possible” in the context of the Troika and capitalis market dictatorship.

Socialismo Revolucionario (CWI in the Spanish state) called for a united left list in the elections, standing on the basis of a programme to break with capitalism as the only way to achieve the democratic right of self-determination for Catalonia. In the aftermath of the polarised election atmosphere, it is essential that the left and workers’ movement unites in struggle, on the streets and in workplaces to continue the class battles which are necessary. Special attention must be paid to maintaining the unity of the working class in struggle, because of the danger that national polarisation becomes encrusted following a polarised campaign. An escalation of the class struggle can shift attention back towards clearer class issues, and help to forge such unity in the coming period.

However, a united working class movement – also necessary on an all-Spain basis to struggle for the fall of the Rajoy government – cannot unite simply on the basis of ignoring or abstaining from the national debate. The disappointing results for CSQP in these elections highlight the consequences of such an approach. A united front of the Left, workers’ and social movements, with the aim of bringing down the PP government and two-party system in December’s general elections needs to have a democratic and socialist solution to the national oppression of the Catalan, Basque, and Galician peoples emblazoned on its banner. In the current situation, this is a fundamental prerequisite for success.

Constitutional reform or break with the system?

As a starting point, SR argues that, as with all of the burning issues facing the working class movement, the national question is currently unsolvable on the basis of the crisis-ridden capitalist system. The dismantling of Spain’s post-Transition regime will of course involve the elimination of the territorial arrangement based on “autonomous regions”, which was always a more or less sophisticated means of embedding national oppression. However, this will not be enough.

In the coming period, many – including some on the Left – will believe that tweaking with the constitutional super-structure of Spanish capitalism can solve this, and other fundamental problems. There is a strong pressure developing from the bourgeoisie – expressed through reputable capitalist press organs such as El Pais – for a more conciliatory course from the government, under the banner of a constitutional reform, which could include some concessions, including financial concessions to Catalonia. This would willingly be accepted by the right-wing leadership of Junts pel Si, for whom in reality the objective has never been independence, but a bigger slice of Spain’s capitalist cake.

However, the working class and the Left must reject such half-measures. Real democracy and a dignified life for the people can only be achieved by tearing out the roots of the system – the capitalist ownership and control of the wealth of the peninsula’s nations. This means fighting for a socialist alternative, of public democratic ownership of the wealth.

On the basis of a socialist programme to break with capitalism in Spain, a Socialist Catalonia could be established, with full control over its own affairs, based on real workers’ democracy in economy and in politics. This would guarantee full rights, including language rights, the right of dual citizenship and freedom of movement to all minorities. The common ownership and democratic control of the banks and key sectors of the economy would allow for the territorial boundaries of the Spanish state – until now held together by force and profits – to be determined on an equal and voluntary basis. A revolutionary congress of Iberian peoples, made up of representatives of workers from all nations and regions could be formed to discuss and determine the future of each nation and the peninsula as a whole.

On this basis, a Socialist Catalonia would be free to participate in a free socialist confederation with the other national peoples of the Iberian Peninsula, a question that would be posed in a qualitatively new light on the basis of a break with capitalism. Such a revolutionary change would also, of course, go far beyond the borders of the Spanish state. Within a socialist Europe and world, Catalonia and the other national peoples of the peninsula could take their place in a truly united brotherhood and sisterhood of nations, amid abundance and cooperation of all peoples. Capitalism, and the scarcity, competition and barbarism which characterise it, can offer only endless years of national conflict, oppression subjugation and domination.

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October 2015