Spanish state out to smash Catalan independence referendum

Andy Durgan writes from Catalonia

(Photo Ramon de cal Benido/Flickr)

On 1 October the people of Catalonia go to the polls to decide if their country will become an independent republic or not. The Spanish government insists that the referendum is illegal and have unleashed a wave of repression unprecedented since the end of Franco’s dictatorship 40 years ago, meaning people are faced with what amounts to a state of emergency.

Thousands of Spanish riot police (Policia Nacional) and paramilitary Civil Guard have been sent to Catalonia to dismantle the referendum. The Catalan police have been placed under the orders of the Civil Guard and will be used to close polling stations.

So far vast quantities of electoral propaganda and ballot cards have been confiscated, countless websites closed down (140 on 25 September alone) and leading officials of the Catalan government arrested. Over 700 of 947 Catalonia’s mayors have been summoned to court after declaring their intention to allow the referendum to go ahead. Printing plants have been seized and newspapers raided. The Catalan Government has effectively been suspended, with its accounts hi-jacked by Madrid.

Outside Catalonia, solidarity meetings have been banned. A state-wide assembly in defence of the referendum in Zaragosa, made up of elected representatives (national and regional MPs, councillors, mayors) of Podemos and Catalan and Basque parties, last Sunday was besieged by fascists. The police failed to protect the participants, arguing that they did not have enough officers as most were in Catalonia.

The right-wing Partido Popular (PP) government in Madrid, with the support of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and the recently founded Ciudadanos party, have made it very clear that they have no intention of conceding the right of self-determination. The Constitution of 1978 will be upheld at any cost. They are backed up by a massive campaign in the mainstream media against Catalan independence that clearly aims to justify further repression.

How we got here

The struggle for Catalan national rights has a long and complex history. During the Republic (1931-1939) there developed a mass left wing movement in favour of national rights. The first Catalan Statute of Autonomy was granted in 1932.

The Franco dictatorship (1939-1977) put an end not only to Catalan autonomy but suppressed any expression of national identity, including the Catalan language. Demands for national rights re-emerged as part of the wider anti-dictatorship movement of the sixties and seventies. But the new Constitution of 1978, effectively the result of a compromise between the democratic opposition and remnants of the dictatorship, sanctified the unity of Spain with the Army as its ultimate defender.

Instead, a system of Comunidades Autonomos was established that allowed for regional governments. But finance and local police forces would ultimately be controlled from Madrid. In Catalonia, conservative nationalists, who favoured pressurising Madrid to gain more autonomy rather than independence, became the dominant force. Until a few years ago polls showed that barely twenty percent of Catalans favoured independence. But discontent with the relationship with Madrid would lead to a dramatic shift in opinion during the 2000s.

Needing the nationalists’ backing in the Spanish parliament, the PSOE government (2004-2011), agreed to new Catalan Stature of Autonomy that would, among other concessions, allow for a greater deal of financial autonomy. This new Statute was accepted in a referendum in Catalonia in June 2006, with 73% of votes in favour.

The PP immediately challenged the new Statute as unconstitutional and it was sent to the Constitutional Tribunal. By 2010 the new Statute had been stripped of most of the concessions promised by the PSOE. Particularly irksome for many Catalans was the removal of the definition of Catalonia as a “nation”.

Widespread calls for separation from Spain culminated in a million strong demonstration favouring independence on 11 September 2012 (Catalan National Day). Even bigger protests have taken place over subsequent years, with support for independence rising to close on 50% of the population by 2013. In November 2014, a consultative vote was organised by the by now pro-independence Catalan government, with 80%, on a 40% turnout, favouring the creation of a new state. But rather than act on this, the Catalan government called new elections for September 2015.

The independentist coalition Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) took 62 seats and the radical left Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) another 10. The parties opposed to independence (PP, the Catalan PSOE and Ciudadanos) won 52 seats; while a left coalition (Podemos and others) won 11. The anti-capitalists of the CUP now held the balance of power in the Catalan parliament and have played a decisive role in pushing through the referendum scheduled for 1 October.

Why the left should support Catalan independence

For most socialists support for the self determination of oppressed nations is accepted on principle. But in the case of a Catalonia, where the movement appears to be led by the right, providing such support may not seem so clear. For instance, the President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont is a member of the bourgeois nationalist PDECat (European Democratic Party of Catalonia), which, has enforced cuts and austerity.

But the campaign for independence is far from being a mere tool of the Catalan bourgeoisie. While the immediate demand for independence came out of frustration with attempts to reform the Statute of Autonomy, the resulting movement was also shaped in the context of the economic crisis, the emergence of the Indignados movement in 2011 and the return of the PP to central government.

The movement is headed by the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya (ANC), an umbrella movement involving hundreds of local collectives, as well as Junts pel Sí and the CUP. The tone of its propaganda and its demonstrations is markedly progressive; talk of a republic that defends social justice and ethnic diversity is central to its propaganda. The main social base of the independence movement is among the Catalan speaking middle and working classes. In contrast, the main employers’ organisations, even those linked to the nationalist right, are opposed to independence.

The CUP, which plays a central role in the movement, is undoubtedly the largest anti-capitalist grouping in Europe at present. Apart from its 10 MPs and 340,000 votes, it has some 370 local town councillors and around 30 mayors. Its militant anti-racism, feminism and internationalism, its opposition to the EU, set it apart from the rest of the left.

Most importantly, the independence of Catalonia would represent a massive blow to the consensus of 1978. Not only would it open up the possibility that other national minorities could decide on their future, but would also bring into question such central issues as to whether the Spanish state should be monarchy or whether, as the PSOE and PP recently enshrined in the Constitution, EU imposed austerity and bank bailouts should be accepted without question.

Finally, the level of oppression means that far more is at stake than the question of independence or not. As a result, support for the referendum has broadened. Both Podemos in Catalonia and the new Catalunya En Comú party (based on the red-green Iniciativa per Catalunya, the Catalan branch of Izquierda Unida and supporters of Barcelona’s popular left wing mayor Ada Colau) have recently agreed to participate. Previously they had insisted on only supporting a “legal” referendum. Solidarity actions have also spread in the rest of the state.


While Junts pel Sí have continually glossed over the problems the independence process faces, the CUP has insisted all along that only widespread disobedience and mass mobilisation is the only way forward.

A taste of such mass resistance was seen on 20 September when the Spanish police entered Catalan government offices; taking away supposedly incriminating material and arresting officials. Over 50,000 gathered outside the Catalan Ministry of Economy in central Barcelona preventing the Civil Guards from leaving the building for twenty hours. Another two thousand prevented the Spanish riot police from entering the headquarters of the CUP. The following day dockers announced they would not service ships housing Spanish police in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona. Several small left wing unions have now called a one day general strike in Catalonia for 3 October.

Also, without falling into the somewhat utopian illusions promoted by the ANC, it is realistic to suppose that the new republic could open the way for social and political reform that it would be difficult to imagine at present in the Spanish state.

Sympathy for left wing ideas is widespread in Catalonia, as the electoral support for the ERC, CUP, Catalunya en Comú and Podemos shows. But any decisive shift to the left would mean breaking completely with the neo liberal PDECat. The temptation to accept some form of “national” government is strong, not only inside the left nationalist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (which forms part of Junts pel Sí) but also among some sectors of the CUP.

Such a government would mean more austerity and cuts and this would also reinforce the rejection of independence that already exists among some sections of the working class in Catalonia; in particular workers of Spanish origin.

More specifically, revolutionary socialists should work to build the CUP, defending both its political independence and the need for practical unity with others on the left.

Whatever happens on 1 October, the political crisis that the Catalan movement has triggered in the Spanish state will only get deeper.


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