Can Europe Make It?

Independence from whom? Catalonia's existential elections

Catalonia seems about to become a living laboratory for popular sovereignty in post-crisis Europe. Español.

Kate Shea Baird
27 August 2015

Supporters of Ada Colau, Barcelona's newly elected mayor. Demotix/Matthias Oesterle. All rights reserved.This autumn will see a packed electoral calendar in Southern Europe, with elections in Greece, Portugal and Spain. The results will be interpreted, to a greater or lesser extent, as a verdict on the austerity programme that's been imposed in these countries by governments of all colours over recent years.

In contrast, the Catalan elections, to be held on 27 September, are being framed as a proxy vote on independence, a reading widely accepted by the foreign media. However, according to the most recent CEO opinion poll, 21 per cent of Catalans say that the relationship between Catalonia and Spain will be the most important issue in determining their vote, while 59 per cent say they will vote based on parties' policies for dealing with the economic crisis. How can we make sense of this apparent contradiction? How does the Catalan case fit into the wider European context?

A denial of democracy

The answer to these questions lies in the constant frustration of the democratic will of the people of Catalonia since 2010, when the Spanish Supreme Court overturned several articles of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy.

Following a massive pro-independence demonstration in 2012, Catalan President, Artur Mas, called snap elections to gauge public support for the principle of Catalan sovereignty. While Mas' party, CiU, lost seats, the result of the elections represented an overwhelming victory for the parties in favour of Catalan self-determination. Together they took 80 per cent of the seats in the new parliament and, soon after, voted to pass a declaration of Catalan sovereignty and to ask the Spanish government to transfer the capacity to hold a referendum on independence.

Over the course of the following two years, pro-independence Catalans watched with envy as their counterparts in Scotland negotiated the terms of a binding referendum with the British government, publicly debated the pros and cons of secession, and, even, as they eventually lost their campaign. In contrast, the Catalan government's pleas for negotiation were ignored by Madrid, and both its sovereignty declaration and its proposed non-binding referendum were ruled illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. A symbolic, watered-down 'participatory process' vote was eventually held on November 9 of 2014, but the issue remained unresolved.

The upcoming elections are being framed by pro-independence forces as a substitute for the referendum the Spanish state won't allow. Artur Mas' party will stand on a joint ticket, 'Together for Yes', with Republican Left and a number of independent candidates. The coalition has committed to an eighteen month roadmap to independence should it win a parliamentary majority.

However, reducing the elections to a single issue is not an easy task. Catalan politics has not been immune to the effects of the economic crisis that has blighted Southern Europe, or the corruption scandals that have rocked Spain. The independence movement has evolved in parallel to the emergence of what is known as the nueva política (new politics) in Spain.

In 2011, the indignados occupied public squares across the country to call for “real democracy”, the 2014 European elections saw a new party, Podemos, explode onto the political scene and, most recently, at the May 2015 municipal elections, radical citizen platforms seized control of Spain's major cities (including Barcelona). It is at the intersection of the independence movement and the nueva politica that the relationship of the Catalan elections with the wider crisis of democracy in Europe becomes clear.

Independence to change everything

For many in Catalonia, the 'double crisis', national and economic, is really one and the same: a crisis of popular sovereignty, whether it be in the face of "authoritarian" state institutions or the global financial markets. A similar argument was made passionately by many campaigning for a Yes vote in Scotland in 2014.

In the Barcelona mayoral race, Ada Colau (a former grassroots activist) swept to victory calling for “real sovereignty” and “the right to decide on every issue”, including independence, and Together for Yes candidate, Raül Romeva, a former European MP coming from the green-left, has said “the elections of 27 September are about the policy tools at the government's disposal. In order to guarantee increased opportunities and social justice we need the tools of a state.” The prevalence of this view is reflected by the growing strength of pro-independence radicals, particularly the Popular Unity Candidates (CUP). The CUP's slogan 'independence to change everything' neatly sums up the hopes of many in the movement beyond the party.

However, the increasingly sophisticated debate on the nature of sovereignty in Catalonia has also led the usefulness of independence per se to be called into question. Concerns about the practical effects of independence in a context of the Eurozone crisis were thrown into stark relief by the Greek bailout referendum. After all, here was the government of an independent state, capable of holding a referendum, but ultimately unable to carry out its democratic mandate.

Many have pointed to Greece as a sign that independence may be a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for real sovereignty. The manifesto of 'Catalonia Yes We Can', the coalition backed by Podemos, Iniciativa and Equo, and which could come second in the elections, picked up on this idea, saying: “We want a candidature that defends the full social, national and economic sovereignty of Catalonia. We want real sovereignty; not formal sovereignty subjugated to the impositions of the Troika or the TTIP.” 

When is a plebiscite not a plebiscite?

Which brings us back to Artur Mas and Together for Yes. Mas has used his position as president to help keep the issue of Catalan independence at the top of the political agenda. Thanks to this, he has managed to stay in government with the support of Republican Left, weather the storm of corruption scandals at the top of his party, and implement a programme of budget cuts and privatizations to public services. The leadership of the independence process by a conservative nationalist, and fears that Together for Yes is being used as a front to whitewash Mas' party brand, has put many on the pro-independence left in an uncomfortable position, to say the least.

The fragile alliance between the pro-independence left and right was put to the test in the period between the symbolic vote on November 9 and the moment when an agreement on a joint list was reached in July of this year. The Republican Left proposed the creation of a joint list of candidates from civil society, without serving politicians from any party.

This would have had the sole purpose of measuring support for independence, and would not have elected a president to form a government. Such a list would have had a strong claim to have transformed the elections into a plebiscite. When Mas rejected this idea, Republican Left decided to bite the bullet and share a list with him anyway, while the CUP, unwilling to sacrifice their social and economic policy programme, decided to stand separately.

The Catalan elections, then, will be about independence, but they will also decide who will form the next government. Should Together for Yes win a parliamentary majority, Artur Mas will be safely returned to power to set his independence roadmap in motion and to govern Catalonia from the right in the meantime. However, should no party manage to win the majority of seats necessary to elect a president, the scenario becomes more unpredictable.

Could progressive members of Together for Yes join forces with the CUP and Catalonia Yes We Can to nominate a president to pursue both the sovereignty agenda and a progressive social programme? Would such a coalition be able to negotiate a constitutional convention with Madrid? If not, would it be willing to take unilateral action in defiance of the Spanish state? Whatever happens, Catalonia is set to become a living laboratory for the exercise and limits of popular sovereignty, in its broadest sense, in post-crisis Europe.

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