Spain: an oligarchic state challenged by the people’s will

The pro-independence parties won an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament on 21 December 2017
The pro-independence parties won an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament on 21 December 2017

On 21 December 2017, Catalan people voted in a regional election forced upon them by the Spanish state following the independence referendum in October. But this latest attempt by Spain to undermine the pro-independence movement backfired: nationalist parties again obtained an absolute majority and the Spanish government is now using its entire means to prevent the Catalan government from being effectively formed. Spanish president Mariano Rajoy has tightened state control over Catalonia and made it impossible for the Catalan president to return from exile to be sworn in. As we go to press it remains uncertain whether and how the investiture of Carles Puigdemont will take place. The crisis expresses the authoritarian rule of the Spanish establishment, which is willing to invalidate social and political rights as soon as they threaten the legal and political framework set up in the post-Franco era. Juanjo Rivas reports from Madrid.

The turnout on 21 December was 81.95% and, after two months of intervention and campaigning in favour of unity with Spain, the right-wing party Ciudadanos obtained the most votes (25.35%). However, they were unable to form a parliament able to replace the previous nationalist coalition. The pro-independence bloc formed by the conservative nationalist PDeCat (21.67%), social-democrat republican ERC (21.40%) and anti-capitalist CUP (4.45%) has the most seats in the Catalan parliament. Frustrated that its strategy to undermine the movement ideologically had failed, the Rajoy government immediately resorted to extending the use of article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. The article allows the government ‘to take the necessary measures to make the regional authorities forcibly comply with the general interest’. The cabinet of the governing right-wing Partido Popular (PP) interprets this as the right to intervene in all Catalan institutions, the suspension of autonomy, imprisonment of the leadership and control over revenues, television, radio and security, while maintaining a force of around 7,000 extra police to carry out the Spanish government’s orders.

Since October 2017, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and four of his ministers have been in voluntary exile in Brussels to avoid prison – the fate of other separatist leaders who backed the referendum. The deadline for forming a Catalan government is 6 February. However, it is likely to take place before then. Puigdemont could deliver his presidential acceptance speech from Brussels by videolink, but Rajoy has said that his government would immediately appeal for the investiture to be declared illegal. Rajoy declared that ‘it is nonsense to rule from abroad’ – but at the same time reiterated that Puigdemont would face immediate arrest and imprisonment if he returned. Police border controls have been increased and even the sewage system around the Catalan parliament was checked to prevent him slipping back into the country under the radar of the Spanish state. Another option was for the four Catalan MPs in Brussels to resign and be replaced by others not facing criminal charges, and for Puigdemont’s speech to be read by a delegate on his behalf – but the Constitutional Court says it would also annul that course of action. Puigdemont travelled to Denmark at the end of January. The Spanish Supreme Court refused a prosecutor’s request to issue a European arrest warrant, and Puigdemont was able to return to Belgium unimpeded. The strategies of both sides have been cloaked in secrecy, with both the Spanish Minister of Home Affairs and Catalan officials attending meetings in Brussels but little emerging as to the outcome of those talks.

As part of the state’s propaganda machine, the bourgeois media have filled the news with anti-Catalan stereotypes, fuelling prejudice among the Spanish population. They minimise the coverage of the far-reaching macro-trials involving dozens of high-ranking PP members, whose confessions begin to reveal the full extent of the corruption that permeates the whole ruling party. Instead, they devote TV and newspaper space to mockery, with wide-ranging coverage of fictional region of Catalonia that says it wants a referendum to remain part of Spain. As well as spewing out lies and prejudice, the media have played the role of prosecutors against the Catalan government. It has accused those calling for independence of ‘violating the rule of law’ by disobeying orders from the government and the courts, and turning down the advice of king Felipe, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Furthermore, Catalan leaders are ridiculously described as ‘plotters of a coup d’état’ who stirred up violence, despite the fact that it was the police who seized ballots and ballot boxes during the referendum and brutally attacked people peacefully attempting to vote. The Spanish government – which is carrying out massive cuts to social services and emptying the reserves for pension schemes, managed to spend €87m just on the police operation to prevent the October referendum.

This manifold display of repression has exposed an oligarchic, monarchic state challenged by people’s will. Politicisation in Catalonia has grown stronger than in the rest of Spain, around social issues but especially in its disaffection with an authoritarian Spanish political bloc. The stepping up of state pressure to such an absurd level of repression fuelled popular support for the Catalan referendum, from the middle class to sections of the anarchist movement. The 21 December election has entrenched the divisions in the Catalan parliament between a pro-monarchy and a pro-independence bloc. Debates continue, too, amongst those urging independence. For example the left-wing Candidatures of People’s Unity (CUP) remains a decisive force in the Catalan government coalition. But over the last 20 years it has emerged from grassroots movements and social projects which are now questioning its recent decision to stand in elections, and debating the limits of a bourgeois parliamentary system.

The wider political crisis

The political situation appears to have reached an impasse. The Spanish government has been forced to slow down parliamentary activity; the national general budget could not gain enough votes to be approved; the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (which has shored up support for the PP in the past) refused to vote for the budget unless the imposition of article 155 against Catalonia was removed. The cabinet has prepared a fresh package of cuts and, after its huge expenditure on repression in Catalonia, the Minister of the Economy has threatened left-wing councils, warning them to stick to government economic guidelines in implementing local social programmes. In the mid-term, if the Spanish government cannot force Catalonia to submit to its will, it may well have to consider negotiating with more moderate parties a return to the greater autonomy granted to the region under the 1978 Constitution (and removed at Rajoy’s urging in 2006). If the choice is between making some meaningless concessions in exchange for securing the privilege of the elite, or watching resistance to the Spanish government grow, Rajoy may be compelled to choose the lesser of two evils.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 262 February/March 2018


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