Catalan separatists and their struggle for independence have played large in international news since October 1, when the Spanish courts sent armed police forces to crack down on what they deemed an illegal referendum on independence. Images of policemen beating Catalan citizens garnered international attention for a social and political conflict that had been mounting over previous years. However, this conflict is embedded in a much larger historical struggle for Catalan national aspirations which has been ongoing for centuries. Here we examine some of the key players in the independence campaign.
After deposing the entire Catalan autonomous government, Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, called new elections for the Catalan parliament on December 21 this year.
What can we expect from these elections? This is indeed a complex question, for Catalonia is now immersed in a social crisis that has fractured a great part of its society, and peaceful cohabitation. To begin with, the pro-independence parties will not stand as a unified front in the elections, as they did in 2015. During that year, the two main pro-independence parties, Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català (which used to be Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya) and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya formed an electoral coalition (which also included members of the pro-independence civil society platforms Assamblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural) called Junts pel Si. This presented itself as a united front for independence. Those elections in 2015 were portrayed by this political alliance as plebiscitary elections, and understood as a political mandate towards the declaration of independence. In 2015, the pro-independence parties (Junts pel Si and la CUP) achieved 48% of the vote, but due to the Catalan electoral system, they gained an absolute majority in the Catalan autonomous parliament. This allowed them to call for the referendum on October 1 2017, and subsequently declare unilateral independence.
The fact that the main pro-independence parties will not stand together in these future elections has fostered a new political scenario among those parties that argue Catalonia’s right to independence. Among them, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), a historical nationalist party which has always defended Catalonia’s right to form an independent republic and which claims to defend social democratic policies, seems to have taken the advantage. Over the past 10 years, support for this party has dramatically increased, for it has been able to cast itself as an honest galvanizer of Catalonia´s aspirations for independence. Its leader, Oriol Junqueras, who was imprisoned by the Spanish courts a few weeks ago, will run for Catalonia’s presidency, for according to Spanish law provisional prisoners can run for office. As the Catalan vice-president, Junqueras played a key role in the organization of the recent referendum, and stands a high chance of being elected the next Catalan president. ERC will run in coalition with two minor pro-independence political parties which originated from an excision of the Catalan Socialist Party (which does not support independence): Avancem and Mes. The coalition, whose name is Esquerra Republicana-Catalunya si, leads the current intention polls with a 28.4%.
On the other hand, el Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català has undergone the opposite political transformation, with a great loss of political support throughout Catalonia. Traditionally the party of the Catalan nationalist bourgeoisie, it governed the Catalan autonomous region for over 30 years, and played a key role in developing the autonomous system by bargaining more self-government for Catalonia in exchange for parliamentary support with several Spanish central governments. However, during the last years, several corruption scandals have tarnished the party’s image. These scandals coincided with the party abandoning its traditional autonomous stance for more pro-independence views. Carles Puigdemont will probably be its candidate to the presidency, running from Belgium, where he fled in order to escape Spanish justice and to raise international awareness of the Catalan “process”. Although a very popular figure among the Catalan pro-independence supporters, Puigdemont and his party will likely suffer from the dissolution of Junts Pel Si. Its voting intention stands at a meagre 10.7%, which suggests that the whole process of Catalan independence, and the party’s ideological shift, have led to its electoral decay. There was a time when the old Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya won the Catalan elections with absolute majorities, but the party may have been one of the main victims of “el procés”.
The last pro-independence party that has played a key role in the whole Catalan process is la CUP, or Candidatura d’Unitat Popular. This party defines itself as an anti-capitalist group which defends Catalonia’s right to be a republic and advocates for quitting the European Union and the Nato alliance. The party also defends the creation of policies against financial institutions, such as the nationalization of the main Catalan banks. Although relatively minor in the parliament, it garnered a lot of attention and prominence, since its numbers in parliament became essential in order to proclaim independence. Considered by many a radical and extremist leftist party, its support has also grown during the last years, especially among Catalan youth. Although it has publicly denounced these next elections as illegitimate (since these elections have been called by forces exterior to the newly proclaimed Catalan Republic), it appears Carles Riera will be its candidate to the Catalan presidency.
Although not strictly pro-independence, En Comú Podem is a relatively new party which is the result of a citizen political movement that won the Barcelona municipal elections in 2015. In future elections, Xavier Domenech will lead a coalition of small leftist parties which, despite not being specifically pro-independence, defend Catalonia’s right to decide its relationship with Spain in a legal and binding referendum. It is associated at the State level with Podemos, a political party born out of the social movements (15M) that protested against political corruption and the Spanish economic crisis in 2011. Podemos also defends (at the national level) the right of the Catalan people to have an agreed-upon and legal referendum. Although some of the voters of En Comú Podem want independence, most of its electors defend a new and completely reformed relationship between the Spanish state and Catalonia. Furthermore, the party clearly prioritizes social aid measures to independence, for it considers that some of the serious problems Catalonia still has (such as high unemployment, poverty or a high number of people in risk of social exclusion) have been let slide into oblivion under the flag of independence. Domènech has openly rejected what he calls “bloc politics” and promised to strive for a less confrontational approach. He aims to capitalize on the votes of the Catalans who are weary of political extremism on both sides.
Even though Assamblea Nacional Catalana and Omnium Cultural are not political parties, they have played an essential role in the growth of the Catalan pro-independence movement, and are part of the political spectrum. For decades, Omnium Cultural has been a civil society platform dedicated to the promotion and defense of the Catalan language, culture and popular traditions. In this process, it has contributed to spreading the view that Catalonia is a nation which can only preserve its rich culture and folklore by becoming an independent state within Europe. Assamblea Nacional Catalana is also a civil society platform. It has organized multiple massive demonstrations (including the 2012 “Diada” the first massive demonstration that drew international attention to the Catalan cause by gathering over 1.5 million people in the streets of Barcelona) and held many political assemblies around Catalonia. Both organizations joined the coalition Junts Pel Si in the 2015 election. Several of its most prominent members were elected to the Catalan parliament. Carme Forcadell, its previous leader, was the president of the Catalan parliament who declared Catalonia’s independence on October 27th. Currently, the leaders of both platforms, Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, are in Spanish prisons awaiting trial and are considered democratic martyrs of the Catalan struggle.
Whatever the result after December 21, Catalan political turmoil appears to be here to stay for a long time. In a society that is deeply fractured, with people supporting a wide variety of positions that go from independence to more power to the Spanish central government, it is perhaps time for real political deliberation and action. Polls give the three main pro-independence parties around 45% of vote intention, which would not contribute to unblocking the situation. This 45% would provide them again with an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, due to the Catalan electoral system, which grants a bigger electoral weight to those provinces (Girona, Lleida and Tarragona) with fewer voters. However, with some of these parties´ leaders in jail and the Spanish state firmly opposed to any talks of secession, Catalonia’s political future might continue to make headlines for years.